Young people are leaving organized religion at an unprecedented rate. Pews in churches are looking increasingly empty, and those churches that are full tend to have an awful lot of silver hair. Church leaders and sociologists have attempted to identify the reason behind the exodus of young people, and they found a number of factors but no single cause for the flight of the young from church. Everything from a hostile media to peer pressure to smaller family size have influenced the massive population of young people who have said farewell to organized religion, at least for the moment. Those are the reasons for the overall trend, but what about individual churches? Is a declining fertility rate really to blame for the fact that the twins that used to sing along with the choir have been coming to services less and less? When it comes to individual young people in individual churches, is the same reasoning still valid? The truth is that many young people are leaving their childhood church and trying other churches before simply throwing up their hands. In order to avoid this final scenario, churches need to address some of the problems that young people have with church today. Church leaders may not agree with all of the young’s suggestions or challenges, but given that the young are the future, church leaders would be wise to at least listen. Here are six things young people struggle with in church.
How often does the pastor or congregation bemoan the state of the world today? Do they talk about how social media is encouraging pride and narcissism that draws people away from Christ? Does the extreme sexual openness, looseness and related immorality of younger generations come up every Sunday or at the church potluck? When those topics come up, do people glance at the youth around them or very pointedly avoid looking at them? If such things are relatively common in your church, you have discovered the reason that young people are leaving. No one wants to feel attacked, but too many churches see young people as the cause of much of the world’s trouble or at least as a convenient scapegoat.
Millennials and iGens have plenty of problems, there is no doubt about that, and they are contributing to many issues. That said, no one likes feeling like they are being blamed for the actions of an entire group, and being the scapegoat repeatedly is more than enough to drive people away.
Though it seems to have decreased in recent generations, young people are usually a curious bunch. This natural curiosity, combined with the subtle anti-authoritarian streak that every young person possesses to a certain extent, leads to many young people to have questions for their pastors and church leaders. In theory, most church authorities want the congregation to be engaged enough in the service, sermon or Scripture to seek better understanding. In reality, however, many church authorities are uncomfortable when young people approach them asking “why?” Young people want to understand, and in a world that is so hostile toward Christianity, many of them are unconsciously weighing how much of Christian doctrine they believe. When they come to a pastor with questions, it is the perfect opportunity for said pastor to deepen and reinforce the young person’s faith. Unfortunately, too many church authorities respond with either platitudes or veiled accusations that the young person is losing their faith. This leaves the youth with burning questions, and no one to turn to for answers.
Most churches would like politics to stay as far away as physically possible. The sad fact of the matter, however, is that in today’s day and age, absolutely everything is politicized. Politics have found their way into private, personal decisions, such as where a person goes to church and what Bible translation a person prefers. As such, a church cannot afford to bury its head in the sand. Politics and social issues are a very real part of what drives young people to stay in or leave a church. This does not, however, mean that a church should alter its doctrine or interpretation of the Bible to fit what young people want to believe. As a general rule, younger people are far more liberal on both fiscal and social issues than their older peers. Millennials and iGens are no exception to this rule. Increased focus on diversity and tolerance means that many young people are better at avoiding sticking their foot in their mouth when dealing with people from other backgrounds. It also, however, often manifests in young people seeing insults everywhere or walking around with a chip on their shoulder. When it comes to social issues, many young people are especially sensitive to any perceived offenses. Depending on where most of the congregation falls on the political spectrum, young people might well find themselves the odd man out.
Length of ServiceSociologists and psychologists continue to argue over the cause of the phenomenon, but it is no secret that young people today have a much shorter attention span than those who are older. This means that young people are going to have a more difficult time staying focused on the pastor’s words when his sermon is 30 minutes long instead of 10. When a person starts zoning out half-way through the sermon, they are not getting much out of the service. This sense of wasted time then makes young people struggle even more because young people tend to be extremely busy. Millennials and iGens currently range in age and stage of life, but they are all very busy. The oldest millennials are parents with teenage children, and the lower age group of the generation is currently breaking into the work force. Both life stages have limited time to waste. Most iGens are students, and students today are lucky if they have time to shower and sleep. As such, almost anything that smacks of wasted time is going to eat at young people.
UnrelatableNo one likes to feel alone, but young people often feel that way in church. The reasons for this sense of loneliness vary wildly. Some young people feel left out because they have extremely liberal views in a moderate or slightly conservative church. Other young people feel alone in their congregation because there are very few single people. There is no reason that people who are single cannot have friends who are married, but the two friends have different priorities and are at different stages in their lives. This difference can keep the friends from getting as close as they otherwise would which leads to one person feeling rather left out or alone. If there are precious few people that a young person can really relate to, they are unlikely to feel completely comfortable in church and may go searching for somewhere where they feel they fit in better.
Extremes in Devotion
Almost all Christians think of themselves as deeply devoted to Christ, but anyone with eyes can see that there is most definitely a spectrum. Some Christians are all about Jesus, all the time and show that off in open and obvious ways. They only listen to Christian music, tend to dress conservatively, work to convert friends and their first piece of advice for any problem is to pray about the issue. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Christians who go to church once in a blue moon, binge watch shows such as Game of Thrones and roll their eyes at the predictability of Christian testimonies. Churches tend to follow a similar spectrum. Some are almost rabid about Jesus while others are more laid back. Young people often end up attending the church that is closest to where they live, that they grew up attending or where they know the most people. Sometimes, however, those factors end up leaving the young person a bit adrift when it comes to devotion. Someone who practices light Christianity is likely to be unnerved if they are surrounded by “Jesus freaks.” A person who is used to asking “what would Jesus do” in all sincerity and seriousness is likely to wonder how a church full of casual Christians can even call themselves followers of Christ. Neither situation is a pleasant one.
There are a variety of reasons that young people are leaving organized religion entirely, but all of them feed into a sense that young people are not welcome in church. As such, they find it increasingly unpleasant to attend. Churches that want to keep their young members need to put more effort into convincing the young to stay. That does not meant that young people are always right or that they necessarily have better ideas, but there is no reason to not hear them out. Most people can tell when they are being ignored or brushed off, and there are few faster ways to send young people walking out the door.