Young Adults and Church

Today's USA Today has a disturbing report about how young adults are leaving the church--both mainline churches and evangelical:

Protestant churches are losing young adults in "sobering" numbers, a survey finds.
Seven in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 — both evangelical and mainline — who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23, according to the survey by LifeWay Research. And 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church.

"This is sobering news that the church needs to change the way it does ministry," says Ed Stetzer, director of Nashville-based LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

"It seems the teen years are like a free trial on a product. By 18, when it's their choice whether to buy in to church life, many don't feel engaged and welcome," says associate director Scott McConnell.

The statistics are based on a survey of 1,023 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who said they had attended church at least twice a month for at least one year during high school. LifeWay did the survey in April and May. Margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Few of those surveyed had kind words for fellow Christians when they reflected on how they saw church life in the four years after high school.

Just over half (51%) of Protestant young people surveyed (both the church dropouts and those who stayed on in church after age 22) saw church members as "caring" or had other positive descriptions, such as "welcoming" (48%) or "authentic" (42%).

Among dropouts, nearly all (97%) cited life changes, such as a move. Most (58%) were unhappy with the people or pastor at church. More than half (52%) had religious, ethical or political reasons for quitting.

Dropouts were more than twice as likely than those who continued attending church to describe church members as judgmental (51% for dropouts, 24% for those who stayed), hypocritical (44% vs. 20%) or insincere (41% vs. 19%)

The news was not all bad: 35% of dropouts said they had resumed attending church regularly by age 30. An additional 30% attended sporadically. Twenty-eight percent said "God was calling me to return to the church."

Read it all here.

Any thoughts on this? My own sense is that this is really not much different from the church going behavior of twenty-somethings from generations past--it was certainly true of me. I sporadically attended church in college and law school (event though I greatly enjoyed the sermons by Pastor Gomes at Harvard's Memorial Church), and really did not begin regular church attendance until I was in the work force. I read an article on Luther Place Memorial Church in the Washington Post, decided to give it a try and was hooked after one service. I also think many of these folks will start coming back to church after they have begin to have a family.

Still, I think that there is an opportunity here for Evangelism by the Episcopal Church, and welcome thoughts on how to be attractive to this so-called "lost generation"


bls said…
I think if anything, this is worse in the Episcopal Church; it's one of the biggest problems, in fact, for under-30s I know. They say there's nobody their own age at church, and it's hard to meet people anywhere with a religious worldview.

This could be a local thing; I'm in the NY Metro area, and Christianity is only one of many religious possibilities around here - and lots and lots of Christians are C-and-E types anyway. And you're right: plenty of people leave church in their college years in any case. I did, too - and I never came back till I was in my 40s!

I think formation is very important, though. And people have mentioned that the Episcopal presence on college campuses has really declined in the past decade or so; that's something I don't know about personally, though. I think we could attract people of all ages with cultural stuff, though; lectures and discussion groups and music (most 'Piskie churches in this area do that) and culture. That's all a part of the Christian tradition, anyway, so it wouldn't be hard to do.

And I think we'll probably have to accept that people are going to leave, too - but formation as children will bring them back when they're done with rumspringa.
Martin said…
I haven't done any formal reading or research on this, except regular reading of some of the research that George Barna puts out twice a month.

That said, I think the church is very irrelevant to 20-somethings. But my thesis is that they don't have much to say to young single people, since much of the emphasis in churches seems to be on family life.

Occasionally, it seems to me that older people may be drawn to church for social reasons. I've even seen people 35 and over leave churches because there wasn't any kind of structured or intentional singles activity there.

I've written before on my own blog about the church doing a bad job reaching out to young people who have completed college, leaving a lot of young people wandering about without a supportive structure through their 20s.

I think part of the solution is having more ethical and practical teaching on the single life and bringing church activities (and/or church people) out of the church to places where young adults congregate.

It might also help to spend a lot of time effectively asking the question in our own communities about what young people are looking for, rather than trying to guess what they want and then offering it up to them on a platter and hoping they show up, as many places seem to do.

Popular posts from this blog

Washington Post Forum on Liberation Theology

Luke Timothy Johnson on Homosexuality and Scripture

Bultmann versus Wright on the Resurection