3 Reasons Young Adults Are Leaving the Church

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Young Adults Leaving ChurchKANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Why young adults leave the church is one of the most vexing questions facing the church today.

A LifeWay Christian Resources survey from 2007 indicated that 70 percent of 18–22-year-olds stop attending church for at least one year. Surveys by The Barna Group repeatedly have shown that a majority of 20-year-olds leave church, often never to return.

Citing a recent study by the Brookings Institution, author Rachel Held Evans recently suggested, in essence, that millennials are leaving evangelical churches in search of more progressive fellowships because of dissonance with the more conservative doctrinal stances and cultural convictions of their former congregations.

Yet it seems to reason that if compromising biblical convictions attracted millennials, then mainline denominations would be teeming with young adults. On the contrary, mainline churches are proof positive that liberal theology does not magnetically draw young adults to church.

Causation for young adults exiting the church has been studied for decades, yet little has been accomplished in the way of reversing it. As a Gospel preacher, seminary president and father of five young children, to me this is more than a theoretical concern.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, I want to suggest three factors that often are overlooked in this discussion.

They Never Joined the Church Spiritually

Many young adults leave the church because they were never truly converted to Christ in the first place. John the Apostle warned us, “They went out from us because they were never of us; for if they had been of us, they would have no doubt continued with us.”

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus soberly warns, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of my father in heaven.”

In fact, this is a troubling but recurring theme throughout the New Testament. Jesus frequently warned of pseudo-converts, most memorably in His parables of the four soils, the wheat and the tares and the sheep and the goats. This grievous occurrence is why Paul exhorted the Corinthian church to “examine yourselves to determine whether you be in the faith.”

This predicament is as old as the church itself, and it is no respecter of age. Young adults have not cornered the market on unregenerate church membership, but with so many other pressures and opportunities associated with their life stage, their exit ramp is more predictable and more pronounced.

In other words, young adults are just one bloated demographic slice of an ever-present challenge within the church today: unregenerate church membership.

They Never Experienced the Church Corporately

To their own detriment, too many churches function like a confederation of parachurch ministries meeting under the same roof. For instance, many young adults traveled from children’s church to children’s ministry to the youth group and then to college ministry.

Amazingly, many young adults spend 20-plus years in a local church with the congregation as a whole always being an ancillary group and with their predominant religious attention focused from one of the church’s subgroups to the next.

Age-graded and targeted ministries can be healthy inasmuch as they undergird the life of the church and facilitate strategic discipleship and family ministry. But when they displace the central and formative place of congregational worship and corporate gatherings as a whole, they prove detrimental to both the individual and the local church.

In fact, the beauty of the New Testament church is its homogeneous diversity: Jew and Gentile, young and old, rich and poor, all united by the Gospel and gathered around the common ministry of the Word, the Lord’s table, prayer and fellowship, together as the body of Christ.

There is a sweetness in God’s people, and we rob our children of experiences of God’s grace when we neglect to incorporate them into the corporate body. It is for this reason I want my children to know the saintly widow seated behind them and the contemporary adult couple seated in front of them as well as they know the children in their own classes.

When they are disconnected from the congregation, it should not surprise us that young adults, who have never known the church as a whole, are disinclined to embrace it when their age-graded group has run its course.

Do you want your children to participate in the church when they become adults? Then cultivate their participation as they travel life toward adulthood.

They Never Came to Love the Church Personally

Though the church is not perfect, it ought to be cherished, warts and all, by every member of the congregation, including our children. As parents, we cultivate this by esteeming the church — and the individuals who comprise it — before our children. As a parent, my wife and I have long since covenanted together to guard our tongues, especially before our children, about the ministers and members of the churches we have joined.

Granted, no church is perfect, and if you ever find the perfect church, don’t join it, or you’ll likely ruin it. At the same time, a spirit of criticism and sarcasm about the pastor and other members of the congregation mark the homes of too many church members.

In so doing, children are hearing reason after reason why they should doubt the Word of God, not value fellowship of the saints, and be indifferent toward gathering with God’s people. When this occurs, why should young adults commit their lives, time and resources to a pastor and group of people they have overheard their parents repeatedly denigrate?

Why do young adults leave the church? This is a pressing concern but an often misplaced question. Instead of focusing so much on why young adults leave the church, let’s focus more on how they enter the church and how they engage it along the way.

And when you show me young adults who are truly converted, have ministered and worshiped with the church as a whole and have grown to love the people of God, I’ll show you young adults who are a lot less likely to depart the church anytime soon.


Jason K. Allen is president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. This column first appeared at his website, jasonkallen.com. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

photo credit: Tony Fischer Photography


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  • KTropper

    My sister did left the church for a bid. She came back, but I am not sure if she fully back yet (wont add any detail in here). I know one reason she left is because she started to go out with a non-christian guys (she broke up with him). so that turn her down about going to church. I had suffer a concussion when I was 19, so I did not go to church until Christmas 2013 and fulling back until February 2014, because of headaches and noise. During my recovering I had never forgot it God’s love for me and the reason that Jesus died on the cross for me. I am still working to restarting to read the bible daily for the rest of my life. I never left the church after i graduated high school, i know that i was gonna be lost without him. I think a lot of young adult leaves the church because of the ways they show their respect into other people’s life. We should be praying for them, not judging them (only God is allow to judge them). My mom gave her life to The Lord after a year of marriage. My dad was not to happy about it. He just went to church just because he wanted to tell the pastor to leave his wife alone. So he did the transduction thing without actually believing in those thing. That kept going even after I was born. When I was 8 (I believe), I told my dad why don’t you come to church with us? Since that day, he started to believe in God for real. He accept it Jesus into his life and had a personal relationship with God. Thank you for this post, I now understand why my friends would leave church for a bid and why my sister did has well.

  • sick

    if you want to know the real reason ask the young adults. the church failed to show love like Jesus.. and failed to established that GOD loves them unconditionally instead the preacher always preach about their sins and sin is always the center of the message they always beat the sheep instead of feeding. life alone sometimes is depressing and then when you go to some church you end up more depressed and opressed instead of being strengthened and restored.don’t blame young ones for leaving bring Jesus, preach Jesus, show Jesus. people are so tired of religion.

  • Joe

    the church is out of touch and many “christian” will believe everything out of the bible, our of a preachers mouth, how about do some research in how the bible was actually compiled and why only particular, gospels or books were left out and who actually put those books together. The Church throws judgement where its not up to them to make judgements (gay marriage), most churches are Clubs. “if your not from our club and do everything we do we wont be able to be friends” – your no better than say, an outlaw motor cycle gang. open your eyes open your mind, the world has been hear alot longer than christians believe – so religion is out of date and you guys need to move on!

  • Eric

    In the Church where i was going, people seemed to be there by obligation not by heart. There was no sharing or talking to one another… People just got in, sat, listened to the guy talking, and got out. I really wanted to try but this Church falled short. The expectations i had were very simple, just to get to know one another… or at the very least the priest noticing someone new. For the couple of sundays i went to Church i noticed there was not a single men or woman of my age (i’m 36), only older people sometimes accompanied by their grandchildren. Sometimes i couldnt understand the priest speaking because of the bad sound system. Most of the time it was really boring. The only guy who was interested in me ask me, right in the middle of mass, if i wanted a love massage under the shower … i just left never to return.
    I lost faith recently… God didnt anwser one single prayer and ive been praying a lot in the last 4 four years.I’m starting to feel really stupid for believing and getting the impression this is all a waste of time and hope.
    If a king dosnt talk to is subjects, if a father dosnt talk to his child, if a god dosnt talk to his creation.. its pretty obvious they are not gonna care about you.
    Sorry for my English and its 1h00am here

    • Binu Mathew

      Hi Eric, I’m sorry to hear about all that you went through. I’ve been a part of a church that might be somewhat similar to yours but I had others that were my age too. I’m also sorry to hear that you’ve begun to regret ever believing. I would like to turn you to the Bible as the answer to all your doubts and concerns. Jesus said “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” When it comes to communication with God, he has made it very clear what he wants from us in the Bible. I can honestly tell, when I started seeking God honestly and read the Bible as what he says it is (that it is from God himself) my eyes have definitely seen a lot more clearly what God’s will is for my life. Understanding the definition of sin and hell and love have all been very useful to gain a more Biblical and more importantly, a more truthful view on life and my purpose in life. When it comes to unanswered prayers, the Bible has something to say about that as well. Take a look at this post http://youngadults.ccphilly.org/things-that-mess-up-prayer/ God doesn’t work like a 9-1-1 operator. He’s 3 persons in one, all have distinct roles. As a father, he wants us to get to know him. Only then do we have a clear understanding as to this life and the next. I hope this has been encouraging and challenging at the same time. if you’d like to talk more, please feel free to add me on facebook, https://www.facebook.com/binu.mathew89. Take care.

  • Anonymous

    First of all, thank you for continuing to break the ice on this subject. Second of all, the definition of church is double used in your article. We are the church. period. Regardless if we attend a group gathering. This is what is important to teach our kids. It is God who is the focus, not the gathering, not the participating, not the fellowship. What has God called YOU to do? then be about it!

    Sorry to say, there are too many distractions in the “church gatherings” today. My husband and I attended for years, then with our kids, for years, only to be more frustrated as we left than if we would have just learned scripture from home. I lead children’s ministry for about 18 years, was published in two prominent magazines and I’m tired of how the modern day church is running/functioning. My son almost turned away from associating with Christianity due to so much hypocrisy in his Christian school (from adults).

    I just keep talking to the kids about who God is, where He is, and how they might be impact players for Him everyday. They may be the only Jesus their fellow students ever see. “Make a difference today, son”. No ministry has ever done this in a 45 minute period one day a week. Buck up and take charge of your own spiritual development and stop relying on someone else to feed you. You lift the spoon and feed yourself through scripture. When you serve God, then others benefit. Then you are loving your brother.

  • Young and Concerned

    This post exemplifies why young adults are leaving the church. The reasons boil down to, ‘Because they were never “real Christians” and we didn’t want them anyway.” It attempts to justify that everything is just fine, but does not solve the fundamental problems. The liberal vs. conservative theology issues aside, it should be obvious why young people are leaving the church. The church fails to offer young people a “home.” Young people are not as able to get involved with the church decision making and young people are not made to feel welcome. Rather than judging a persons faith in Jesus, consider making the church an organization to which people WANT to belong.

    • TimToolmanTaylor

      I thought each of the 3 reasons were true. It’s not the church’s job to develop spiritual growth in children. Well, as far as time is concerned, it’s 99% the job of parents, and 1% job of the church. 2 hours on sunday and maybe 1 or 2 hours on Wednesday can’t be the limit to a child’s personal faith walk. My wife and I are diligent to teach the Bible, and teach how to pray (they do most of the praying now), and teach how to give our time to help others. Wanting to go to church is a bi-product of that. People who live their weekly life, watching 50 hours of TV that is completely anti-God, but are farmed out 1-2 hours per week to sunday school class may as well have a fork stuck in them, since they are done.

    • DougMasters

      “‘Because they were never “real Christians” and we didn’t want them anyway.””

      You are deeply misunderstanding the point of that comment.

      Blame for people not truly being of the church is not on them. It is mostly on the church leadership itself. That statement isn’t one of blame or fault, it just defines the state of being that “Their hearts weren’t in it in the first place”

      Like anything, a sport, a marriage or a club if you’re heart aint in it then you’ll leave. Either you were unable to be in it, or you were never fostered in well by the leadership.

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