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They Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For

It is not at all uncommon to hear some variation of the story that 18-30 year olds are one of the most under-represented groups in the church today.  It seems that young adults are fleeing the church as soon as they leave high school, and only starting to trickle back once they have their own children, if they make their way back at all.  While some of the reasons for this are undoubtedly related to the general transience of this age demographic, it’s a worrying trend that has been and continues to be the subject of exhaustive analysis.

One study has just been concluded by Barna Group president David Kinnaman who presents his findings in a new book called You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.  Some general conclusions have been posted on the Barna Group’s website, and I think they are interesting both for what they include and what they don’t include.  I’ve highlighted some of the parts I found most interesting in the Barna Group’s summary below:

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twenty-something Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).

What I found interesting in these findings is how little they had to say about the form of church.  Churches often go to great lengths to present Christianity in “relevant” terms, whether with respect to the style of music, the use of various media forms, the “style” of the pastors, etc.  The basic assumption often seems to be that the “young adult problem” is one of packaging as opposed to overall philosophy and vision.  If we just present the faith differently, we seem to think, the young people will come flocking back.  If our services are filled with gimmicky names and big screens and edgy video clips and sound bytes and light shows and “relevant” music and coffee bars and young hip-looking, slightly irreverent speakers with cool hair and distressed jeans, things will be just fine.

But what the research above seems to indicate is that young people are looking for more than this (thank God!).  Most of the things above can be found—in abundance and in higher quality varieties—elsewhere.  Young people are looking for a safe place to wrestle alongside others with the challenges of following Jesus in a complicated world where the answers to tough questions aren’t always obvious.  They are looking for coherence and consistency between belief and practice.  They want to learn how to love their neighbours well in the context of historically unprecedented diversity.  They are looking for honesty, transparency, and depth.

I am by nature suspicious of “techniques” to get this or that demographic “back to church,” but I think that the church should pay attention to these findings.  We should listen well to what young people are saying.  And perhaps we should spend less time on the packaging of beliefs, and more time on becoming people and communities of honesty, integrity, openness, forgiveness, and grace.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ryan, this is helpful and relevant to some recent conversation I’ve been having. My own sense is that the Church needs to recover a focus on spiritual growth and formation – helping others discover the path, nurture their growth, encourage questions and curiosity, teach prayer and how to think theologically. I agree that repackaging is not the way. Thanks for your post.


    September 29, 2011
    • Yes, I have the same sense… But, as Gil alludes to below, spiritual growth and formation is much harder work than tinkering with techniques. It takes time, relationship, investment, prayer, and possibly slow progress. Learning to think theologically probably does not happen via sound bytes :).

      Thanks for your comment.

      September 29, 2011
  2. Gil #

    I think it’s easier to tinker with techniques than to deal with some of the substantial issues that Barna points toward (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to wear “distressed jeans”!). Issues like the six above require a depth of engagement that is, frankly, too difficult and threatening for many of us. But isn’t it interesting how each of these six problems is “theological” in nature (at least at some level)? Seems to reveal an appetite that many church leaders have been told doesn’t exist among young people.

    The question we’re going to have to ask is: Where are the spaces within contemporary church practice where these kinds of conversations can happen?

    September 29, 2011
    • Yes, the theological nature of these problems is very interesting indeed… It makes me wonder if we are selling young people short in giving them a churchy version of pop culture. Appetites need to be cultivated, after all, or else they may atrophy and disappear.

      The question we’re going to have to ask is: Where are the spaces within contemporary church practice where these kinds of conversations can happen?

      It’s a very good question. Any ideas? Anything that you’ve seen work in your context?

      September 29, 2011
      • Gil #

        Well my context is a bit unusual and I suspect it would sound a bit self-serving to suggest that Christian higher education is the answer :). But I have definitely found an appetite for conversations around the topics that Barna discusses here. I just wonder how much the average church program creates space for them (or how much the average pastor sees it as part of his/her task to be up on these issues?).

        I think for starters there has to be a kind of “public permission” granted for asking these kinds of questions. This might sound like a “non-answer” but there are a thousand subtle ways that this permission is given or denied in church life. Each of the six themes Barna touches would involve risky conversations. Sadly, the church is too often a place where those risks are not taken.

        September 30, 2011
      • Yes, public permission is a necessary start. I think that, as much as possible, churches need to try to cultivate “fear-free” environments. So often, the “risky conversations” you refer to are never even attempted because people are afraid to say certain things out loud, whether because of what they think others will say or simply because it’s frightening to admit certain things out loud. There are probably a thousand subtle ways in which this lack of fear can or ought to be communicated as well…

        September 30, 2011
  3. Great summary Ryan… How do you think Barna Group’s findings reflect (or don’t reflect) upon on the increase of young adults attending Catholic and Orthodox churches? I’ve noticed that here in Saskatoon, more disenfranchised evangelicals are choosing to call the Catholic Church home. What ist the Catholic church is offering that evangelical churches aren’t?

    September 29, 2011
    • It’s a good question… I think that evangelicals (or any Christians) can be disenfranchised in any number of ways and for any number of reasons. While I don’t see anything from these six points that would directly point to a flight to the high churches, I wonder if it might have something to do with Reason #2 above. There is something about the liturgy, the Eucharist, the music, the architecture, the regalia, etc of Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches that communicates a sacred depth that I think many hunger for. People often speak of sensing the presence of God in beautiful spaces where attention is paid to aesthetics, acoustics, etc. Beauty moves people and connects them with the divine. Perhaps this is part of why disaffected evangelicals are drawn to these churches.

      There is also a deep sense of historical connectedness and indebtedness in the life and practice of these churches that is often missing from the evangelical church around the corner. Barna’s research doesn’t mention this, but I think people are often looking for a sense of being a part of something wide and deep and long, and these churches with traditions that can be traced back for centuries are appealing for these reasons.

      There’s probably more than this going on, but just a few thoughts that came to my mind…

      September 29, 2011
      • Rita #

        Ryan – in addition to the majesty of church buildings, many people appreciate the sense of reverence in liturgical church settings. For a while my husband and I and our young children attended a church where if you didn’t have a headache walking in, you most certainly would have one when you left. Noise, chaos, and people doing absolutely whatever came into their minds at any particular moment – constantly. Off the wall events were intended, I expect, to appeal to a certain group… I don’t think ‘they’ were there. A number of people’s lives got significantly messed up through their affiliation with this. The ‘church’ has gotten into a huge mess trying to attract people through superficial stuff, rather than acknowleding that people may actually be seeking something far far deeper.

        October 1, 2011
      • I don’t think I would have lasted long in that kind of environment :).

        I agree, some people are seeking something far deeper… But evidently many are not, as well. It may be somewhat crude to reduce matters of faith to the logic of supply and demand, but there certainly seems to be a “market” for superficiality out there. I suppose this gets back to the idea that some appetites have to be modified/cultivated/nourished, etc.

        October 1, 2011
  4. jschmidty #

    A very telling report Ryan. One question that perhaps is too brash or bold to even ask is – is this even a problem? That is, at some level do our 20 somethings need to leave the church for a period of time to appreciate it’s value and richness? I’m not actually advocating for this, but I’m also wary to see a solution that simple tries to get this demographic back into church. It is indeed a deep issue that, as mentioned, cannot be dealt with by simple outward changes.

    October 6, 2011
    • I think it’s a good question—certainly one worth asking. Perhaps there is an inevitable period of self-discovery, exploration, etc, that some young adults need to go through in order to clarify their own views, their own reasons for committing to church (or not). Of course, in an ideal world the church would be a safe place for them to navigate some of the turbulent years of questioning, exploring, etc, but I know this doesn’t always (or even often) happen. And while I would love for young adults to go through these years with the support and wisdom of a faith community, I certainly do not want to reduce things to a “as long as we can just keep them coming to church” response. God knows, there are enough people coming to church out of a sense of duty and not much more. Sometimes prodigals need to leave in order to make the return home more joyful.

      October 7, 2011
      • Gil #

        It’s a very interesting observation. There is a fair bit of research that would point toward young people associating “religion” with both their childhoods and their eventual adulthoods. But in between, I think a lot of people simply bracket the questions as they pursue education or work opportunities. I think the notion of “exploring” new options or even resisting childhood influences is part of that process. The sad thing is that these are also years that are very formative, precisely the time when you would hope that the “ultimate” questions would be on the table.

        October 7, 2011
  5. Dorothee #

    Interesting article and conversation…What comes to my mind is the question, if the church could be even standing in the way of “becoming people and communities of honesty, integrety, openness, forgiveness and grace”? Considering that what we know of Jesus’ ministry, most of his time was spent with people (on the way, in their homes, eating. talking, healing,…)

    October 11, 2011
    • Intriguing comment, Dorothee… What are some of the ways in which you see churches being obstacles rather than aids to becoming these kinds of people and communities?

      October 11, 2011

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