Young People Leave the Church

As I have been getting back into my groove at school, I have also been on paternity leave from Aldersgate.  Allison and I welcomed Camden  into our lives on August 10.  As part of my return to work I plan to resurrect this blog with some of my thoughts, some push back to others ideas, as well as youth ministry resources I have found to be useful.

This is my response to a podcast from Homebrewed Christianity (my favorite podcast), as well as a blog post from Rachel Held Evans.

walking-out-doorOver the last year or so it has been very trendy to discuss the decline of mainline Christianity.  It has also been trendy to raise discussions on why younger generations are no longer finding church life relevant to their own lives.  A recent Pew Research Religion and Public Life survey exposed that over ninety percent of young people, people who have left our youth groups and gone on to college, are no longer interested in the church or find the church relevant in their lives.  Now there is an effort within evangelical and mainline churches to become more relevant by opening coffee shops, creating “hipper” pastors, and updating their worship services with bands.

While these efforts are great, these quick fixes are not working.  The problem of young people leaving the church also affects the work of youth pastors and volunteers.  Our approach to youth ministry directly influences the way young people see the church as they grow up and move onto college and their lives beyond their parents’ houses.  Andy Root points to three motivations or reasons that churches engage in youth ministry: keeping kids good, involving kids in service, and passing on the tradition.  If you ask most youth workers today, or even their parents, why their church engages in youth ministry one of these motivations are most likely to be the reason.  But these motivations are part of a larger problem facing churches trying to engage a millennial generation that is no longer interested in what the church has to offer.

The problem with using youth ministry to teach kids to be good people is that once you given them a moral compass, they no longer have a need for your ministry.  The problem with involving kids in service as a sole motivation for youth ministry is that ultimately the service makes us feel good, which in turn exploits those being served to teach our kids a lesson.  Passing on the tradition to our kids as a motivation for ministry has the potential to make the tradition more important than or leave “little reason for God at all” (Andrew Root, Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, pg. 31).

What’s the solution?  How can we create ministry settings that are engaging to our youth and equip them with the ability to sustain a faith that endures the long haul and not just satisfy a need that parents have or fill the gap of what parents could be passing onto their children?

Theologically speaking, one approach to fixing this decline is for the church to become more incarnational and less focused on civic association.

Christianity is more than a Sunday club and the rites (not to be confused with rights) within the church are more than a checklist that must be completed before a youth graduates high school.  

Incarnational living means that the life and teachings of Jesus are embodied in the day-to-day activities of the members of the community.  Incarnational living within youth ministry has the ability to create a community where youth are able to not only articulate what it means to be a follower of Christ those within the community, but the youth also have the ability to articulate their faith to those outside the community.

Incarnational living enables youth to become young adults and be actively engaged in God’s work within their own community and lives.  Youth are able to pray together without prompting from their youth leader or pastors, engage in service without prompting from their youth leader or pastors, and they have the ability to articulate what and why they are followers of Christ.  This does not answer the question or eliminate the problem of young people leaving the church, but it does help create relevancy for those who may not have seen the church as necessary or relevant in their lives, and it also lays the groundwork for a revitalization of communities who are seeking a way to move past the current decline that many evangelical and mainline churches are facing.