Thoughts on Why Young Adults Quit Church

They usually feel there’s something missing, but they’ve been conditioned to dislike exactly what’s missing.

In The Christian Post over the last couple days, Christian Piatt has posted 11 reasons why young adults quit church (here and here). This is certainly an issue a lot of pastors think about; only 18% of today’s young adults attend church regularly (every older generation posts better numbers, up to 56% in the oldest living generation). Today’s young people do tend to describe themselves as “spiritual,” and say they believe in God in similar numbers to their parents, but those notions don’t seem to translate to much knowledge about their religion or interest in institutional affiliation (a big Presbyterian church in my town recently stopped using the term “member” because it freaked out the young adults; it opted for “covenant partner” instead).

There are a lot of reasons, and I think there’s a lot of blame to go around—young adults tend to be individualistic and self-centered in their lifestyles, which is arguably their parents’ and grandparents’ fault, and churches have trended in a lot of unhealthy directions in the past 100 years. Figuring out what’s at the core of what went wrong should be the subject of a book, not a blog post (I’m hoping Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” to be published April 17, will do the trick). But in the meantime, here are three of Piatt’s 11 reasons that I thought were the most insightful:

(Like/tweet to see the list and the reasons!)

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We Don’t Want to Be “Talked At” Any More. Long sermons, the centerpiece of most Protestant churches in America, don’t mesh with young people’s two-way habits of communication and learning.

Adult Life/College and Church Don’t Seem to Mix.  The first is built around me, me, me; the second is supposed to be about community and service.

There’s No Natural Bridge to Church. We move a lot, and jobs and destinations are the priority; meanwhile, most churches operate as though communities are still relatively static and the church is the center of them.

A few observations:

  • I thought these three reasons were linked. American religion has been infused with evangelicalism since the two great awakenings, and perhaps the two most recognizable elements of evangelicalism (in terms of church services) are the centrality of long sermons and the emphasis on the individual. This creates an interesting tension with the current young generation. For one thing, it’s true: we don’t like to be talked at. Our communication, from texting to Twitter, is two-way and participatory, as has been a lot of our education. For another, church often masquerades as entertainment (was the sermon “good?” I loved “the worship”). And since our whole life is self-focused, church just becomes one competitor among many for our attention, instead of being the very different thing around which we build our lives.
  • If you want to get a sense of what most young people think when they hear the word “worship,” do a Google Images search for the word and look at the first 20-30 entries.
  • Piatt’s observations also give insight into why there has been a bit of a trend among young evangelicals toward pre-evangelical worship traditions—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican. Those traditions don’t emphasize the sermon (so the kids aren’t getting “talked at”), and they are participatory (“liturgy” literally means “the work of the people”). Christianity Today profiled this trend a few years ago, here and here. So young people who feel there’s something terribly wrong with the way their parents “did” church sometimes find the logical alternative.
  • That said, that trend seems relatively small in the grand scheme of things (at this point), and those traditions don’t match what most young people recognize as “church.” My church has a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service, and none of the young people would be caught dead in the traditional one. Moreover, these older traditions are almost abrasively not self-centered, to the point where they feel strange and foreign. They also tend to operate (see Piatt’s third observation) on the assumption that “communities are relatively static, and they are the center of that community”; I would say far more so than the suburban commuter megachurches. On one level, this is refreshing. On another, again, it presents a challenge because it doesn’t mesh with the lifestyle young people are used to—they’re used to church as a once-a-week commodity, a service, not an organism. So churches that want to adopt some of these older ideas have had to tread carefully.
  • By now you can probably see the same weird tension I see: young people have been conditioned to distrust the very things that they are missing in church—community, responsibilities like membership, other-oriented worship—yet they’re on a blind quest to find those missing things. Some of them seem to get far enough on the quest that they ditch consumer worship and go for pre-evangelical traditions. Some don’t get far enough and ditch organized religion entirely. Definitely a conversation worth continuing….

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