20 Somethings: Why are they Leaving and What Can We Do About It?

One of the biggest topics in Christianity today is why young adults are leaving the church during their late teens and early twenties. There have been more books and articles written on this than imaginable. The problem we are facing didn’t happen overnight and won’t be fixed over night. It has developed over a long period of time. Boil down all the issues and here is what you get – the vast majority of churches have a ginormous culture gap within the congregation and are doing little to nothing to resolve it. Eric Brown, a good friend of mine and fellow minister, put it this way, “You probably have two churches meeting in your building on Sunday.” What he means by that is we are all under the same roof but what is being experienced on Sunday is vastly different between the younger post-moderns and the older moderns. Here are a few ways young people are disconnected from congregational life:

  1. They are disconnected culturally. Young people today don’t share a common worldview with their predecessors. That leads to a misunderstanding of the older toward the younger and the younger toward the older. That misunderstanding creates space between the generations. It takes more effort to connect with someone you view as dissimilar to yourself.
  2. They are disconnected spatially. We have classes for youth, college and 20 somethings. They don’t know older Christians or have godly role models in their lives to help guide them and connect them to the larger congregation. We keep them apart. We keep the moderns in one room and the post-moderns in another until it is time to do what is more impersonal & less interactive, sing worship songs and listen to a sermon. The one time we have multi-generational, multi-worldview/culture in the room we don’t get to interact or get to know each other at all.
  3. They are disconnected emotionally. These guys have grown up in rough environments. Their homes have been devastated by divorce. They are looking for deeper meaning and emotional connection and belonging. They don’t automatically feel that in a room full of 500 people on Sunday. What is more, it makes congregational worship feel phony to some because worship is when things should be really real but to them it sometimes feels as surfacy and disconnected as ever from real life.
  4. They feel Sunday is disconnected with the biblical mission. They don’t feel like what happens on Sunday adequately reflects what they find in the Bible. It feels too small. That may or may not be true. Many of the things churches engage in aren’t reflected on Sunday morning and you wouldn’t have any idea were happening unless you are involved in them. They aren’t typically involved in those things and so it is easy to assume nothing else is happening except what they see for an hour on Sunday.
  5. They are disconnected from leadership. They have no voice. When it comes time to make decisions, especially regarding things that directly affect them they are rarely consulted about their views on the issue. They need a voice in the congregation.

If you aren’t so sure that your young people are disconnected from the rest of the congregation answer this question – When does a person where you worship get fully integrated into the larger congregation? After high school? After college? Once they hit 40? At what point should we expect them to be a part of the congregational life outside the worship assembly? Those who are already “in” and connected don’t feel the break and wonder why young people don’t attend. It doesn’t make sense when you feel a part of what is going on. They don’t feel the same way.

So what do we do with this? The simple answer is most of it has to do with reconnecting (or connecting for the first time) relationships. Here are a few steps to help us reconnect with them.

  1. Get to know them. We may think we do but most of us don’t. We don’t because we don’t spend time with them in meaningful ways. We may see them on Sunday but that isn’t really a connection. We have to get to know where they are coming from, how they think, what they believe, what they know and don’t know, what their story is. We have to get to know the real person and not just how they present themselves on Sunday. When they feel someone is genuinely taking an interest in them it will make a difference for them because again, many of these guys have been alienated and hurt in the past through burnt and broken relationships.
  2. Create meaningful and visible inroads to integrate them into the rest of the congregation. This may mean you need to rethink your Bible class structure and small groups. This may mean mentoring. Give them a voice and a seat at the table in some of the decision making process. Invite some of them to an elders meeting. You may make a few of your young dads deacons over certain areas. They need something to invest in that is a part of the larger congregational life rather than just reinvesting back into their group of friends. When this happens they will see that what happens in the congregation is not just a facade but that ministry is real and makes a real difference. If you keep age specific classes you need to adopt and up/down approach. Periodically send some of them up to an older class and down to a younger class to get to know people. This will also help later transitions as they will know what to expect in the older class and will already have met people there. When we blindly cast people into the big congregation after they graduate there is little wonder they stop coming. The leap is too much for many of them so they bail. Also, send older members down to the young adult class from time to time to get to know them.
  3. Engage in and communicate authentic and impacting mission. If a church isn’t in the game and has nothing to communicate when it comes to being involved in the mission of God then something needs to change regardless of how young people see this. Make Sunday more real. Talk about real lives. Share stories. Do something less structure from time to time. Be more informal…not that we disrespect God but that we realize that many times all the structure we engage in can distract from the actual worship of God. Talk about what the church is doing in the community in the worship on Sunday. Engage them in that mission. They need to be invited on board and meaningful and helpful players in the mission field.
  4. Give them responsibility. I have already hit on this a little above but it is so important. Often we think responsibility comes when someone is a deacon or that they can lead a prayer. That is thinking too small. Let them teach the youth. Let them mentor someone as they are being mentored. Let them plan a devotional for the twenty somethings or a service project.
  5. Encourage authenticity. We have to find room to let them be themselves and grow on their own timing. What if I could tell my son was having trouble so I went to him and asked him what was wrong. He spilled his guts and confessed a bunch of stuff to me that was hard for him to say. What if I jumped all over him, screaming, shouting and saying things like, “I can’t believe you would do something that stupid!” What do you think he is going to do next time he has a problem? This happens and we wonder why people bail. This goes back to authenticity. When something big happens, recognize it. A church can seem lifeless when it seems everyone else gets it but there is no mention of it on Sunday. Do you want people to see the value in baptism? Recognize how valuable it is, communicate how valuable it is, interview those who have been baptized and show the clip on Sunday about how their life has changed for the better.

There are other reasons young people leave. Some just want to get out there and do all kinds of things that are incompatible with what they were taught. I get that and it does happen. But we need to do the very best we can to not lose a whole generation of young people and it all starts with the desire to understand them and relate with them. We must bridge the culture gap if we are going to keep them. This means some things will have to change. So spend some time evaluating what your congregation is doing and ask some young people how those things are perceived. You might be surprised with their answers. Don’t assume everything is fine because you get filled on Sunday. Not everyone is standing in your shoes.

About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

7 Responses to 20 Somethings: Why are they Leaving and What Can We Do About It?

  1. James Wood says:

    This is a great post and desperately needed.

    I’m going to say, though, that the problem isn’t one in just our churches. Nearly all of our culture is age segregated for the first 21 years of a person’s life. Even jobs tend to have some age segregation as younger people gravitate toward jobs that use high-tech and older people tend to fill more traditional jobs.

    Post-modernity is a symptom of a bigger change that’s going on in our culture. That bigger change is also affecting the way that communities connect. Rather than coalescing around location or historical affiliation, people are now grouping based on shared interest. Look for the cross-cultural, age-diverse gatherings in society and you’ll find interest-based activities. Andrea and I are in a community choir, I’m helping with a tool library in our town, there might be a cycling club or a zombie-fan group where people with shared interests can gather. Seth Godin calls these Tribes.

    Everything you say about how to get the younger people involved is true, and I think it will all happen around interest-based groups. Mobilize the people of your church to work on feeding the homeless, but only the people who are interested in it. Let the young, passionate people in the congregation lead the ministry. Find interests of playing sports or building decks or cooking or couponing to connect people across ages. That will go a long way to keeping the young people involved in your church.

  2. Fantastic blog, Matt!

    For too long we’ve age-segregated the church and it’s hurting us. Even within families, we have to work on the connections that used to happen almost automatically. Many families seldom sit down to eat together.

    Several things could help in this area: the common meal of the church is the Lord’s Supper. Do any congregations treat it as a meal rather than as an individual meditation? I told one church that with the way we want to be left alone with no one to disturb our meditation, we should build isolation booths instead of pews! Most funeral dinners I attend have more fellowship and communion than we have when we come to the Lord’s table.

    Your suggestions are excellent – and much easier to implement than changing how we do the Lord’s Supper. What is holding us back? Probably inertia and our general reluctance to change anything for fear we might do something that is “wrong.”

    Jerry

    • mattdabbs says:

      There are movements to re-focus on family as the primary means of developing faith in our young people. Guys like Mark Holmen and the D6 conference are having this conversation. The big question they raise is why is it we have removed the primary spiritual influence in a child’s life (mother and father) and replaced them with the sixth most spiritually influential person in their life, a youth minister. Why have we replaced the people who spend hours and hours a day with their kids with the guy who maybe gets one hour a week? They have material on how to get faith back in the homes like the book “Church + Home”

      We tried the L.S. as a meal with discussion on Sunday nights last summer and we didn’t get a good attendance at all. I think people didn’t get it and still thought they had already taken it that morning so why come back. That is just my guess…we communicated on why we were doing it but I am not sure people were getting it.

  3. I especially appreciate #5. We need to do a better job of communicating a holistic worldview that explains why we value what we value & thus why we behave & act as we do

    • mattdabbs says:

      Bruce McLarty has some excellent material on worldview that he presented at Northwest a few months ago. I have been taking some of that material and adapting it to teach it to our 20s & 30s. It has been very, very helpful. I also took notes from Monte Cox’s class Cultural Anthropology where he talked about worldview of Christianity vs. other faiths and adapted that as well (giving full credit of course). This has been helpful for me and extremely relevant. I think we need to teach more on worldview and not just on behavior. Having a Christian worldview will drive appropriate behavior.

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