James McCarty’s Thoughts on Why Young People Are Leaving Churches of Christ

James McCarty wrote an interesting post on why young people are leaving Churches of Christ: Homeless: An Essay on the Ecclesial Lives of Young Adults from the Churches of Christ

James lays out 5 reasons he believes young people are leaving Churches of Christ and then ends the post with some words for those young people and some words for the churches who are losing them. His five reasons include:

  1. Rejecting the old claim that Churches of Christ are the only ones going to heaven.
  2. Rejection of legalism
  3. Dissatisfaction of the teaching and ministries of the church as too narrow/not relevant to them
  4. Rejection of the church aligning itself with the Republican party
  5. Desire for racial diversity in the church

Going beyond symptoms to the heart of the matter:
If you haven’t read James’ post you should. I think he makes some good points. These five things could be said of all kinds of different denominations. This is not a unique list for churches of Christ. I am not certain that his five points get to the heart of what is really happening here. I think this is more of a symptom checklist of some deeper issues that have to be uncovered if we are going to move forward. You could “fix” all five of his points and still have young people leaving the church.

Two Underlying Issues:
First, in almost all of the discussions I have heard on this problem we have framed the problem as young people leaving the church. When you are concerned about young people leaving the church the metric you use to assess their spiritual health is whether or not they return to attending on Sunday. The problem is, these guys attended church for 18-25 years and then left. First and foremost this is about bringing people to Christ. If you can do that the church part will naturally flow out of it but if all you are concerned about is church attendance then you are winning them to the wrong thing. I give Eric Brown credit for opening my eyes to that point. Eric and I talk about these things pretty frequently and I am very appreciative of his perspective on this.

The second underlying issue is how do we define church and is there is discrepancy between how the older and younger generations view and define church? That question has to be followed up with this question – How is “church” defined by scripture and how do both “sides” need to adjust to have a more biblical approach? Both generations will have some helpful points in defining church and both will have areas where they need to adjust their view to something that is more biblical as well as cognizant of people who are of another generation.

How we define church is a combination of our scripture and worldview. For example, the older generation has a love for teaching. Teaching is just as biblical as community. Teaching is a part of their DNA due to the combination of worldview and what they gravitate to in the practices of the early church. What I mean by that is this…the early church did many things that we can read about in the Bible. We are all reading the same Bible but different generations gravitate to different aspects or practices of the early church. Worldview influences the parts we pick and the parts we ignore or discard. The older generation has a modern worldview. They value information and grew up in doctrinal debates where they had to “study to show thyself approved.” They also value church attendance as a marker of the faithful. Church attendance for them is defined as being at the building at a particular time on Sunday. Nothing else counts (I am overgeneralizing here…I understand that). What ends up happening is “church” ends up being defined through two lenses: what we read about in the Bible (the culture of the first century church) and contemporary culture (influences the traditions we develop and the scriptures we emphasize as our reading of the Bible is filtered through what we already value/believe to be important).

Being the 21st century church
We all have to be aware of how our worldview/culture influences the way we view and define “church” and we all have to realize that our view can always be improved. At the same time, we can get so caught up trying to be the first century church that we fail to be the 21st century church. In other words, we get so caught up on the forms of how we do things and imitating them, that we fail to personally develop and embody the heart of Jesus in our communities today. Eric Brown said this really well at the Spiritual Growth Workshop this year when he said, “The first century church was not trying to be the first century church. The first century church was trying to be Jesus.”

There is more I would like to say about this but I am curious what you guys think so far.


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.

10 Responses to James McCarty’s Thoughts on Why Young People Are Leaving Churches of Christ

  1. I think the church is so preoccupied with ‘reaction preaching’ (heavily refuting false doctrine because of denominations), that we actually fail to teach the whole counsel of God, and only (I also am generalizing :P) convert our members to the “right way” of doing things, without bringing souls and hearts to actually, deeply loving God and loving others. Though even my husband has preached about how denominations are more Pharisaical than the church, I have to say that there is certainly a Pharisaical element to the church. We emphasize church attendance because it is an honest indicator of the strength of our members, but rather than piercing hearts, we set a standard. Rather than cleaning the inside so that everything may be clean, we focus on the outward appearance and lists of right and wrong and acceptable and not acceptable. Yes, we ought to keep these smaller matters but without neglecting ‘the love of God’; the weightier matters. I don’t have statistical evidence for you or any published reports, but in my own personal experience there are just too many members of the church that fit into that category.

    The restoration was profound and necessary and I’m so thankful that I’ve come to the knowledge of the truth, but I believe we still have much growing to do and really need to take heed, lest we fall. Also, (in my unqualified experience :P) getting people involved- like hands/hearts-on involved is a zeal-booster. We need to, like you quoted, “try to be Jesus”- we need to minister to the needy, get out there and preach and make disciples and help the homeless and give our money and possessions to those in need and study daily with our brethren and go to other countries and actually convert people into real discipleship, not just going to a building on Sundays. There needs to be balanced preaching that isn’t afraid to teach on grace (and not just from an angle that objects false teachings) and love (I’ve met so many people in the church that seem actually nauseated at the thought of “love” and I truly hope that is not our doing) and the Holy Spirit and also sacrifice and devotion to God. We need to be real with people and show them why being in heaven with Almighty God is better than living our lives.

    I know I’ve made huge generalizations. There are congregations and members that “get it”, but I also think the church has lost members and a good reputation because there are enough members, preachers and congregations that really don’t, unbeknownst to them.
    And of course, no matter what, every congregation will lose members and no matter how true to the Word we are, some people will simply forsake God.
    And I’m sure there’s more to the problem than what I’ve said, but I’m also sure that I’ve seen people apply what I’ve just talked about and completely renew their zeal and faith and commitment to Him.
    So, I think it’s worth considering.

  2. jamesmccarty says:

    I posted this in the comments on my own blog as well, but I’m happy for the conversation and wanted to be a part of it here as well:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment here and on your own blog, Matt. I found your post helpful in getting to “the heart of the matter.” Whereas you’ve identified that heart, at least partially (and I think correctly), in how different generations understand what it means to “do church,” I’ve identified it in, again at least partially, in different approaches to interpreting scripture. I don’t know if you saw my follow up posts, but here they are: http://jamesmccarty.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/on-reading-scripture-a-question-of-how-not-what/ and http://jamesmccarty.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/an-exercise-in-getting-it-wrong-its-about-justice-not-worship/.

    As to your first suggestion that we bring people “to Christ” rather than “to the Church,” I’m a little less convinced. One reason is because that phrase is so vague I’m not sure what you really mean by it. A more important reason, for me, is that it seems that it’s an easy way to dismiss what earlier generations have done while truly believing they were taking the best route to bring people “to Christ.” It is true that someone’s Sunday morning and Wednesday evening attendance record is not always a good indicator of the health and vibrancy of one’s spiritual life. And it is true that folks who are converted to Christ will likely be quite invested in a local church. I just worry that the way you frame it in your post paints a “straw man” that doesn’t actually exist. The vast majority of folks trying to bring people to/keep people in “Church” think it’s the best way to bring them “to Christ.”

    Oh, and I think you’re absolutely right that we have often lost sight of what it means to be the 20th/21st century church in our tremendous efforts to be the first century church in the 20th/21st centuries.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Thanks for the response. Let me clarify what I mean by bringing people to Jesus over bringing people to church. I know that sounds very individualistic because i do believe faith needs a community to participate in. The church is a community of the faithful who are reaching out into the world to save lost people. So outreach starts with the church. Where we run into problems is understanding the difference between the means and the goal. The problem is people have made the goal “get them to church” (thinking somehow the Jesus thing would just rub off on them). What is more people have made getting them to “church” about a time and a place on Sunday rather than understanding church biblically – the gathering of God’s people. The means is the church. The goal is to get them to Jesus. I hope that brings some clarity to what I am trying to say here.

  3. James Wood says:

    I might phrase it differently (but I generally agree with both Matt’s and James’ thoughts).

    My feeling is that the church is losing people (both young and old) because we’re preaching a message we aren’t willing to live.

    We ask non-Christians to admit that they’ve been wrong about everything they’ve ever believed, give up their old habits and change their views on everything. But we’re not willing to admit that we’ve been wrong about anything, nor give up our bad habits nor change our views on anything.

    How is that good news?

    Once we are able to be the people that we’re calling non-Christians to be (disciples of Jesus), then we have some hope of stemming the exodus.

  4. Richard Kruse says:

    Are you planning to enlarge on your culture comment? The greying of churches is typical of many organizations. For example, horticultural clubs and other organizations are not attracting youth. One young preacher I know turned down an offer of a large library – filled with books from Karl Barth to more contemporary authors – left by a deceased preacher because he obtains the information he needs for sermons on the computer! Young people are not reading newspapers – as one person said – because they are only printed once a day. Also, they have facebook-fellowship.

  5. mokus says:

    Excellent post!

  6. Doug says:

    Years ago I was working with a young man who was a non-practicing RC. I had invited him to services at the congregation in Texas I was attending while I was in the service. One morning as we were heading across the parking lot I had a “revelation”, “out of the frying pan, into the fire”. Works oriented salvation is works oriented salvation. The scripture thought that came to mind at the time was that of hunting high and low for a convert and making them a two-fold child of hell. In hindsight it fit the congregation pretty well. Not only a disregard of the Scripture but practice as well. Many of our young folk are fulfilling prophecy and the world allure is too strong. But many are also finding Christ, but elsewhere. They are Bereans and too often the unsoundness of the foundation has them running. I wish I could say I didn’t fall prey, but Col 2 is so real. It is easy to point fingers at Catholic priests, but are we looking in the mirror? That and many wonder what message we are preaching. Where too often is our “good news(Jesus). Buried under the fear of tradition. They aren’t blind to the unrest and the pseudo-smiles. But rest assured the Lord knows who are His. Our older folk could at times also have the humility to read Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in letting no one despise his youth. But our youth also are fighting an increasing cultural wave of the spirit of disobedience and antiauthority which is all too present even in the church.

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  8. Jonathan Umana (JP) says:

    Dear James, sorry if i have not addressed you properly. I think another reason is our inability to use instrumental music.

    • mattdabbs says:

      When we start saying if only we had instruments we could keep our young people we miss the point. Adding instruments won’t do anything to keep them around. Do we just plan on keeping them entertained? Usually there are deeper issues going on than the absence or presence of instruments…at least that is my experience.

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