Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church

The reasons 20somethings are giving up on Sunday morning

What does it say about our generation that 40 to 50 percent of young Christians fail to stick with their faith or connect with a church after high school? Most likely, you’ve experienced or been witness to this exodus of twentysomethings from the faith community. At this point, it’s not even surprising to watch young adults become disillusioned with church as they go to college, build a career, start a family or begin their “real life”. But can it be stopped?

We recently spoke to Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller Youth Institute and co-author of Sticky Faith, to answer just that. Drawing from her extensive research with Fuller Youth Institute, she gave us a little more insight into what it takes to find a faith that sticks.

Do you think young people are just leaving the church, or leaving faith? Or is it both?

Probably my best answer to that is to describe what Tim Clydesdale—who is a sociologist in New Jersey—refers to as “the identity lock-box.” What students tend to do after they’ve graduated from high school is place important parts of themselves in an identity lock-box, and their faith is often part of that. The good news is that you put something in a lock-box when it’s important to you. So there is some sense that students still value their faith at one level. But the problem is when your faith is in a lock-box, especially as a college student or emerging adult, you’re making so many important decisions about worldview, and marriage, how you engage in risk behaviors, and vocation, and calling, and all those considerations are made while your faith is locked up in that lock-box. So there is some sort of residual sense that students value the faith, but it’s not influencing their day-to-day, or even major decisions. Given the long-term impact of those decisions throughout their adulthood, it’s pretty disconcerting.

Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?

The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors. So it seems like [young adults] have really picked up a behavioralist view of the Gospel. That’s problematic for a lot of reasons, but one of which is that when students fail to live up to those behaviors, then they end up running from God and the Church when they need both the most.

Are these mindsets limited only to young adults, or does it affect all ages?

Oh, yes, absolutely, [they] aren’t making this up on their own. They’re getting this from adults. Another issue that is particularly relevant to church leaders across the board is the importance of intergenerational relationships. We looked at 13 different youth group participation variables in our study, things they did in the context of youth group, to try and see what would be the biggest levers for sticky faith. To our surprise, the participation variable most highly related to mature faith both in high school and college was intergenerational worship; helping them connect with adults of all ages is a vital part of building adult faith. What we’re seeing is that not only are [intergenerational relationships] transformative in the lives of the teenagers, but they make a difference in the overall church. Imagine what a church would be like, what the adults in church would be like, if they were infused with the vitality that comes with teenagers? At the very least, if they were getting to know a few teenagers by name so they could pray for them, how life-giving would that be for the adults in a church?

What is an ideal model for the relationship between different generations in the faith community?

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The original churches in the first century were multi-generational, were multi-ethnic. Especially as youth ministries become more professionalized in the last 50 years, [we’ve] ended up segregating kids from the rest of the church. Having said that, there’s definitely a time for 6-year-olds, and 16-year-olds and 86-year-olds to be together on their own. We need to provide space for folks in similar life spaces to chat and share community, but balance is something we swing through on our way to the other extreme.

It’s a common story: Young adults stop going to church, then once they have kids they return. It’s not like that’s a new phenomenon. Do you think this generation is different—or will they return to church again in a few years when they start having kids?

About 50 percent of those who drift from church seem to return, and it’s often because when they get older they get married and have kids. We at the Fuller Youth Institute are still grieving over the 50 percent who don’t return, and even in the 50 percent who do return—you make those important life decisions as college students, and then there are consequences you live with even after you’ve returned to the faith. It seems like students are drifting at a slightly higher percentage than in the past, and as adolescence is lengthening, they’re staying away from the church longer. As age of marriage is being delayed, having children is being delayed, so it’s just more years under the belt apart from God and full of the heartbreak and disappointment that comes from living your life apart from God.

How have your views of Church changed as you've become an adult? What makes you want to pull away? What makes you want to stay?


Jonathan Castro


Jonathan Castro commented…

If you've never met God in church, why would you keep going? Totally pointless.

Sheila Anabel


Sheila Anabel commented…

I think that we (as the church) are failing on teaching how to follow Jesus to our teenagers. As leaders of the church we should always empathise on getting to know Jesus and finding out your purpose in life more than any other thing in the Bible. The key to accomplish anything is life is to BE CONNECTED TO JESUS. If we teach our teens to relate to Jesus as their first and only role model, we teach them how to have a personal relationship with him (by being the first example and sharing our own personal life and struggles through the walk with Jesus) and we encourage them to find Jesus in the Bible, in every story, in every law, then we are helping them build their own identity on Christ, and CHRIST ALONE. We make the mistake of trying to help them realize whats right and wrong instead of guiding them so they will ask God and find out themselves what is it that God wants them to do. We cant be judges of behavior because we fail to follow the "rules" ourselves! we can only guide them and accompany them in their walk of discovering their God, their purpose and mission, their saviour, their goals, and most importan their identity.

Kids who are raised in the church are taught what is right and wrong since the minute they are born, and don't get me wrong, i believe in teaching kids what the Bible teaches, but when they become teenagers their brain changes. They develop the ability of thinking in abstract form, which means, they now can see things not in black or white, but in the shades of gray... and they start asking questions, and they start realizing most 'adults' dont follow what they teach. They realize that the world is not good or bad, and that most people fail to live up to the standards they were taught. THEREFORE we cannot teach them the same way as before.. now we have to be able to share our experience, be vulnerable, and try to help them find the answers they need IN JESUS. We can only listen to them without judging, and try to understand the confusion they are in, without drawing them to look at us for answers but to Christ himself.

As leaders if we do this, we can only hope that our teenagers will go to college knowing that their idenity is based on their relationship with God, and that when they are facing the different trials and situations that life bring, they can look for God to find their answers. That God loves them and HAS THE BEST PLAN EVER! (Jeremiah 29:11-13) and he is willing to share it with them if they ask.

The only thing we can do to change this, is to work with the youth. To put our ministry in the hands of God and to be connected to Jesus as much as possible. We need to be that role model. We need to be that person in church who dedicated their time and effort to have a relationship with them. We can be that person who doesnt have it all together but is trying to always listen to what God is saying and putting it in action.

Everything is based on relationships. Our relationships with our youth, with God, and their relationship with God. You cannot inspire someone to have a personal relationship with Jesus if you dont' have one yourself with him and don't take the time to get to know them in order to be able to share it. Our youth need direction. Is our time to step up and show them where to look at. Is our time to show Jesus.

Greg Piper


Greg Piper commented…

Maybe someone else has written this, but I think there's a quote attributed to Tim Keller that goes something like "tell me who you're sleeping with" that a pastor tells a college student who's having doubt. I was reading the letters section of WORLD magazine recently and it included one from a missionary who asked her Russian translator why she didn't become a Christian - having worked so long for missionaries there - and she said "I'd have to change my lifestyle." It surely doesn't all boil down to sex or our personal pleasures, but I think it's naive to overlook those. (Maybe the kids come back when they become parents because they're not fornicating anymore.) It's death in the most real sense to ask God to change your behaviors and actually do it. I'm as bad as anyone else on this, probably worse, but let's face up to it.

Redemption Hill Church Cincinnati


Redemption Hill Church Cincinnati commented…

I honestly think young people are leaving the church because they are not the church--born again. How does someone indwelt by the Spirit of Christ put Him in a "lock box"? How does someone transformed by the power that raised Jesus from the dead live an untransformed life?

The real question we should be asking is: Is the gospel taking root in peoples lives? Jesus absorbed the wrath of God as a substitute for us so that God's justice against us is satisfied (Romans 3:25-ff; 1 Peter 2:24, and He lived a perfectly sinless life so that His own righteousness could be counted to us as the basis for God accepting us (1 John 3:5). He rose from the dead to conquer the power of sin and death over our lives (Revelation 1:18). This is the gospel. Jesus commands us to turn from ourselves and trust in His life-death work to count for us (Jesus said repent and believe the gospel Mark 1:14-15).

I just wonder if young people are hearing a Christ-centered gospel and are being compelled to repent and believe IN Christ. It is likely that the mass exodus of young people is an indicator of the non-existence of faith in Christ. Born again people cannot un-Unite themselves from the regenerating work of the Spirit (Eph. 1).

With caution I say it is hopeful that 50% of young people are returning to church. I would bet some of these are coming to Christ in true faith for the first time. However, I am fearful for those who might have left the church un-born-again and then, for whatever reason, returned to church attendance un-born-again, and yet have never repented from their love-afair with their sin and come to Christ in Spirit empowered, life-transforming faith.

Ludy Mangale


Ludy Mangale commented…

it is maybe the church fail to deal the things that every young adults need,because as I noticed most of the Churches is lack of what we called Discerning of Spirit,

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