Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church
By kara powell
January 3, 2012
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?
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.