Jill Strahand was like a lot of Christian teenagers. She grew up in a home where both parents were believers and raised her to regularly read the Bible, pray and, of course, go to church. By the time she reached high school, Strahand was actively involved in her youth group—leading worship, helping the Christian club at her school, attending Bible studies.
Reflecting on that time in her life, Strahand says, “My boyfriend at the time and I were even the token Christian couple at church.” She also remembers, “If anyone asked me about God or Jesus, I’d start to get excited that they would be accepting Jesus into their life and join the Christian family.”
Strahand was “on fire.”
When her family moved, things slowly began to unravel. Strahand tried another congregation in her new city and immediately joined the worship team. But the experience just wasn’t the same now that she was getting older.
“I felt too old to be a part of the high-school groups but too young to be with the college groups,” she says. “I started phasing out church events, using my part-time job as an excuse, but I still was ‘on fire’ for God. Soon, I started to have seeds of doubt about Christianity itself, but I knew all the ‘Christian’ answers and would tell myself those so that I would believe again.”
When it was time to go off to college, her disbelief grew, and the “Christian answers” she had been taught were no longer working. The support group of peers that Strahand developed in youth group was no longer there to help. She says she blamed the doubt on a “lack of fellowship with fellow Christians.” Shortly after that, she completely abandoned the faith that, she thought, seemed to have abandoned her.
“It still took a long time not to label myself a Christian anymore, mostly because it was scary,” she says. “I think I hung onto my religion so long because I was terrified of what people would think.”
Today Strahand doubts that she ever really believed in the first place.
Strahand’s story is not uncommon. The latest numbers are staggering, as a recent survey from The Barna Group suggests only one-fifth of twentysomethings have maintained the same level of spiritual activity as they did in high school. Barna’s research shows that twentysomethings—even ones who were very active in church during their teen years—have lower levels of church attendance, study time, Bible reading, donations to churches and small group involvement compared to older adults. Perhaps the most jarring statistic reflects the overall attitude of twentysomethings when it comes to maintaining the faith of their youth: 61 percent of those involved in church at some level as teenagers completely disengage in their 20s.
David Kinnaman is the vice president and strategic leader of The Barna Group, a leading research group targeting Christians in the United States that uses scientific research analysis to help reveal underlying issues that contribute to the drastic decline in twentysomething church attendance.
Kinnaman believes there is a series of factors that can lead to an exodus once teenagers hit college age. The first is the slow realization that, It doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s an idea that is common among free-thinking college students and increasingly independent young adults.
“One of the primary things is that they haven’t been taught to think,” Kinnaman says. “As we look at the interviews with teenagers and with young adults—their perspective theologically, and even their perspective about the world—very few have what’s called a ‘biblical worldview’ or perspective about the world that’s informed by the principles of Scripture.”
The research also finds that, along with the lack of empowered thinking, the “one-size-fits-all ministry” discourages engagement, especially from a group as independent as twentysomethings. The disengagement only furthers doubt fueled by questions without easy answers. Often, young adults like Strahand know the “right” answers, but lack the theological and philosophical instruction to apply it, not only in an academic setting but also in times of doubt and fear.
To help this problem, Kinnaman says that many ministries have attempted more relational strategies, but, on a practical level, it’s nearly impossible for a small handful of leaders to maintain personal interaction with every individual. It’s a problem that leads to another key element in the process of disengagement: a lack of discipleship, with many ministries neglecting to develop leaders among their congregation.
Strahand reveals, “Had I stayed in the church, I’d still be ignoring my gut feelings about the gray areas of Christianity. So for me, it was a good thing I lost fellowship, because it was reaffirming all the ‘Christian’ answers I would be telling myself. Now that I’ve had time to step back, I can see how everything ‘makes sense’ in the Christian box. There are no unanswered questions; it’s just faith. In all honesty, I wanted to believe since it would make everything so much simpler, but now I’ve seen the world from a different perspective.”
Her thoughts only confirm Kinnaman’s ideas about discipleship.
“A problem with a lot of churches is that we just have a fixation with attendees rather than disciples,” Kinnaman says. “Youth groups, whether they care to admit this or not, fall into that same track; if we can get more butts in the seats, we must be doing something right. And yet discipleship is a very individualized proposition.”
But Strahand admitted it was her own lack of fellowship with Christians that served as the tipping point. And for Christians who stick with the faith, fellowship is often the factor that serves as reinforcement in the tough times.
Rob Fauch is a 23-year-old recent college grad. Like Strahand, he was raised in the church. While at college, he encountered other Christians who were leaving the faith, growing bitter and challenging ideas that they’d always known, but he says that what grounded him during this time was not a flashy young adult church service—it was relationships with fellow believers. Though he doesn’t deny the importance of attending church in his own life, he says it was crucial to maintain a community of close friends who supported and shared his faith.
“God did not intend for us to walk alone,” he says. “The Church seems like it is going in this crazy direction of huge multimedia presentations and all this stuff, but I really think that people want other real people. Every single relationship you have should emulate your relationship with Christ in some way, so if you are missing that in your life, you’re not going to be connected. The Church has done such a terrible job of making sure that Christians stay connected.”
He says that too often his peers see that leaders are caught up in creating a “Super Bowl-like event” and miss the mark of what twentysomethings are really looking for in a time when so many struggle with loneliness, depression and purpose.
Strahand’s situation is not uncommon, and Kinnaman thinks that the problem of doubting “gut feelings” can be fixed through real-life application and finding life purpose in Christianity. This idea has to do with the focus of twentysomething ministries; when young people are in college, their thinking is consumed with figuring out their own identity and finding out what they want to do in life. Kinnaman says that because every person is completely unique, finding the right career path for using individual gifts and passions becomes a primary focus, and often one that is not effectively addressed.
“We are learning that very few churches have any kind of program that asks not just ‘how do we build people theologically,’ but ‘how do we build people in terms of their vocational and educational and gifting choices’—how to help them understand their leadership ability,” he says. “That will help them play out their most important role as a human being.”
But Kinnaman is optimistic when it comes to facing the issues at the source of twentysomethings going down the path of doubt.
“Doubt is not a bad thing,” he says. “Doubt is a really healthy part of the way God created us intellectually. Some people have a lot more doubts just by their very personality. God has given them the gift of asking really tough questions—challenging the process. That’s a leadership gift. That’s a real spiritual gift, a prophetic kind of gift.”
Kinnaman believes that the doubters—the very same individuals who are leaving the church, like Strahand—actually have some of the most powerful leadership potential. But to reach and equip those looking for big answers, the Church must find practical ways of providing them.
There is hope. This holistic thinking about ministry is becoming a grassroots movement, sparking upstart, often unconventional churches across the country. Status, a twentysomething group in Orlando, Fla., has become its own entity after getting its start as a young adult service for a parent church. In the last two years, the ministry has grown to attract more than 1,000 twentysomethings a week, many of whom have never set foot in the parent church’s Sunday-morning service. But at its core, Status isn’t about big numbers. It’s about reaching individuals who are dealing with doubt through one-on-one relationships and an emphasis on small, weekly home church meetings.
Josh Loveless is the “NexGen” pastor at Status, and he believes that the disconnect between the established church and authentic twentysomething ministry communities stems from a dissatisfaction with the way church has been presented. At Status and other rising young adult ministries, he says the congregation wants to deal with “the uncomfortable weight of the Gospel” not just simple ideas. Loveless says that many twentysomethings are not satisfied with the comfortable, easy lifestyle that is often associated with church.
“I feel like Christianity, within the Church, has been painted as a fairy tale, meaning every great fairy tale really ends at the beginning,” he says. “You close a movie or a book with some great romantic scene in which a relationship really finds itself at the beginning, and that’s how many churches present Christianity. And what we are trying to do is to talk about that fairy tale not being the ending, but being the beginning. The romance, and the story of God, is one that allows you to wrestle with what happens after the final scene of a fairy tale.”
Part of this “ever-after” faith is not only welcoming questions, but embracing them. “What Status tries to do is to ask those great questions as a community, not just let people ask those questions on their own or feel on the outside for asking questions about faith or who Jesus is and how that is represented in the local church,” Loveless says.
The ministry has a heavy focus on home groups and Bible studies, modeled like house churches, where members of the community face issues, doubts and questions head-on. Through emphasis on small groups, along with a large Sunday-night service, Status raises up new leaders who are equipped to deal with young adults seeking the deeper answers.
“Like any other relationship, there are going to be times that suck, there are going to be times where you question the relationship, there are going to be times you are frustrated because you’re not experiencing what you used to experience, and we want to embrace those things about the spiritual journey and following in the ways of Jesus,” he says. “And we want to do that in community and in relationship with one another. We are trying to draw people into the life of the Church.”
To Fauch and other faithful twentysomethings, staying connected to the “life of the Church” has been the most important part of maintaining not just his basic beliefs, but also his daily walk of faith. His advice to those slipping away from faith and the Church is to connect with people who are in the same situation.
“People that have that mentality, that are on the edge or on the line, for every person that is like that, there are 10 or 20 other people just like them,” Fauch says.
Today, Strahand’s doubt and the story that started when she unplugged from community reflects that of many twentysomethings. But fortunately for those who have walked away from their faith, there are more and more young believers who have found the value of Christian relationships and a community of twentysomethings who are not quite ready to give up