The church has always had a problem keeping its young adults, it seems. How many parents and pastors have watched their kids grow out of the church like a hand-me-down sweatshirt? It’s almost a given that your average church will have programming for kids, teenagers, families, and seniors, but not much for young adults. Some churches have tried. Pizza and movie nights, “what’s on tap” discussions at local pubs, meet-and-greets for young singles, and a whole host of creative if not desperate programming has been targeting young adults for some time. But with little success.
What should we make of all this?
Theories abound as to why young adults are leaving the church. The wild 60s? The secular 70s? The abundant 80s? The who-cares 90s? And so on. Surely there are significant cultural or social reasons for why our youth are leaving the church as young adults, perhaps only to return upon marrying or having children, if at all.
Some contend that the problem is not in the big cultural shifts, it’s closer to home. It’s the church. The church’s music is unappealing to young people, or the preaching is irrelevant to their lives, or worship needs to be more lively.
In the end, the possible reasons for this exodus seem endless. And people in the church are left with confusion and anxiety.
But we are beginning to understand the problem. In recent years several important studies have been conducted on young adulthood, faith identity, and church life. Some of the most important findings in the last decade come from sociologist Christian Smith’s studies of teenagers and young adults.
What is striking about American teenagers and young adults, he says, is not that they don’t care about religion or spirituality, but that they do. Young people do care about religion and spirituality, he suggests, just not in conventional ways. Contrary to widespread conversations around the coffee pot at church, American young people are no more secular, no more hostile to God, and no more anti-religion than previous generations. There remains an openness to God, religion, and spirituality among young adults.
While this is good news, it is cold comfort to the pastors who preside over the empty pews where teenagers once sat. Or to the parents who fret over their children’s exodus from church. They’re left asking, “So where have all the young people gone, and what do we do about it?”
A New Category
Christian Smith points out that throughout the first half of the 20th century, achieving adulthood was a straightforward process. For young men the goal was to get a job right out of high school, or, for a few fortunate ones, to attend college first. Then get married, have children, and settle down. For young women the aim was to get married and start a family. The transition from adolescence to adulthood took little more than a few years and followed well-established patterns.
Following the 1970s, there was a sharp increase in the median age for marriage: by 2006 the average age was 27 for men and 25 for women. Not only were young adults marrying later, but they were having children much later too. By the end of the 20th century, the process of becoming an adult was far less clear.
Today the transition from adolescence to adulthood may well take 10 years or more. These days it’s not unusual for people to come to the conventional marks of adulthood—a stable job, marriage, and children—in their late 20s or early 30s. Because of this, Smith suggests that we are seeing a new category of development: emerging adulthood. During this longer period, young people may be neither fully adolescent or fully adult, but share features of both. They may move fluidly between the two stages, sometimes seeming stable and independent and other times unstable and dependant. The upshot is that we can no longer assume that by her early 20s a young person will be ready for all the tasks and responsibilities of adulthood.
What does all this mean for how today’s young adults relate to the church? Smith discovered that while young adults do not practice their religious faith in the same way their parents or grandparents did—for example, by attending services and participating in programs—they are not necessarily more secular or anti-religious than previous generations.
So why do emerging adults participate less in church life? A key reason is that they tend to be disconnected from structured institutions like the church. And churches don’t always help. They tend to focus on families, with programs for children, parents, empty-nesters, and even seniors. In other words, churches tend to focus on features of the life cycle that emerging adults have yet to achieve, namely, marriage, children, and being settled.
What, then, to do?
Identity Grows Out of Involvement
As we’ve noted, pizza parties and praise bands are not the answer. Researchers have found that the single most important factor predicting whether a young adult will remain active in church is the role that adults have played in that person’s life from childhood into adulthood. In fact, parents play the biggest role when it comes to nurturing church life for young people. To the degree that parents are actively engaged in the life of their church, their children are likely to follow. In a similar way, the more adults that are engaged in a young person’s life—as teachers, mentors, role models, friends—the more likely it is for that young person to remain engaged with the church. The influence of parents and other adult relationships in a young person’s life has more impact than the influence of her peers, youth group, mission trips, Christian schooling, or any other activity or program the church offers.
Beyond that significant adult interaction, churches need to engage and involve children, teens, and young adults frequently and consistently in the real life of the church. Churches often carry out “youth ministry” by shunting teens and young adults off to the side of their main activities. Young people have their own room, their own pastor, and their own activities. Instead of strengthening their identity with the church, this trains them to find their identity in these specialized youth activities and ministries rather than in the main hub of the church.
Churches would do far better by including youth and young adults in worship and worship planning, placing them in leadership roles, and having them weigh in on what they want and expect from their church. In other words, young people’s identity with the church grows out of real involvement with the church.
One of Smith’s researchers, youth ministry expert Kenda Creasy Dean, uses the term “consequential faith” to describe what happens when young people benefit from learning and experiencing such involvement with the church. Consequential faith has confessional and creedal depth, a sense of intimately belonging to a community, and a vital belief that God has a purpose for our life. Teens and young adults aren’t looking for “church lite.” Instead, they want in-depth study of the Bible, of theology, and of the church’s traditions.
I suggest that this more in-depth learning should not take place in separate programs for teenagers or young adults. It’s better if they take place within an intergenerational setting and during regular church events, such as the Sunday school hour or on Wednesday evening gatherings.
One church I know of has a monthly intergenerational Sunday school class, with people across generations gathering around tables. These classes are fostering relationships that help people of all ages identify as belonging to one another. Not only is that church offering a “creed to believe,” but it is also building community in which to live it out.
If a sense of belonging to a Christian community is the biggest predictor of a lifelong faith and commitment to the church, it follows that young adults ought to be involved with mature adults. To make this happen, perhaps every church should intentionally foster significant involvement of three to five adults with each young person in the congregation, encouraging adults to serve as mentors, church school teachers, or even Facebook friends. With that kind of friendship, mentoring, and modeling, young people find it much more natural to take on responsibilities and leadership in the church.
From the foundation of a sense of real community can come a sense of purpose for one’s life. When young people are exposed to the red-hot faith of the living saints in our churches, their own commitment grows, and they are more clearly attuned to hearing God’s call for their life. So let’s encourage the mature believers in our midst to tell their stories of God’s work in their lives and their own discipleship as a way to connect young people with the challenges and blessing of a life of faith. Sharing our stories need not come by way of a formal program if we provide lots of opportunities to do it by way of educational and mentoring moments. The key is not the delivery mechanism but the stories that must be told by everyday Christians in an effort to raise up the next generation.
Dean urges churches to stop getting young people “involved” in the church by merely setting up chairs and taking out the garbage after a potluck dinner. Far from it, in an effort to instill consequential faith into their youth, churches need to include young people—from an early age—in the most important aspects of church life. In other words, we need to tell and show young adults that they matter tremendously for the wellbeing of the church. To accomplish this, churches should strive to be as intergenerational as they can in all things—in worship, in study, in mission, in leadership.
The problem of young adults leaving the church is real. But the solution, as we’ve seen, may be closer than we think. The more young people are involved in the real life of the church, the more likely they are to be engaged in the church for the long haul.
There is no magic formula or perfect program when it comes to engaging young people in the life of the church. Contemporary music, dynamic preaching, and engaging programs may be less important than we imagine. More to the point, young people need a creed to believe in, a community to belong to, and a hope to bet their life on.
Building meaningful relationships across generational lines will carry the day.
This article is based on a number of published research findings, including the following:
Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)
Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010)
Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
Robert Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
Todd Cioffi is assistant professor in the Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies and co-director of the Calvin Prison Initiative at Calvin College.
Questions for Discussion
- If it’s true, as Cioffi suggests, that young people are no less open to religion and spirituality than previous generations, why do you think so many leave the church?
- Cioffi suggests that early and deep involvement in the church are key elements of retaining young adults. What kinds of opportunities for such involvement does your church provide? Brainstorm some ways your church could be intentional about this.
- “Building meaningful relationships across generational lines will carry the day.” Do you agree or disagree with the author’s statement? Why or why not?
- How might the church go about providing a community in which people of all ages can live out their faith? What opportunities does your church offer for people of all generations to share their stories?
About the Author
Todd V. Cioffi