A few months ago Banner editor Bob De Moor asked why so many young adults have left the Christian Reformed Church (“Why Aren’t They Coming Back?” February 2007). We invited readers to weigh in on the question and received numerous thoughtful responses (see www.thebanner.org, Letters to the Editor, April 2007), though not many directly from the folks we’re missing. So The Banner sought out more than a dozen young adults from across the United States and Canada who grew up in the CRC but have since left. Though only a small sampling, what they told us provides further insight into the question and what we as a church can do about it.
How Big Is the Problem?
According to a recent study committee report on church education in the CRC, only about 60 percent of children baptized between 1982 and 1985 made profession of faith in the 18 years following (Acts of Synod 2005, pp. 492-493).
This concern is not new. More than a decade ago, Rev. Jacob Heerema, then chair of the denominational Youth Ministry Committee, told The Banner that the CRC offers next to nothing for young adults beyond the high school years and that various synods had expressed concern to the churches about this age group (The Banner, April 29, 1996, pp. 5-9).
Nor is the concern limited to the CRC. The Barna Group in Ventura, Calif., has done extensive surveys in the United States. David Kinnaman, strategic leader of The Barna Group, has found that even churches with strong youth/teen ministries are losing their young adults. Barna statistics show that from high school graduation to age 25, there is a 42 percent drop in weekly church attendance, and by age 29, that drop increases to 58 percent.
“Despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most 20-somethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years,” Kinnaman wrote.
But They’ll Come Back, Won’t They?
There has always been a certain amount of dropping out in the post-high-school crowd, once church attendance is no longer parent-driven.
We once considered those the “limbo” years, after which a young adult usually graduated from college or settled into a job, found a spouse, and moved into a community where there was a Christian Reformed congregation, desiring once again to be part of the church’s family-oriented atmosphere.
Times have changed. People are getting married later and later. The limbo years are growing longer and longer. Young adults are establishing life patterns while churches simply wait for them to return.
Phil Steenstra, himself a 20-something, heads up a large 20s and 30s group at Phoenix (Ariz.) CRC. He wrote to The Banner, “I feel the most critical time to keep and gain [this age group] is when young adults leave high school. The stress of continuing education, starting new jobs, separation from parents and siblings, etc., will cause them to seek peers for support. If it’s not a church . . . they will find the support they need outside of church.”
What Are They Looking For?
Young adults have deep spiritual hungers, said Syd Hielema, campus chaplain at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ontario. Hielema taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, for 10 years. And he spent six years chairing the now-defunct CRC Youth Ministry Committee. “There is a real hunger for preaching that cuts right to their hearts,” he said. “They aren’t looking for cheap spiritual highs. They want to hear preaching that says, ‘This is where the rubber hits the road on Monday morning.’”
Aaron, 23 (who preferred not to be fully identified), still calls the CRC his home church, but he attends all kinds of churches. He told of a recent experience in bringing a non-churched friend to a worship service. “I wanted her to experience a service that would bring value and challenge to her life on a day-to-day level, to have a ‘take-away’ at the end of the service.” He was afraid that wouldn’t happen in a Christian Reformed church, so he took her elsewhere.
Todd Werkhoven, 32, of Portland, Ore., echoes Aaron’s experience. Todd grew up in the CRC but now attends Rolling Hills Community Church with is wife of 10 years. “I have found there tends to be a lack of direct, accountable challenges to the congregation [in the CRC],” he said. “The messages seem to err on the side of ‘safe.’ The CRC has a lot of fantastic, biblically based head knowledge, but few lessons about passion and heart, what it means to feel and live what we believe, not just know it.”
Some young adults aren’t searching for God in a church at all. Eric Van Dyke, 31, left the CRC at the age of 23 and now sporadically attends Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Wyoming, Mich. “It pains me to no end that in most churches today it is about attendance,” he said. “It is not about going to the church or being seen there. It was, is, and always will be about your personal relationship with God and how you treat others above yourself.”
“I don’t attend church unless asked by someone to go along,” said a 24-year-old woman from New Mexico, who asked not to be named. “To me, religion is believing in God and praying to him.”
Loving It and Leaving It
Many of the young adults we spoke to appreciate their CRC upbringing. Jonathon DeYoung, 37, grew up in a Christian Reformed church in Illinois, but left in his early 20s for a Presbyterian church and now attends Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Camp Hill, Pa.
“I still like the CRC a lot,” he said. “The CRC is in my blood and still helps root me in the essentials of the Christian faith.”
Werkhoven, too, said that he and his wife both have an incredible grasp of biblical knowledge, for which they thank the CRC. Aaron said he values the theology and foundation of the CRC. “Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a church that has a strong foundation in CRC theology, while also addressing the needs of my generation,” he said.
But many young adults have been turned off by the internal strife that has plagued the CRC. As Hielema put it, the strong intellectual heritage of the denomination can have a dark side that breeds a more critical spirit, and young adults have no stomach for conflict over what they perceive to be minor issues.
DeYoung said it always bothered him that the CRC did not wholeheartedly ordain women as pastors. “There was so much infighting and division,” he said. “So I found a church where that was a non-issue.”
Werkhoven said he was struck by how a congregation’s energy tended to focus on bickering about music styles, whether or not dramas were appropriate, or whatever other issue was the hot topic at the moment. “It seemed so constant and so divisive and petty,” he said. “It just wore me out.”
Finding Their Own Place
For many young adults, simply waiting out those limbo years between youth group and the young couples club is not an option. Sally Dentz, 20, grew up in a rural Christian Reformed church in eastern Ontario. When she moved to Ottawa, Ontario, to attend college, she chose the Metropolitan Bible Church.
“It isn’t that I wanted to leave the CRC,” she said, “but the opportunity came to attend a wonderful Bible-preaching church that provides ways for me to use my gifts through different ministries.” Dentz also appreciated that her new church has so many other young adults her age.
Heidi Sloniker, 25, attends Newport Mesa Church in Costa Mesa, Calif., after growing up in a Christian Reformed church in Bellflower, Calif. Her experience has been similar to Dentz’s. “I love all the avenues I have as a woman in my 20s to get plugged in and be involved, without feeling pressured to do any more than I volunteered for,” she said of her new church. “There are also many groups and activities geared toward my age group.”
Sloniker feels that in the CRC young adults seem to fall through the cracks. “Many of the same people seem to do most of the ministries,” she said. “I would love to see [the CRC] put just as much time and effort into my age group as they do other ministries.”
When the Werkhovens moved to Portland, Todd said, one of the things they looked for, in addition to a church deeply rooted in the Bible, was a congregation where there would be many people their age.
Finding others in their age group is crucial, but that poses a challenge for many Christian Reformed churches. Hielema calls it the “critical mass syndrome.”
“Young adults want a critical mass of their peers, so the few congregations that have a thriving young adult group will draw more,” he said. “Success becomes a magnet, and for the ones that don’t have critical mass, it becomes more difficult to get there.”
Get Them Involved
Young adults know that life is messy, said Hielema, and they want church to be out there in the mess of life, reaching out into the community, welcoming others.
Young adults are wonderfully capable of church involvement, whether that’s through Cadets or GEMS, praise teams, or community outreach, he said. “Young adults want churches where their passion hits the road.”
Young adults are also capable of church leadership, but may be overlooked. As Kinnaman wrote in his 2003 Barna study, “Many young people may feel overlooked as potential leaders. . . . Just 4 percent of young adults currently serve as a lay leader in their church. The age group with the greatest number of church leaders is those in their 50s.”
In Phoenix CRC, Steenstra said that last year, four out of five deacons were in their 20s, and all are deeply involved in the church.
Discipling Is Key
Kinnaman wrote in 2006 that ministry to teenagers needs an overhaul. “The levels of disengagement of 20-somethings suggest that youth ministry too often fails at discipleship and faith formation,” he said.
Today’s teens need to see adults actively participating in continuing education and discipleship. Historically they’ve seen little participation in adult education in the CRC. They have equated making profession of faith with the end of church education.
With fall 2007 kicking off a Year of Faith Formation in the CRC (see www.WalkOn.org), the time is ripe to change that. The new Disciples program available from Faith Alive Christian Resources could be helpful (www.growdisciples.org). But churches will have to work hard at it, to find the right balance between integrating young adults into the holistic ministry of the church and meeting them where they’re at.
It will take more than just finding a new program. Our demographic statistics may be more a call to repentance for the Christian Reformed Church than about getting young adults into the pews.
“If we look in the mirror and discover that a segment of our community is finding it difficult to taste and see that God is good through the CRC, in what ways do we need to repent?” asks Hielema.
“Our goal as a denomination is to be faithful in all we are and do; we are called to be the grace of the Lord to everyone,” he said. “If we mature in being the grace of the Lord [to young adults] and more of them find their home with us, then praise the Lord."
- Talk about the young adults in your life. Are they still attending the CRC? If so, what draws them? If not, why have they left?
- What information did you find surprising in the article? Challenging?
- Syd Hielema is quoted as saying, “Our goal as a denomination is to be faithful in all we are and do; we are called to be the grace of the Lord to everyone.” Give examples of the ways the CRC can show that grace.
- How has this conversation changed your understanding of how young people fit into your church?
- In what ways can your church more effectively use the gifts of young adults within its overall mission and ministry?