Where Do They Fit

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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.

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? 

The Exodus

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.

Digging Deeper

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. “Building meaningful relationships across generational lines will carry the day.” Do you agree or disagree with the author’s statement? Why or why not?
  4.  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

See comments (9)


Thanks Todd for this article which is asking why are the “millennials” leaving the church?  There is no doubt that young people, along with many of their parents are leaving the church.  According to one Gallup pole, Protestant church affiliation has dropped from 69% of the population in 1948 to 37% in 2014.  That drop includes both senior and middle aged adults but to a lesser degree than the young adult population, or the millennials.  The diminishing numbers at church among young adults may be more the result of our changing society than a lack of adult interaction with young adults, not that such interaction isn’t also a factor.

Young adults are much more involved in Western culture and society than what has been the case in the past.  It’s not that young people aren’t interested in religion or spirituality, as you suggest, but that interest is much broader than what it’s been in the past.  The Christianity of their parents can seem so much more limiting and narrow than what is seen at the university or in our culture.  And increasingly, along with many other religions, Christianity can seem unreasonable in its basic teachings and demands.  That’s why it requires faith, rather than logic, to substantiate its tenets.  Certainly it has been this diversity and broadness (within religion and spirituality) that has brought down the numbers of those attending Christian churches, including the CRC.  With so much diversity among religious perspectives, young people are looking for honesty in evaluating what makes sense to them personally.  They don’t often find such honesty or open-mindedness in the church, which can be a turnoff for young adults.  Parental and church interaction can almost feel like an ultimatum rather than honest dialogue.  Christianity and its presentation can seem like superstition rather than being inviting, “believe our teachings or you will end up in hell.” I think young adults can see past such a mind set often held by older adults and want a spiritual experience that is not based on superstition.  Maybe it’s a more honest dialogue that is needed to pique the interest of young adults.

I think this article is on the right track. Encouraging intergenerational relationships is important to engaging younger and older members in a deeper way. So is a willingness to let our younger members take on more ownership and leadership within the church. Those who invest in the church and its mission will have a greater sense of attachment and loyalty.

I also suspect that in the Canadian context, part of the reason the CRC is losing members is that today's younger people are more connected into Canadian society than past (immigrant) generations. Many of the CRC's younger people are now 3rd or 4th generation Canadians who have less hang ups about interacting with people from other denominations, cultures and religions. I believe they also have less patience for the kind of judgmentalism that has been a part of our tradition. We can all learn from that. Let's worry less about counting bums in seats and more about relating deeply with those around us.

James Bosma, Burlington, ON Canada

Todd Cioffi makes some excellent points about how to retain the next generation in the church. I am a "Millennial/Gen Yer" and I identify strongly with his emphasis on intergenerational connections and having parents who modeled church involvement themselves as their children were growing up. Cioffi also points out that if efforts to involve young adults trivilize their abilities (e.g. trash takeout is the most important thing you are ever asked to do), they may actually alienate rather than incorporate young adults into the life of the church. 

However, I take issue with the perspective presented in the paragraph that starts "Today the transition from adolescence to adulthood..." This paragraph suggests that marriage, stable jobs, and children are still indicators of "being an adult" and that young people without these things are somehow less adult and likely less ready to serve the church. Is a married 24-year-old automatically more qualified to be a deacon than a single 30-year-old? Should the church assume that having a 40-hour work week or a couple kids increases the likelihood that someone will be an effective servant of the church?

Cioffi says, "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." Was there ever a time this could be assumed or should every young person be evaluated on their own merits and maturity, regardless of the era? We can certainly consider the question, but the perspective that Millennials are less ready for responsibility in their 20s than previous generations does not logically follow from the observation that average marriage, child-bearing, and "stable career" ages are increasing.

A real challenge for the church is not to just "be patient with these slowly maturing adults" but to find ways to use their gifts (which are often considerable and complimentary to those of older generations) in ways that are affirming and consequential. Waiting until those young adults have the hallmarks of "real" adulthood--marriage, children, and stable jobs--to give them responsibilities in the church will just be too late.

If there is no hunger or thirst for the Word of God. Just maybe, our children are not truly born again. In other words, Saved! Or, had a false conversion and fall away when trials and tribulations come their way.

And just maybe, the gospel has become so watered down, weaken, and compromised from some of the pulpits that we have failed them with the truth. We have forsaken the Law ( The 10 Commandments) "our ablest auxiliary" -that is our most powerful weapon...to bring them to Christ, as Spurgeon once said.

"Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster (tutor) to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:24)

"The Law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." (Psalm 19:7)

Could it be..., just maybe?

I think that both James and Steve have made thoughtful contributions to the “why” of the fall out of our young people from the CRC (in fact all Christian denominations). The original article, along with these suggestions are realistic possibilities.

I really thinks Kevin’s idea of getting back to a more legalistic gospel has little or no merit.  I think the New Testament promotes a gospel of grace, instead of salvation by law.  Of course, Kevin could be on to something when he says, just maybe our young people aren’t “born again” or “saved,” therefore not interested in church.  And if that is the case, he would probably agree that, just maybe, increasingly our young people are not being chosen by God (election) for salvation.  If not chosen by God, then nothing can help and any suggestion is just barking up the wrong tree. 

I think the direction that James, Steve, and the original article takes is more realistic and worth pursuing.  Thanks for the good dialogue.

Please let me try to illustrate The 10 Commandments as being "put in charge to bring us to faith in Christ." in connection to my previous post.

If a jeweler wants to display a diamond in truth, he will display it against a black piece of felt with a bright light shining on it to bring out the purity and beauty of it. In the same way the Law of God is like the black felt. It shows ourselves in truth. The dark secrets of the heart. The lust that is adultery. The hatred which Jesus equated to be murder. The lying lips that are an abomination to Him. The stealing that shows us we are thieves. The blaspheming of using God's name in vain. The coveting of other peoples things.

The law shows us that we are dead in our trespasses and sin, and that God alone is good, holy, perfect, righteous and just. Also that,"the wages of sin is death." (Romans 6:23)

"Nevertheless, in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful." (Romans 7:13) In other words, "so that we can see how terrible sin really is." 

My point is we can turn to gimmicks to thy to keep our children in the church, but if they do not understand themselves in truth, as sinners who need a Savior. They are still spiritually dead. We can throw grace at them all day long. But if they are not taught the whole counsel of God. They are not getting the big picture.

I grew up hearing The 10 Commandments in church, and made the connection that the law condemned me. Left me quilty before a Holy God and the fear of that condemnnation, motivated me to move. Yes God's wrath, judgment and hell drove me to the cross for mercy and grace in Christ.

Do our churches even use the law to bring people to faith in Christ?

When was the last time the Law was read in your church? Did the pastor help connect the dots?

"The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul." (Psalm 19:7)

What converts the soul?

No legalism here!

Kevin, you may think what Todd, James and Steve suggest are no more than gimmicks at trying reach our young people in an attempt to keep them from fleeing from the church.  But again, I see merit in their combined suggestions.

I appreciate your attempt to explain the use of the law in winning members for church membership, especially our young people.  But I wonder if we are reading the same Bible.  You end your comment by referring to Psalm 19:7, “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.”  Of course this is Old Testament theology, prior to the advent and good news of Christ.  The obvious meaning of this verse, and hundreds of other Old Testament verses, is through the keeping of the law one will win God’s favor, or the conversion of the soul.  So for you to quote such a verse, you are either changing the meaning of this verse or are still stuck in an Old Testament mentality of “legalism,” or salvation by obedience.  And of course this was the mentality of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  These leaders were hyper legalists, trying to impose their legalism on any who would listen.

But, of course, Jesus turned this legalism on its ear.  He, not only, broke many of their cherished laws, but advocated a new way to win God’s favor.  Instead of legalism, he advocated a way of winning God’s favor by doing good for others from a principle of love.  Legalism always stops short of what we should actually do for others.  It says I will not steal from my neighbor, but the law never goes beyond that, to showing love and generosity to others.  And that was Jesus’ starting point.  Love others and do good for them as an expression of your love for God and by doing such you will win God’s favor.  That’s why Christ turned the law from a lists of “don’ts” to a principle of love for God and neighbor.

This perspective is substantiated in Jesus’ teaching.  Simply read Jesus’ teaching on the final judgement of who will win God’s eternal favor in Matthew 25:31-46.  It was those (the sheep) who went beyond the legalism of the Jewish religion to live a life of good works from a principle of love.  And as this good is done for one’s neighbor, it at the same time is done as unto God, both a love for God and neighbor.

Or check out Jesus’ teaching on building our homes (lives) on a solid foundation that endures in the eyes of God (Luke 6).  It’s the foundation of a life built on doing good for others that will endure.  Or Jesus’ teaching in regard to good trees bearing good fruit.  “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart.”  Jesus’ teaching, over and over, rebukes the religious leaders for trying to make legalism and law keeping the means of salvation.

So what I see Todd, James and Steve suggesting is a number of things we need to do for our young people from a principle of love and compassion.  I don’t think they are merely gimmicks, as suggested by you, Kevin.  What I hear you saying, Kevin, is that we need to tell our young people how utterly lost and sinful they are.  They are sinners in the hands of an angry God, and until they look at the law and come to the same conclusion, as you, that they are utterly worthless failures there is no hope for them.  Like I suggested earlier, I think we are reading different Bibles. 


This I know. I broke God's law. Jesus paid my fine in his life's blood.

Praise God! Glory to God! Thank-you Jesus!

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8,9)

"But now a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a scrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood." (Romans 3:21-25)

"What shall we say, then? Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless. I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said,"You shall not covet"...I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy,righteous and good." (Romans 7:7-12)

"So I find this law at work; Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law, but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25)

Thanks, Kevin, for your Bible quotes.  Once again, I’m a little baffled, as to your point with your simple quoting of Bible verses.  What’s your point?  Are your refuting something by the use of those particular verses?  Does this make a point as to the article that we are responding to, or are you responding to something I said?  You addressed the comment to me, so I’m guessing there must be something that you disagree with in my comment, or maybe it’s something you agree with.  I don’t want to guess at your point because I’d probably be wrong.  Please, help me out.