Within the American church, so often the goal is to see a young person’s faith bridge from high school to college. Will a student's faith survive on its own- away from their parents pressure or the faith-community which guided them throughout their formative years? Can they withstand the pressures of culture and faithless ideologies that directly refute the God of their parents? Was the seed planted deep enough where their faith has become personal, something they’ll seek out for themselves and make a priority as they are walking into their newfound independence?
And yet, while that goal is important, only less than 11% of young people who leave the church do so because of a loss of faith. According to a study by the Barna Group, the primary reason (60%) young people walk away from church is because of an inability to find a church that they ‘feel connected to.’ The report goes on to say that the leading complaint cited for this disconnect is ‘church cultures distance and separation from the world it exists in.’
These are loaded statements from which a lot can be derived- but most importantly it is saying that young people aren’t walking away from God, they’re walking away from church structures where the God they read about in the Bible is nowhere to be found.
With that said, to fix this issue we have to be asking ourselves better questions. We have been fearfully focused on what will happen to our young people once they leave our supervision- but if we dig a little deeper, that question misses the mark. The average age of an individual who leaves church is 24.2 years old (Pew Research Center), and college ministries and parachurches have continued to see strong attendance and participation proportionate to the county’s population growth. What does this mean? It means that it isn’t liberal professors and college parties that are apostatizing our youth- it’s what they see when they leave college.
We shouldn’t be as worried as we are about what will happen to our youth as they go to college. We should be worried about what will happen to their faith once they leave college.
Why does this happen? Baylor University recently said that the most integral part of a young person’s faith formation to keep them in the faith is mission and the ability to weave mission into life. In 2007, John Schmalzbauer from Missouri State University noted that as Protestantism saw its impact diminishing, campus ministries would need to double down hyper-evangelical approaches to survive. This saw explosive growth for already strong Evangelical groups such as Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), InterVarsity, and Navigators. Recent high school graduates weren’t being pulled into auditoriums to passively hear a speaker, but into missionally reaching the students around them in classes, during intramural volleyball matches, at the dining hall- and then the leaders of ministry would eat dinner with their new congregates at the local gathering space, and then they’d all go to bed in dorm rooms that exist within one square mile of each other. The next day? Same routine. Same young people being mobilised into missional living. Same young people spending time with more veteraned youth ministers. Day after day. Rinse, wash, repeat.
High school kids aren’t going to college and being radicalised by professors and distorted worldviews- they’re being radicalised by a faith experience being offered on college campuses that more closely resembles Jesus with His disciples than most churches do.
And that’s why they’re leaving the church- because once they graduate and disperse across the country and are stationed in cubicles, only seeing their faith communities once or twice a week, their missional momentum, their sense of who God is and how their beliefs should be expressed in their day-to-day, hour-by-hour life is then halted, neutered, and domesticated by modernist, presentational, stagnant churches that are simply hoping to build up their Sunday attendance.
This isn’t entirely the church's fault. It shows the weakness of these college ministries which builds a faith experience more so around a sense of well-intentioned solidarity than an intimate knowledge of Jesus and what it looks like to find His pleasure and His missional heart within any context where you're placed. But it also gives revelatory insight about why churches are dying today: the average church in the United States more closely resembles a weekly AMC movie experience, than the vibrant missional life that Jesus led the disciples out to and gave His Holy Spirit so that we might be able to continue that work after He had ascended to Heaven.
College graduates are entering into the church with little knowledge or experience around how they can blend into a multi-generational congregation, and their sense of what community should look like is more easily accomplishable when everyone is living in dorms.
What would it take for this marriage of young, zealous believers to join local churches?
- Church can’t only be on Sunday mornings- and we can’t have weekly home groups, providing people ‘a second touch’ and then say ‘we’ve done community.’ Churches have to be able to evangelistically pursue young people, inviting them fully into their lives as Jesus did when He said ‘come and see’ and then ‘follow me’. Recent college grads are often new to the area, with little social infrastructure or sense of community- this makes them ripe for being invited to family dinners, your seven year olds soccer match, or to help run errands with you followed by a movie. We can’t fake community and then be mad at young people for struggling to feel connected.
- Church can’t only be in the church building- The modernist perspective is that if people hear God’s word, then that will lead to conviction, then repentance, then salvation, and then discipleship. However, college graduates are of a postmodernist generation where words and content are abundant and, thus, less significant. Action and missional ventures backed by the power of the Holy Spirit are salient and irresistible. When we limit our church services to only being with our fellow brothers, we display a toothless Christianity that has such a fear of the world that it wouldn’t dare venture out to the very streets and into the homes of the lost people Jesus was so keen on pursuing. Churches need a missional edge to call young people into so they can participate in and witness God’s power moving in the starkest circumstances. That power is what will attract young people.
Young people aren’t leaving the faith, they’re looking for Jesus, and simply not finding Him in this iteration of the American church.