Young Adults Jumping Ship: Part Deux

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According to my previous post, my developing conviction about young adults and the church is that the church is not presenting youth with a compelling vision for the Christian life. In other words, the church isn’t failing because a lack of any discrete “young adult ministry,” its failure is more systemic than anything else. Leaving the issues of God’s sovereignty and the voluntary nature of everyone’s journey for the time being (salient issues as they are), I’d like to dip my toes into some of these systemic failures and see where it goes (please note this exercise is exploratory at this point, testing theories and hypotheses and seeing where we land). I can’t address them all in one post so I’ll just address them generally here, with a few helpful resources that can help you begin to think it through yourself.

Failure #1: Grace in practice – grace/love/forgiveness of sins (you know, the stuff Christian’s are supposed to believe in) remain for most young adults as an empty set of propositions. Christianity tends to be moralistic in their experience, and young people have not had any significant, regular experience of being loved in their sin. For most, they experience being either condemned, frightened, or ashamed by other Christians around them and so grace/forgiveness are very vague and unapproachable concepts rather than concrete lived experience.

Failure #2: Community – young adults have tended to grow up in an evangelical setting which has fostered community around “affinity groups” and/or “generational groups.” Thus young adults are suspicious of older generations and cut off from care and responsibility for younger generations. My proposition here would be “connection provides protection.” If a young adult, or a whole generation of young adults is connected to the broader church community; that is has meaningful, personal connections to other Christians beyond the youth group, I doubt that the inclination to abandon the church would be nearly as intense.

Failure #3: Mission – Christianity comes to feel very pedestrian and safe for most young adults. This is both good and bad; parents want to raise their children in a safe environment and so most young adults experience of the Christian life, unintentionally, is very homogenous and predictable. They don’t see the graphic nature of Jesus’ life and ministry lived out in the home or in the congregation. Service is reduced to “projects” and mission to “trips” instead of habituated cultural forms which shape the life of the church.

There may be other issues, if you have any thoughts please do share, but that’s what comes to mind at this point.

Here’s some good resources to check out:

Christian Smith’s books reporting on the findings of the the National Survey on Youth and Religion

The White Horse Inn’s interview (see their listed resources too) with Thomas Bergler author of The Juvenilization of the Church

John Dickerson’s article in the NY Times on the decline of evangelicalism (please note I am not convinced about the political significance of his article, but more in the thrust of a dying movement due to its loss of a younger generation).

Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian, very good.

Well, that’s a good start, let me know your experience.

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  • Thanks, Sam, for a very good post on a very important issue. I think the three failures you described are definitely part of the problem and we need to do a better job with grace, community and mission.

    One thing important to keep in mind, I think, is something pointed out by sociologist Brad Wright, in his research and book “Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…An Other Lies You’ve Been Told”: the levels of emerging adults leaving the church or becoming less committed to their faith has held pretty steady for the past 5 decades or more, according to GSS data. His point is that it’s not a new phenomenon or crisis in the sense that we’ve never seen this before. Nonetheless, I think it’s a real issue we need to address and I appreciate your thoughts on this.

    I think another signifiant part of this is due to the developmental issues of emerging adulthood-trying to find their way in life including their religious/spiritual identity. It’s a deconstruction-reconstruction process with respect to their faith and spirituality.

    I recently completed the first set of analyses on a four-year longitudinal study of Christian college students’ spirituality. The data show declines in many aspects of spirituality, which I think is part of the emerging adult stage and speaks to this deconstruction-reconstruction process. Some aspects rebound, and others don’t by the end of college. And not all students decline, but on average they do. I think we need to better understand what buffers these declines and what helps emerging adults reconstruct their faith.

    I think part of the answer to this is attachment; emerging adults with an insecure attachment history and insecure attachment to God are more likely to jump ship with their faith or local church when they hit rough patches. A secure attachment provides a secure base to explore, which is a crucial aspect of this stage. This means these young adults can explore their faith and spiritual identity, and painful issues, while remaining connected to God.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful post, and efforts to help this generation.

    • Sam Paschall

      Thanks Todd for your response. I’d agree fully on the attachment issue, as well as the spiritual development of young adults (what I hopefully tried to indicate tangentially with the comment about the sovereignty of God and human freedom early in the post). The church must be prepared to respect the freedom and the process every one of its children go through in finding its way to a secure faith in Christ. The only way the church could guarantee the passing on of the faith to all of those raised in its ranks is to become some sort of Orwellian system, but even then… I do think though the church in its contemporary evangelical expression here is failing those who are raised within it, one of my favorite Christian Smith quotes is that these young adults are raised “knowing very little about their faith except how they should feel about it.” The substance of the faith, in its content and its expression is not being communicated well, and it becomes much easier to jettison a relationship that is not substantial, i.e. insecure attachment, than it is a relationship of depth and meaning both to Christ and His church. Anyway, nice to hear from you Todd!