The following was mostly written before the pandemic. The pandemic has only increased the questions and uncertainty about how connected young people are (and will be) to church.
Recent Pew Survey results tell us that less people are identifying as Christian, especially among millennials. This has raised a lot of questions about (young) people leaving the church.
The good news is that other studies have shown that the number of committed Christians, both young and old, has not decreased by much. Many of the young people growing up in Christian families and actively participating in the church continue to be committed to church. On top of this, there are a number of great resources available to help us with that (see below for a list of resources).
The bad news is that millennials are no longer coming back to church when they ‘settle down’ and raise a family, which is when we as a church have expected people to come back (since this is what used to happen). Something has shifted in our culture that has made people less interested in church: part of it might be the rise of secularity (for more on this, see books by Andrew Root); part of it might be a misunderstanding of the purpose of church:
“If I can be a good person by going to a city council meeting, or by reading the features in The New Republic, or by volunteering at a charity, why do I need Jesus? Why do I need Christianity at all? The answer would be, you don’t. You might credit Jesus as a model citizen, acknowledge his death as unfortunate for him, but it takes a sense of sin, and grace, to really feel a particular allegiance to the man and his mission.”CJ Green
At the same time, though, the Washington Post article written by Christine Emba, a millennial, argues that even though millennials are not coming back to church they are still looking for transcendence and fellowship with others. The longing for community has only increased with the pandemic, especially with the loss of social trust.
The (other) bad news is that more and more of the next generations are growing up with little to no exposure to church and Christianity, except perhaps in a vaguely negative way, as a group of folks that are not inclusive or diverse. The good news, though, is that young adults are longing for strong community, authenticity, meaning, and hope. In other words, people are longing for the gospel of Christ; the challenge is to help people see that we, as a church, are a place where people will experience God’s grace. The church is full of broken people (like us), and while this might seem to discourage people from wanting to participating, it’s more likely that pretending that we’re all okay which actually turns people away. People, especially young adults, are looking for a place where one can be honest about the messiness of life and a place where we receive and extend grace to each other.
Further resources connected to the above and on young adults and the church:
- Washington Post article that articulates why millennials are not coming back to church but are still looking for transcendence and fellowship;
- Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to help young people discover and love your church by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, Brad M. Griffin (2016); See also January series talk by Kara Powell:
- Article in Christian Courier giving a short commentary on the extensive Canadian report (Renegotiating Faith) about how churches and parents can help young adults grow into faith;
- Mary Hulst’s 2018 January Series talk on why Millenials are the hope of the church; Mary Hulst’s talk about young adults in the church at the Christian Reformed Church’s Inspire 2019 Conference;
- Analysis of Characteristics of Gen Z: iGen by Jean M. Twenge (2018). Key ideas of book found in Atlantic article: Have smartphones destroyed a generation?
- Faith Formation in a Secular Age by Andrew Root (2017)
I had the privilege of participating last summer in a seminar on ministry to and with the next generation with the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and Calvin University chaplaincy. Some of the above thoughts are based on things that we talked about during that seminar.