David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me (affiliate link) is an interesting look into some of the reasons so many emerging adults seem to be walking away from the church. While emphasizing the unique character of every individual story, the book wades through a lot of research into the similarities of those stories. Kinnaman points out that many of these young adults would not characterize themselves as leaving their lives of faith, or turning their back on God (though some would), but that they are looking for ways to live out their faith more meaningfully than they have experienced in the established church. Some are even creatively living out their lives in communities of faith that simply don’t look like the traditional North American church.
In my own experience as a youth pastor, I’ve seen the full array of responses to the newfound freedom that Christian youth discover after graduation day. I’ve had students graduate and find their way into ministries to Northern Africa, Eastern Europe, and even more exotic sounding places like Iowa and Wyoming. I’ve also had students finish High School and disappear into lives that leave no room for the church at all. Two factors that I’ve seen play into such divergent outcomes are illustrated by a couple quotes from the book:
A generation of young Christians believes that the churches in which they were raised are not safe and hospitable places to express doubts.
Students in the church have often been surrounded by a bubble of Christian peers (who are quietly wrestling with their own set of doubts). This bubble inevitably disintegrates as they all move away to colleges, enter into new work lives in various places, and just generally drift away from each other. Having felt like they couldn’t express their doubts, or ask some certain set of taboo questions inside the bubble, they often start looking for solutions outside of it, where they are sure to find a number of seemingly viable solutions. What if we learned to make the church THE place to wrestle with tough questions and doubts? What if we could teach students to make the most of the tension they feel between what they’ve been taught and their doubts?
Secondly, young adults seem to be unwilling to be spectators week after week. They want to be something, to mean something, and merely showing up for church functions doesn’t seem to be offering that sense of meaning. The opportunity here, is that a life of discipleship can offer exactly what so many are looking for. If the church can re-learn what it means to be a disciple and to make disciples, there is great hope for this young generation’s relationship with the church. In a closing chapter full of suggestions for connecting Millennials with a deep and vibrant faith, Francis Chan offers this:
The days of merely bringing our friends to an event so the pastor can save and disciple them need to end. New churches must be formed where all believers are expected to do the work of evangelism and discipleship. The generation sees the potency of a church where pastors equip and shepherd disciple-makers rather than service-attenders.
To put it simply, we’ve set expectations far too low to keep younger Christians interested in the church. If we want to do a better job keeping young adults connected to the church, maybe we need to take a fresh look at what Jesus means when he talks about his church and what he really means when he says things like, “Come, follow me.” and “Go, make disciples…”