Restriction and Retention – Why Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving the Church

I delivered this report to my home congregation back in December 2012.  Usually I wouldn’t share reports or sermons on my blog, but I made an exception for this one because it relates to statistics which do not stay accurate very long.  Technically, the stats probably aren’t accurate 6 months later, however, better now than never.

THE FOLLOWING INFORMATION WAS TAKEN FROM: Penner, J. E. Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church / by James Penner [Et. Al.]. Toronto: [EFC], 2011.  I do not have exact page numbers as this was a sermon rather research paper.  This is unintentional.  All credit is given where credit is due – to the original authors.

Irrelevant.  Judgemental.  Hypocritical.  Shallow.  Frustrating.  “I love Jesus but not the church.”  These are words which many young adults between the ages of 18-30 use to identify the church today.  “Why is God so down on sex especially homosexuality and co-habitation?”  Is the most common question among young adults both from within and from outside the church are asking.

Today’s youth believe that heaven and hell are symbolic metaphors for reward and punishment rather than literal places, that they should be free to choose their own way, path and beliefs among which Christianity is only one example and that all religions are correct.  Furthermore young adults believe that right and wrong are matters of personal opinion especially when their choices do not affect anyone other than themselves, and that those who rigidly believe in only one doctrine are ignorant or arrogant or perhaps both.

A few weeks ago, Pastor Bruce gave me an assignment.  He asked me to read a book that was put out by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) by the title of Haemorrhaging Faith.  The title as you may have guessed, comes from the story in the Bible that is best known as the story of the woman with the issue of blood.  A long time ago, there lived a woman who had perpetual bleeding and as a result was perpetually unclean.  She was the talk and embarrassment of her village.  She was marginalized and put down.  The Bible even tells us that because of the social stigma attached to her condition she had spent all the money she had on cures – homeopathic remedies, pills that did nothing, perhaps even a trip to the healing springs, but nothing worked.  Every day she saw herself getting worse and worse.  She had no improvement.

One day, as Jesus walked through a crowd of people, she felt her heart leap.  Perhaps a simple touch of His cloak would be the final cure.  As she grabbed on to His robe, she was immediately well.  Her life of marginalization was over.  The days of people staring, laughing, and gossiping about her were finally over.  Now she could walk confidently through the crowds and fully be herself again.  It was only because of that simple act of reaching out that she became well.  Her faith is what healed her.

Today’s churches seem to have the opposite effect on many young adults.  According to the EFC, only 1 in 2 young adults who grew up in Evangelical traditions still maintain contact with any church.  In Roman Catholic and mainline traditions including United and Anglican, this statistic is down to only 1 in 4.  Out of those few young adults who remain, proportionally there are significantly more women than men.

Some reason that these young adults will come back once they are married with children of their own.  They believe that by having a child, the young adult will feel a need for connection and to reclaim their roots, but statistically this does not seem to be the case.  Instead the stats show just the opposite.  That these young adults leave and do not come back.  This means that eventually the church will be missing almost an entire generation.  That is a pretty scary thought.

The haemorrhaging woman with the issue of blood found in Jesus a source of strength, hope, and courage amidst deep and intense physical and emotional turmoil.  She found in Christ a source of healing from wounds deeply inflicted in her psyche from the bullying going on around her.  Today’s young adults are discovering just the opposite.  Instead of church being a haven for them, they find congregants to be judgemental.  Instead of finding elders to be helpful, they find them to complain about their lifestyle and then wonder why they don’t come back.  Instead of finding the church to be welcoming, they become frustrated because the church does not listen to their voice or because they do not see immediate results to their suggestions.  Church, after all, has become to them a product of consumerism similar to what they experience every day in their three minute culture.

Once I started to read Haemorrhaging Faith, I found myself becoming more attentive to listening to the voices of others around me particularly those in my peer group of 18-30 year olds.  Some were married with children, but many more were newly married, and even more single.  Many of them would bring up within minutes what they thought was missing from the church especially when they were in a group setting without any prodding.

Because of my age, I have had the privilege of intentionally living among young adults for the past 4 years.  As a result of attending first UMEI, then a Christian university, and now AMBS, all of my friends in this time period still classify themselves as Christian regardless of how often they participate in private or corporate Bible reading and prayer.  But what I have learned is that even those who are studying for the pastorate have their own complaints to launch about the church and many of them despite being in a Christian atmosphere either do not attend church or attend begrudgingly because of a sense of compulsion.

This is the backdrop that I am working with not only in terms of my sermon, but also in terms of my future ministry goals of becoming a pastor.  For the purposes of this sermon, though, I am going to simplify my topic very briefly into three main areas: 1) Where has the church gone right, 2) Where young adults feel the church has gone wrong, and 3) what we should do with these results.

For years, the church has been the hub of activity not only religiously, but also relationally.  Over the past 60 years, though, the church has been the victim of the deconstruction of organized religion.  Gone are the days when young adults flocked to the church to be with peers of their own age for a hymn sing.  Now, young adults have found these outlets in other ways that do not include the church.  Young adults are very relational people who enjoy spending time with friends in active ways.  They have an intense need to make a difference locally and globally and like to see direct results for their actions rather than having to wait.  They enjoy having fun in relaxed and informal environments usually through small groups and by playing friendly or competitive sports and games.

So often when it comes to speaking about the church, young adults approach it as consumers voicing their likes and dislikes.  But, the important thing is to remain anti-adversarial and solution focused rather than problem focused.  Churches generally have an interest in mentoring and building up young leaders both relationally and through giving them opportunities to serve.  North Church has even taken this one step further by trying to engage the young adults through electronic mediums including blogs, facebook groups, and Powerpoint.  It is important to understand that sometimes the young adults are the ones who push away from the church regardless of what the church does to retain them.

One day, I had a conversation with my 21 year old university roommate and asked her about intergenerational worship.  My roommate believes that there is a time for youth to respect the older generation – those who have contributed to the church in major ways with their time, effort, and finances longer than we have.  She said that so many young adults today make church all about them rather than taking the older people into consideration.  She shared with me that at her church there are two services – a contemporary youth service and a traditional service.  When it comes to the youth service the seniors are all there with their earplugs in because they want to encourage the youth to worship in the way that they want to, yet when it comes to the traditional service, youth either do not attend or they come and then complain about what should change.  This saddens my roommate because she believes that when the youth do this they are being disrespectful and ungrateful.

I have also experienced churches which have tried creative approaches to engage young adults only to have no youth show up week after week.  For example, whenever I preached at Danforth Mennonite in Toronto, I used to invite my friends and Danforth would make them feel very welcomed and would even host student lunches, but week after week I remained the only person there under middle age.  In saying this, I wish to portray the fact that I do not think that lack of young adult attendance is primarily the fault of the church.  In many ways, it is a product of a disengaged and disinterested generation which seeks self-promotion and idealization.  Don’t get me wrong, many youth do care and are working towards making a difference to society, but as someone who is 21, I am placing myself in the category as someone who has been shaped in certain ways some positive and others negative because of my generational era.

Yet even though it is not simply the responsibility of the church, there are certain things that young adults feel they need.  According to both my seminary friends as well as the EFC’s research, young adults’ main complaints can be summed up in the following topics: human sexuality, putting on a false front, and irrelevance towards single young adults.  In the first two instances, there are certain topics which are considered taboo within the church.  Primarily these include: drinking, addictions, and sexuality.

Out of these topics, sex is considered the most taboo.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that many Christian young adults struggle in the same ways that their non-Christian peers do and many of them engage in the same types of behaviours, yet because it is taboo we do not address it and oftentimes ignore it.  Yet, when it does come to the surface often because of cohabitation or pregnancy, it all of a sudden becomes a big deal and judgemental words or looks are exchanged.

In the book, Sex God, Rob Bell, a renowned liberal Christian writer most famous for his book Love Wins, reveals that a significant problem with today’s culture is that people embrace one of two viewpoints about sex with very little middle ground.  Either they take the societal viewpoint of young adults not being able to control passions so this type of behaviour is acceptable or at least expected, or they take the viewpoint common among Christians that youth should have no sexual feelings before marriage and sometimes that there should even be limited or no physical contact before the wedding day.

Bell maintains that both of these viewpoints are unfair and unrealistic to place on a young adult, yet by churches not talking about sex, it becomes a closet issue – sometimes seen as wrong and dirty and so many of my newlywed friends find this to be a barrier.  Instead of being viewed as bad, sex should be seen as what it is: a wonderful, God given desire placed in human beings so that they can fully enjoy the love of another.

If sex is taboo, than its counterpart, homosexuality is even more so.  In today’s culture where many youth are bullied because of being perceived as or actually being gay, the church needs to become a safe place not where the Bible is prooftexted, but where young adults will find someone who will care and listen.  Since I began this study I have found that many heterosexual young adults have also questioned same sex attraction, yet churches do not address this because of a fear of being taboo.

When taboo topics are not addressed, young adults see church as fake and shallow.  Young adults long for deep connections where they can be free to explore who they are and to ask questions without being judged.  Youth do not expect the pastor to be a puddle of emotion, but they also don’t want to feel that the preacher is hiding something. They prefer the preacher to be open, vulnerable, and honest about their own thoughts, struggles, and faith journey.  When young adults perceive that pastors and others are being too perfect they get turned off because they feel that they are being asked to reach an unattainable ideal.

So what do we do with all of this data?  I realize that this message has been very factually based, but facts alone are pointless unless followed with action.  In the last few weeks as I have been studying the topic of young adults in the church, I have learned that youth desire less segregation.  They desire mentorship and discipleship, intergenerational dialogue, and communication.  They are drawn into practical help from older members especially when it comes to being emotionally available, and they desire a place where their gifts will be received with appreciation and gratitude.

The EFC noted that the most decline has been when young adults go away to university perhaps because finding a new church is hard and when a student is studying and working they have little energy left to invest into locating and being a part of a new church.  But increasingly the answer has become that because church is so geared towards young married couples that those who are single feel that their singleness is irrelevant.  Churches are being called to become less segregated – focussed more on the actual people than on their life stage.  Don’t get me wrong, there is definitely a place for young married couples to discuss issues that are important to them, but it should not come at the expense of excluding single people.  Rather than just having young married groups, intergenerational groups which include all ages should be encouraged.  Rather than sermon illustrations just talking about married life, an effort should be made to include other stories such as travel or work experience which anyone can connect to.

Such big steps as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada is calling us to take are seldom easy, but the future is found in baby steps and in small wins.  Rather than trying to find the answers to all of the young adult’s problems and questions at once, I encourage you to just isolate one small step that you can take this week or in the next few weeks.  You might consider giving a young adult that you haven’t seen in church in a few weeks a call to check in on them, you might consider inviting a young adult out for coffee or lunch, you may think of starting a mentorship, or you might think of including someone younger than you to help you with your next project whether it be baking cookies or leading worship.  These are all small ways that when put together accomplish a lot for the Kingdom of God.  Church does not need to be dry and boring; it can just as easily become engaging, transparent, and very real.  As the Psalmist asks, “How can a young person keep their way pure?” The best way is by getting that young adult to vitally wrestle with their integrity and faith.  The easiest way is to get that young person to come to church.  But first, let’s make the church a safe, welcoming, fun, and engaging place to be.  Amen.

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