Saturday, August 12, 2017

Addressing the Problem of Young Adults Leaving the Church

Why are young adults dropping out of church? It’s a question I’ve been giving thought to lately and I write this not so much to answer the question but to put those thoughts in written form. More specifically, I’m not so interested in why young adults are dropping out as much as I’m interested in why they are missing. Of course, they would be missing if they drop out, but 30% don’t stop attending church and about 75% either don’t stop attending or they return to church. Effectively, that means there is only a 25% dropout rate, but you sure can’t tell it by looking at some churches. We often see churches where they have students and they have senior citizens, but there is a gap between the age groups. If a church is running 25 students in their children and teen ministries, they should expect to see about 35 who are between the ages of 18 and 54. A church that has fewer people between 18 and 54 than they have between 0 and 18 isn’t doing something right, but what?

They Aren’t What We Think

We might be tempted to look at young adults and think that they are just shallow and haven’t grown up. They just didn’t learn to be the Christians that they ought to be. And maybe there is some of that, but isn’t that what is said of every generation? 30% took a firm grasp of the faith and they are in church, even if it isn’t the church they grew up in. And then there are others who will get back into church eventually. So rather than dismiss them as being uninterested, we need to understand that a significant number of young adults want to be in church. They may not want to be in our church, but they want to be in some church. Also, they want to be in a church that teaches the truth. And they want their children involved with church programs that teach the truth.

Preferences Are Important

Most people don’t choose a church just because of the music, or how the auditorium looks, or how big it is. But if a person is looking at two churches that they believe both are sound in doctrine and all the other high priority things are similar, they one they choose to attend may be the one that has the music they like or the one that has more people in their age group or is the size they are looking for. The important stuff must come first, but if we have nothing for people between 18 and 55 then they are going to attend another church that puts the important stuff first and does have something for people between 18 and 55.

Maybe We Should Question Why We Have Youth and Elderly

Rather than trying to figure out what is causing the young and middle age adults to leave, it might be helpful to consider why we have the people that we do. Children are fairly easy to get. Offer them candy and games to play and they show up. Rent a bounce house and they show up. Teens are also pretty easy to get. Pizza works wonders and also long as they have an opportunity to spend time with their friends, they’ll be there. And when it comes to the senior citizens, you can’t bribe them with candy and pizza, but ultimately, they are also looking for an opportunity to spend time with their friends. Yes, they want to serve the Lord, but why serve at this church rather than that one over there? They will serve at the one where they have friends. They get tired of being in an empty house. A church that has activities for senior adults will have senior adults.

The Serious Stuff Is Too Serious

You give children candy and games. You give teens pizza and fun activities. You give senior adults an outing to hear a Southern Gospel quartet or a trip to Branson. But what do we have for young and middle age adults? “Let me tell you about this Bible study we’d like you to attend.” Or, “have you considered working in the nursery? We need some help?” It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Bible study or asking people to help in various ministries, but when you only ask people to give and they receive nothing in return they may begin to feel undervalued. Before you say, “well, it isn’t about what you get,” consider that we don’t say that of the senior adults and we don’t say that of the youth. If the people between 18 and 55 aren’t receiving some of the fun stuff that we have for the other age groups then it shouldn’t surprise us that there is a gap. Anecdotally, as a single adult I have sometimes wanted to be involved in some ministries because it would get me out of the house and around people, and yet I faced the reality that my mental wellbeing wouldn’t allow me to take on yet another serious responsibility.

One of the common problems with small groups, or Bible study, or Sunday school is that people want to sit around and talk rather than get to the lesson. Every leader has asked at some point, “How do I get people to focus on the lesson?” Maybe the problem is that people need that time to visit even more than they need yet another serious activity.

What You Focus on Will Succeed

As I already alluded to, we focus on children. We have special programs for children and they show up. We focus on teens. We have special programs for them and they show up. We focus on senior adults. We have people whose responsibility it is to plan special programs for them. We even have a Wednesday night service that is mostly a senior adult gathering. It is no coincidence that the one age group that doesn’t have someone assigned to it is the one that is struggling.

In church work things don’t become a priority until someone is responsible for it. Take church music, for example. I’ve seen churches where the pastor would call on someone to pick out a few songs to sing. I’ve seen visitors asked to lead the music or to sing a special. You get about what you expect from that situation and it is nothing like what you get when you have someone who knows they are responsible for the music each week. It doesn’t even have to be a paid position.

There are always competing priorities in a church. The principle of the squeaky wheel getting the grease often applies. I’m not sure that the method used by a person assigned responsibility for an age group matters as much as just having someone responsible.

But Method Does Matter

Let’s suppose we did have someone assigned to the 18-54 people, much like we do for other age groups. What would that look like? For one thing, I don’t think this age group is looking for additional activities. The key word here is “additional.” In this age group, they are busy with work. They are feeling guilty about not spending enough time with their children or grandchildren. The last thing we want to do is make the situation worse.

Should we assign someone to the 18-34 age and someone else to 35-54? Perhaps. But it is also possible that the overlap of the life situation between the age groups would make that counterproductive.

We can’t treat it like a senior adult ministry for younger people. If senior adults are less active then we must assume that younger adults are more active. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, but one would expect that younger adults would be more enticed by more physical activities than senior adults are. There is also work to consider. For senior adults, the best bet is to schedule an activity during daylight hours. For people who are working, you have fewer options.

But it’s not just scheduling social activities. One of the major reasons young adults drop out of church is because their work makes it impossible to attend. To be effective, the person responsible for the age group might have to become a proponent of meeting times that are more conducive for church attendance by people in that age group.

Many churches lose young adults when they move to college. If some churches lose college students then why shouldn’t some churches gain college students? The person who is assigned to reach out to young adults should be finding a way to bring some of those college students into the church.


It isn’t enough to ask questions about why young adults are leaving. If we want to solve the problem then we much make it a priority. That involves giving someone responsibility for solving the problem and giving them the opportunity to advocate things that will help solve the problem. Even if the person assigned to the problem doesn’t know how to solve it, having them assigned to the problem causes it to be a priority.

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