Family Faith Feud: Why are young adults not finding their places in their parents’ church?

Many churches struggle to reach the ever-elusive young adult demographic. Are 20-somethings simply disinterested in church? Not according to Brian McLaren. He believes we are failing to listen to the questions young adults are asking.

This post is a preview of McLaren's commentary in the upcoming Fall issue of Leadership. Here the Emergent leader encourages churches and parents to begin investigating why young adults are leaving the church - not to argue them back into the fold, but simply to understand their perspective. NOTE: Some of the more thoughtful comments to this post will be reprinted in the Fall 2006 print issue of Leadership, available in mid-October.

There was irony in the title of the old TV game show Family Feud. The irony was that the feuding between families was much less intense than the cheering within families as members tried to answer the same trivia questions.

In our churches, family feuds of another sort arise when members of the same family are asking different questions. For example:

In the third row, left side, mom and dad are asking how they can raise their 14-year-old daughter so she will never rebel and never get in trouble. Meanwhile, their daughter, seated with her friends in the last pew, is asking how she can get out from under their control.

Or in the ninth row, another mom and dad are wondering how they can be sure their 18-year-old son will (a) go to a good college and get a good education so he can have a good job and a good life, and (b) not be exposed to philosophical, scientific, or political questions that may cause him to question his faith. But their son, sitting with his girlfriend in the pew directly behind them, is asking how he can find a college where he can ask the philosophical, scientific, and political questions he has already been exposed to in high school.

These families share something in common: their young adult kids are not easily finding their places in the church of their parents. The problem is widespread. I have been in two groups of pastors lately where someone asked how many of our post-high-school kids were actively involved in the church. No pastor in either group had a majority of his kids involved in the church; most had no kids actively involved.

We are well-practiced in the arts of blame and guilt and shame. But I would like to propose a different response. Why don't we start asking the same questions? Why don't we begin with the questions young adults are asking? Let's start collecting data from families in thousands of churches on the responses to these questions. The purpose would not be for rebuttal or argument, but simply to understand and learn. Here is a question that might begin the conversation:

What questions did the church not answer for you or not answer well?

Maybe a season of asking questions like these could move us beyond family faith feuds, to family faith conversations.

August 16, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 44 comments

Cam West

September 07, 2006  9:07pm

Mike's point is well made. It's a great example of new questions shifting the approach to a particular topic. Young adults are shifting the conversation from passive attendance (which is easier for churches to measure) to participating (which is harder not only to measure, but do as it involves leaders reliquishing some control).

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September 06, 2006  2:05pm

I believe that we do a disservice to teenagers by institutionalizing them into the Church world. We teach them the right arguments to answer an atheist, or Muslim, but often don't encourage them to have a real vibrant relationship with Jesus. Is it more important to win the argument, or to love someone as Christ loves us. Too often, we mistake busyness in church, or even church attendance for a relationship with Christ. In answer to the first post, I believe that one reason that many missionary kids go back is that their parents often communicated the calling they felt to their kids and how important it was for the whole family to go and be a beacon of light to those who had no hope. The MK's I know saw their parents with a passion and fire to serve God. They saw mom and dad following God obediently to places most of us wouldn't think or desire to go to. And why does God only work on International Missions trips? We just took a group of teens to Mexico and saw God work in amazing ways. The challenge is to keep them asking God to use them and remain in conversation with Him. Maybe we are encouraged to do things on these trips that we are supposed to do, but get too busy when we come home?

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August 29, 2006  10:58pm

I've been in church since my mom was pregnant with me. Why did I stay? As an early teen, the pastor listened to my off the wall question and changed church practice as a result. As an older teen, I was given a job to do, and then another, with deacon blessing. My only time of wavering is now, in a church that has all the answers and doesn't want to hear mine. How do Mormons get their kids to give up 2 years in the prime of their life to wear drab clothing and ride bicycles around town? They treat them like they are valued members of the faith community and give them important jobs to do. My church tries to keep the kids entertained and out of the way. You want to reach the next generation? Give them what all the rest of us want - to be valued, to be listened to, to be given important tasks with meaningful results that match our gifts, skills and abilities. Mike

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August 29, 2006  4:22pm

The original question of what the church hasn't done has been dramatically answered...frightening, yet no doubt true. How can this conversation move to potential helpful answers for what the church can and should be doing to be ministry to those inside and outside thier walls?

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August 29, 2006  4:01pm

Yea, I see lots of people leaving the church these days - most who are not leaving God - they're trying to find Him! I see a lot of people finding Him too - but not in traditional churches. They're finding authentic Chrisitanity in homes, at the coffee shops, and lots of new churches that are really open to people at all stages of looking, growing, and exploring a wonderful relationship with an awesome God who really cares about how we feel and think and live. The church isn't dead people - its just morphing into the next generation of expression. Personally, I'm really excited about whats going on - even if it means the death of some tried and true, but tired and blue institutionalized churches.

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Ben Tolly

August 25, 2006  1:16pm

This article raises some important questions. My thoughts are the following: (I am not too bold to call them answers.) I have come to believe it's about presence. The presence of God in your life. The presence of you in thier life. Recently Professor Joe Culumber of Greenville College influenced me with the following: We need to embrace an Emmaus road jouirney of spritual development more than a Demascus road journey. Both were approaches by Christ to individuals he loved and cared about. One was confrontational, the other time consuming and relational. In a post-modern world, the Emmaus road approach will be more welcomed. My experience with 20-somethings agrees.

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August 25, 2006  2:14am

It has always been a paramount responsibility of the Church to make the Gospel and Doctrine relevant to the hearer. Does that mean though that we reduce or remove any element that is not understood or accepted. Let's not avoid the questions but answer them according to historical biblical truth, not just in a generationally relative manner. Our younger Christians need understanding as well as EDUCATION, as we all do.

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August 24, 2006  11:06am

As several have pointed out, parents are responsible to disciple their children. However, does the church train, or even encourage, parents to train and connect with their kids, or simply to deposit them in and then help work the "mega program"? Program fodder does not make disciples. Discipleship is a much more personal process, and church (at least here) is an increasingly impersonal place. Pep rally Christianity crumbles under pressure every time. Life isn't all smiles and emotional upbeats, though two Sundays ago a woman in our class derided those who come to church without gleeful facial expressions. It's no wonder that young adults dismiss church when the hard knocks come (and they do come), and the pep rally "faith" just doesn't deliver the stamina to endure. Then come the hard questions, and patent answers that do not suffice. Stamina and the depth to engage such questions could have been achieved through Biblical discipleship, but if they were raised by parents too busy to escort them personally through that process, one can project how they will raise their own children, and yet another generation may find itself driven to a preferable infidelity.

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August 23, 2006  9:41pm

I think, in general, we do not expect enough of our young adults. The church has ministered to them as children and teenagers, but not encouraged them to be ministers and servants in return. Young adults are waiting longer to get married, living with their parents longer, spending money on their wants while parents continue to provide for their needs. We need to treat young adults as equals, not encourage them to remain dependent on us. We must teach them how to tithe and give sacrificially, and to find a place of service. For too long the church has fretted over how to keep people entertained and on an emotional high. If this continues, the local church is doomed; our young adults will not have learned that church is not about them, but about learning to live out their lives as a sacrifice of praise to the very One who created them.

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August 23, 2006  12:20pm

I am not sure of the answer, but I'm not sure the answer is to collect data and think about it some more, which is McLaren's answer to just about everything. Kids, just like most people, want significant people in their lives to love, care and listen. What a concept. No need to collect data and think about that. No need to hold off for a season, just do it.

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