Newsflash…Young adults are leaving the church. Ok, it's not really news to anyone familiar with church attendance trends. For generations we have seen young people raised within the church depart during their later teens and twenties. But most returned once they married and had children. It's sometimes called the "driver's license to marriage license hiatus."
What is new is the mountain of recent research by respected groups like Barna, Lifeway, and Pew indicating young people who leave are no longer returning. The hiatus has become an exodus. Why? David Kinnaman at Barna outlines six reasons in his research. And others have pointed out that young people are waiting much longer to get married than in the past, thereby delaying the felt-need to return to church. (Al Mohler's solution to declining church attendance is to convince young people to get married sooner despite the much higher rate of divorce among young marriages. Kinda like motivating people to get a physical by breaking their legs.)
Books and blogs are filled with recommendations about how to reverse the exodus of young adults, and I have no silver bullet solution to offer here. But I do want to explore one area I believe many churches have overlooked- vocation.
Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.
For the last few decades the church has readily accepted the centrality of marriage and family. In fact, most churches have organized their entire philosophy of ministry around the nuclear family with age-segmented learning, marriage enrichment courses and retreats, and biblical instruction geared toward healthy household relationships. The evangelical church has learned to indeed "focus on the family." And while there are problems with the way this is sometimes executed, which I will not address in this post, for the most part it makes sense if you are married with children.
And that is the problem.
With more young adults delaying marriage longer, and with most churches implicitly or explicitly designed to serve families, there is little reason for a single 28 year old to engage. Realizing they cannot rely upon family felt-needs, but still wanting to reach young adults, some churches reach for the only other tool in their box- mission.
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