What can we do about young people leaving the church?

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As a 32-year-old leader, I spend a lot of time listening to people older than me argue about what they think people younger than me need or want. There is often a general lamenting of the exodus of young people from the church and the ways to bring them back. There is a sense that the young people just need to get in line with the Bible or "biblical worldview," stop messing around and messing up their lives. Some of that might be true. But my perspective on this generation is a little different.

Here are three things I've found in working with young people:

1. They are confused.

Young people crave relationships with someone who will believe in them. This generation has a double-edged identity sword. On one side, they feel more capable of changing the world, but on the other, they are uncertain of their personal call. They have been told since they could crawl that they can "do anything" but they really don't know what that "anything" is. Apathy serves as a mask for their paralysis about the dizzying array of choices before them and their inability to navigate it all. They want help sorting through those things.

2. They are cynical.

They are wary of big programs and any kind of "system." They may be slow to jump in to church or a volunteer position, because they want to trust the leadership before they give of themselves. They are likely to spread themselves out in many different areas (look at social media as an example!), and might want to commit to a "project" rather than a position. They want honesty from their leaders, because they know that is the only true thing in life—and building that trust takes time. They want that relational buy-in before they serve.

3. They need the church.

Young people demand honesty and relationship before they commit. They want authentic community that will believe in them and model being the change in the world, not just talk about it. Sure, this is a demanding call. But it shouldn't be surprising. Why would we expect to nurture and care for young people with a program, when what they need is a person?

We need to come with hearts that are open to receive, to understand the landscape of their culture and their spirituality. Rather than having answers, we need to ask questions: Where do they find life? What has their previous experience with church been? How do they experience community within (or outside) the walls of this church? What would help them find purpose as a Christ-follower? What kinds of things appeal to them, and even more importantly, what doesn't?

Perhaps what worked for you as a young person won't work for them. But it's not because the gospel has changed—but maybe the vehicle has. This has little to do with doctrine or theology—it has everything to do with the vehicle. I don't think young people leave the church because they don't need Christ. I think they leave the church because they've found it to be a place that isn't realistic for their lives. We've got to help them make that connection.

Nicole Unice loves being a "professional talker" in her roles as counselor, speaker, and writer.

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