How can we reach the younger generation?

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We see it everywhere: Younger generations are leaving the church. As a 26-year-old Christian, I regularly witness this exodus and acutely feel its significance. These are my contemporaries, my friends. But here's the elephant in the room: What can we do?

The Barna Group came out last year with their findings on a multi-year study, "The Faith That Lasts Project," which surveyed 18-29 year olds who had been active in a Christian church as teenagers. Their findings were, well, depressing. Nearly three out of every five young Christians (59 percent) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age fifteen. An article by the Barna Group, as well as David Kinnaman's new book, You Lost Me, outline these findings, and the primary reasons why young people leave the church. These reasons include:

  1. Churches seem overprotective.
  2. Teens' and 20somethings' experience of Christianity is shallow.
  3. Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
  4. Church attitudes toward sexuality are often simplistic and judgmental.
  5. Christianity seems exclusive, which they wrestle with.
  6. The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.

In the immortal words of The Who, they are "Talkin' 'bout my generation" (which is ironic because many of the people talking are the original generation to which The Who referred). But here is the million dollar question: Who is talking to my generation? Or better yet, who is listening to my generation?

As I look at these reasons for why young people leave the church, I see a pattern: most churches are simply not designed to disciple people through their spiritual questions. This generation harbors abundant questions about living a life of faith (as shown by reasons 4 through 6), but the church's attitude, or at least perceived attitude, fails to celebrate questioning as part of a faith process (as shown by reasons 1, 2, 3 and 6).

Thinking about it, these findings make sense: the format of most churches is not a dialogue, which it seems most of these young people crave, but a lecture, and the conversations that do exist largely consist of homogenous thought. Of course, some churches do intentionally engage younger generations. For example, I attend a vibrant church of mostly 20somethings where my small group community supports and loves each other and frequently parties together. But as wonderful a community I find there, I rarely ever bring questioning friends to a Sunday service. It just would not meet their needs.

So What Is to Be Done?

According to the Barna findings, "Thirty-six percent of young people surveyed said they didn't feel free "to ask [their] most pressing life questions in church." As Andrea Palpant Dilley recently responded in Her.meneutics, "That's a problem. Providing a space for open intellectual inquiry is essential for maintaining healthy conversation with people on the margins. Your guests won't come in for dinner if you send pit bulls to the door. So how can Christian communities create a congenial environment that's open to doubt and doubters?"

Similarly, David Kinnaman argues for the need of a new space and a new method for spiritual discovery in You Lost Me:

We are at a critical point in the life of the North American church; the Christian community must rethink our efforts to make disciples. Many of the assumptions on which we have built our work with young people are rooted in modern, mechanistic, and mass production paradigms. Some (though not all) ministries have taken cues from the assembly line, doing everything possible to streamline the manufacture of shiny new Jesus-followers, fresh from the factory floor. But disciples cannot be mass-produced. Disciples are handmade, one relationship at a time. We need new architects to design interconnection approaches to faith transference. We need new ecosystems of spiritual and vocational apprenticeship that can support deeper relationships and more vibrant faith formation.[1]
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