You know you are getting old when you start referring to all the teenagers in your life as “young people”. I clearly remember my grandparents calling me and my friends by that moniker and thinking that they really were pretty old. This week a Pew Research Center report was released showing that a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. Embedded in the summary of this research was the following statement,
“With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”
As a parent of two young people who are headed off to college in the next few years, this data combined with recent information from the Barna Institute is of real concern. The Barna data shows that a startlingly high number of church affiliated teens abandon their faith commitments when they head off to college and often join this nebulous “religiously unaffiliated” group. While this trend has been true for decades (certainly since the 1960s), it appears to be accelerating.
When confronted with these facts, some in evangelical church circles point to other data that shows that these same young people will often return to the church when they get married and have kids. Interestingly, the Gospel Coalition even reported recently that the often quoted statistic about people in the church getting divorced at the same rate as unbelievers is patently false. Studies now show that a faith commitment and regular weekly church attendance make a real difference in people staying married.
I fear that some of us are smugly waiting for these young people to “get it”, get married and return to the church. The problem with this logic is that increasingly, young people are waiting longer and longer to get married and some are choosing not to get married at all. As this gap from the time that they walk away from their faith until they get married and have kids widens, it is far more likely that they will not return at all or will return with far more baggage. While it is clear that the religious affiliation does have a positive correlation with lower divorce rates today; that may not remain true as these young people come back into the fold with problems the church is not prepared to address.
It is time for the evangelical church to take a robust step towards embracing people in their twenties as a vital part of the church and a necessary part of the body of faith. This cannot be done with traditional approaches like simply creating separate “college and career” groups and hoping that these slightly more sophisticated versions of youth group will in fact change the trajectory of the current trends. Instead a completely different and more integrated model of ministry must be deployed.
Young people need to be seen for who they are and appreciated for what they can contribute. They need to be challenged to step into roles of leadership and responsibility and mentored not managed. The issues they are dealing with are very real and cannot be overlooked. In many ways the problems they face are far more difficult than in previous generations. It is not uncommon, for example, for many college graduates to finish school today with staggering amounts of debt and no real job prospects. This leads many to despair, apathy and unwise behavior patterns that can affect them for years to come. It is not enough for the church to wait until these “kids” grow up and hope for the best.
The benefits of the church for people of all ages needs to needs to be true for twenty somethings as well. What would it look like for the church to provide coaching to teens thinking about college so that they made wiser choices about what school to attend? Could the church provide more than just scholarships (though some of those would be pretty good to), but also accountability partnerships that increase the financial commitment of the church as students do well academically and spiritually? When students graduate, could the church host job fairs and connect students with job providers in the church itself? Something as simple as resume critiques, job shadowing opportunities and solid references for young people looking for work would be a great step forward.
Paul selected Timothy to be his protégé at a very young age. He did not treat him like a kid and gave him significant responsibility in the life of the church. We must commit to doing the same or we risk losing a generation to a world that is quite happy to see the number of religiously unaffiliated increase every year.