Shifting the Way We Think of Youth and Young Adults "Leaving" the Church

We are all aware of the conversations and statistics surrounding the apparent departure of youth and young adults from our churches. Some pastors and church leaders have told me that the teens of their church “leave by the dozens and never return.”  Others have said, “teens leave but they’ll be back when they start having kids.” 

I see both in my ministry context. We do see young families return. We also, however, see young adults who grew up in the church stay away from the church altogether. This, of course, is a very important aspect of our church’s thinking and being, and we are always wrestling with the best way to reach and engage millennials who used to be a part of our church. I have found, however, that it is crucial for our staff and key leaders to begin thinking differently about the youth who “leave” our church.

First, were the youth really ever a part of the church to begin with?  Often, when talking with youth who have decided not to return to church, I find that they feel as though they were never really engaged in the life of the church to begin with.

Second, do we have a high enough priority of re-engaging with the youth who have left our church? Is it high enough that it shapes our church’s overall ministry priorities and practices?  I talk with dozens of pastors and church leaders who say they want to grow younger as a church. However, that is often merely an empty value demonstrated when they behave as though the change to adopt new ministry practices would be so hard that they choose not to pursue them.

Finally, what if we did such a great job with shaping the faith of our youth that instead of seeing them as people who leave, we think more of them as alumni we send?  This, of course, requires a commitment to missional theology and, therefore, a commitment to being a sending church. A sending church, among other key factors, equips its entire faith community with a theological framework that is so practical that engaged congregants are sent off to live for the sake of “the other” in incarnational ways. Being an alumnus, so to speak, means that one has been sent out into the world, for the redemption of the world--not for the sake of any particular church to grow, but for the Kingdom of God to be realized.

I presented this thinking the other day in a workshop (specifically the 3rd question above) and it was met with comments like, “That’s just a way to make you feel better about people leaving and not coming back.” And “Don’t you think that idea is just semantics?”  My response, “Yes, it does make me feel better to practice faith formation through a missional paradigm and, no, I do not think this is semantics. I think this is the reason why so many millennials disengage from the church – it is void of true meaning and lasting purpose, which I believe is the mission of God.”