(Photo by Natalie Baugh)
Why Youth Leave Church
By Jacqueline Napoli
It’s an interesting topic: why do young people leave church? I had my suspicions, and when I did a little research, I found they were mostly correct. But for starters, there’s good news. There isn’t really a crisis of youth leaving church. The average percentage of 18-24 year olds who identify as devoted Christians has remained the same since 1972. Of the youth who did leave their church or faith, only 11% considered themselves as having ever been genuine believers. 89% did not consider themselves to ever have had a real faith (Stanton, 2017). This is the crux of the issue. It plays out just as Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” the ones who stay in church are the ones who have seen authentic faith and fellowship lived out, however imperfectly, in their childhood homes. There has always been a decline in church commitment for youth during college years (busyness, finding one’s identity), but after, there is return to church with marriage and children.
Two things that hinder faith in young people are the problem of evil (how can a God of perfect love and power allow evil?), and the belief that science and the bible are incompatible (Evolution vs. Creation). If deep discussion and probing questions abound, the bible satisfies these very valid questions better than any philosophy or worldview out there, if the thinker is honest, and willing to part ways with sin.
Primarily, though, Christianity is caught as much as taught. If a family actually lives out the bible, God moves in that family, producing love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, and other fruits. His Spirit is there, teaching right from wrong, sin from righteousness, love from lovelessness. This is what fosters faith, not a rigid structure of religious practice where children never even meet, much less fall in lifelong love with, Jesus. Empty religion can’t hold a child’s heart through to adulthood very well. But with Jesus, well, to know Him is to love Him. If Jesus truly dwells in a family, usually those kids grow up to be his for keeps.
What has changed is the growing number of young people who never identify as Christian. For these people, Christianity is a just cultural thing loosely identified with culture or family, not a living, committed, all-in relationship with the living God. So if they leave church, it’s not like they ever really were there. This is where real Christians need to step up. Jesus told His followers to be busy sharing their faith and making disciples. For a lot of kids, the only “Jesus” they ever meet is in the snobby, clique-y, so-called Christians at school, or cartoonish or perverted wackos that Hollywood regularly mischaracterizes Christians to be. That’s a lie.
Church actually should feel like heaven on earth, and Christians should be the most loving people in any room they find themselves in. Our love is supposed to be like our I.D. card. Young people can smell inauthenticity a mile away. If a church is producing fake people, all religious and self-righteous, having no love or mercy or goodness, it’s worthless. If the kids at church are mean or two-faced, who would want to stay? Jesus said, “All men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 3:35).” Love is the mark of true faith. He also warned us that there would always be fake Christians, but that we don’t need to go on a witch hunt; He’d deal with them at the end of the age (Matthew 13: 24-30).
But we are accountable for our choices, regardless of what we see in people. Youth that don’t know the Lord for themselves might give up on the faith because they aren’t looking any further than people. Jesus didn’t say, “Follow church people.” He said, “Follow Me (Matthew 4:19).” The key is to dig in to the Bible, pray hard about what you read, and meet Jesus for yourself. Then you’re a lifer. Knowing Christ is sweeter than the whole world on a plate.