Drifting or Ditching?

Does it matter how we talk about youth leaving church?

The secret’s been out for a while now. Pastors are talking, parents are worrying and research is revealing the rise of a significant absence in the current Christian church: young people between the ages of 18 and 25. One study from the Fuller Youth Institute in California claims that half of young adults leave the church after high school; others, like the Barna Group, argue the number is probably closer to three out of five, while Pew Research says it’s more like two thirds. Of the myriad of articles written about young people leaving the church, there is also a trend in language used to describe the phenomenon: abandoning, breaking up, deserting, disconnecting, drifting, dropping out, leaving, quitting, rejecting, renegotiating, running and walking away. These words imply that young adults are simply being rebellious and slamming the door on their faith, whilst stereotypically sporting a fresh tattoo, pierced ears, and a cigarette dangling from their fingertips. 

But what do the words used in these books and articles say to readers about young people, and how do they shape the way their audience interprets a current trend? What if youth never wanted to abandon anything entirely, and what if they’re not actually breaking up with the Church at all? 

DO THE WORDS WE USE MATTER?
Maybe it’s unfair to use the language of “abandoning, breaking up, deserting,” etc., to describe Christian teenagers when they move away from home for the first time and are no longer safely tucked into the boat – both home and church – with their parents. Should we be content to throw life vests at the youth who are often being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes?” (Ephesians 4:14) Perhaps we should instead be teaching them to build their own boat – one big enough for their questions, their doubts, their conversations and new friends? 

ARE YOUTH REALLY 'ABANDONING' THEIR FAITH?
Since it seems a bit too easy to blame secular universities or influential professors for leading impressionable and passionate young minds astray, it was interesting to see a similar trend play out over my four years at a small Christian university. If it’s still so easy to slip away from the church – and faith – despite being surrounded by supportive, believing professors, positive role models and hundreds of young adults who have chosen an education based on a Christian worldview, then maybe relationships, accountability and the well-built scaffolding of a Christian network don’t provide a complete solution. Maybe the trend of youth straying from the church is more reflective of the standard Christian walk for which youth simply haven’t been prepared. As Barbara Brown Taylor in her latest book, Holy Envy, says, “anyone who has read the classics of the Christian spiritual life recognizes the wilderness as a predictable stop on the journey into God.” How have we taught or been taught about spiritual wastelands and a God who is big enough to be questioned? Have young adults been properly equipped to hold heavy doubts and encounter worldviews completely foreign to their own and not walk away from the church altogether?

In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith states: “If we appreciate that human beings are liturgical animals, we will see young people with new eyes–as the ritual creatures they are, hungry for rites that give them rhythms and rhymes they can live into.” What if it’s not just what young people have been taught to believe, think, defend, wear, watch and listen to, and instead what matters is how they have been shown that following Christ is shaped by our everyday habits, choices and desires? Perhaps this search for “rites and rhythms” is what’s happening to the young adults who are choosing to return to church after a season away and end up in the pews of more traditional churches. What if they’ve been craving the liturgy, the action, the end of the “trendy youth pastor” stereotype and the deeper history of a church that’s been around for a while – one that shows up in the colour of the carpet, the wooden pews and the structure of Sunday mornings? 

In Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, evangelical Rachel Held Evans (who recently died from complications from an infection), talks about this desire for history, and for roots. “Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity,” she writes, “we’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity.” She notes that it was, “the Sacraments that drew me back to church after I’d given up on it.” 

Barbara Brown Taylor goes further. She writes that, “our Christian lives are not particularly compelling these days. There is nothing about us that makes people want to know where we are getting our water.” And it’s perhaps a little bit scary to entertain the idea that she’s right. What if in a culture saturated with rampant consumerism, photo-shopped faces and disposable everything, this generation is longing for more meaning, attachment and a deeper connection to something real and bigger than themselves? Perhaps young people – young doubters and drifters and dreamers – are simply more comfortable with a steady, centuries-old liturgy than a flashy promo video for a new sermon series or a choreographed worship team on a stage inspired by Pinterest.

Maybe we need to take a closer look at the ways we think and speak about young people “breaking up” with the church, and instead find ourselves walking beside them and listening to their stories. We’ll surely hear stories of what it means to leave the church you grew up attending and how it feels to lose a faith you used to love; but, perhaps we will also hear tales of how they found that faith again. 

  • Lauren recently completed a BA in Writing and International Studies. She spent many summers serving at a Christian camp in Muskoka, has helped lead various youth groups and after-school children’s programs, and was involved in on-campus worship nights at university.

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