October 4, 2011

Why Young Adults Leave Church

Does your congregation welcome doubt? What’s being taught about sexuality from the pulpit and in formation classes? Do your youth and young adult groups explore the deeper questions of faith, or do these tend toward superficiality?

While many Episcopal congregations have been addressing these issues for years, new research is showing the extent to which a few key characteristics are linked to young adults staying connected to church - or leaving.

As summarized in the following blog post, the Barna Group has just completed a major study on why young adults who were regular churchgoers during their teen years disconnected from church later on. “The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15.”

These six reasons are described in detail in the blog post as well as in a new book called You Lost Me, so I will simply list them here. The young adults who were interviewed left when churches were perceived as overprotective, offered only a shallow experience of Christianity, were antagonistic to science, were simplistic and judgmental in their views of sexuality, and did not welcome doubt. In addition, these young adults described serious reservations about many of Christianity’s claims to exclusivity.

As a young adult (albeit not for much longer), and particularly as one who drifted out of Roman Catholicism to the Episcopal Church, these six reasons ring true to me. Growing up in a fairly rural part of Texas, I grew up surrounded by a variety of Christianities which I knew early on weren’t a good fit. I was troubled, for instance, when classmates walked out of high school biology courses when discussing evolution. Later, while attending a Roman Catholic university, I remember friends who struggled with - and ultimately left over - the church’s teachings on birth control. And when I consider what draws me to the Episcopal Church, I realize that it has a lot to do with the church’s ability to welcome doubt, to wrestle with questions of faith and sexuality, and how much emphasis is placed on “going forth into the world” rather than being separated or protected from it.

Which is not to say, of course, that there isn’t room for improvement on these issues in the Episcopal Church. There certainly is. But I do believe that a groundwork has been laid for congregations to build a faith that can sustain young adults from one stage in our lives to the next.

What do you think? Do these six reasons resonate with your own experience? How might the Episcopal Church improve in these areas?