We all know them—the kids who were raised in church. They were stars of the youth group and maybe even sang in the praise band or led worship. And then…they graduate from high school and start leaving. What happened? How do we explain why youth leave the church?
It seems to happen so often that I wanted to talk to these kids and get some honest answers. I work in a major college town with many 20-somethings. Nearly all of them grew up in very typical evangelical churches. And nearly all have left the church with no intention of returning.
I spend a lot of time with these young people, and it takes very little to get them to vent. I’m happy to listen in coffee shops and buy a few lunches. Below are the most common thoughts I’ve compiled from dozens of conversations about why youth leave the church. I hope some make you angry—not at the message but at the failure of our pragmatic replacement of Jesus’ gospel with an Americanized gospel of glory.
This isn’t a negative, “beat up on the church” post. I love the church and want to see American evangelicalism return to the gospel of repentance, forgiveness and faith. I want that not just as content for the church website’s “what we believe” page but as the core of what we preach from our pulpits to children, youth and adults.
The statistics are jaw-droppingly horrific: 70% of youth stop attending church and start leaving when they graduate from high school. Nearly a decade later, about half return to church.
Half. Let that sink in.
There’s no easy way to say this: The American evangelical church has lost, is losing, and will almost certainly continue to lose our youth. Want to know why youth leave the church?
For all the talk of kids being “our greatest resource,” and for all the fancy youth rooms and events we spend money on, the church has failed kids. Miserably.
Here are the top 10 reasons why youth leave the church:
10. The church is “relevant.”
You didn’t misread that. I didn’t say irrelevant; I said relevant.
We’ve taken a historic, 2,000-year-old faith, dressed it in plaid and skinny jeans, and tried to sell it as “cool” to kids. The church isn’t cool; it’s not modern. What we’re packaging is a cheap knockoff of the world that Jesus calls us to evangelize.
As the saying goes: When the ship is in the ocean, everything’s fine. When the ocean gets into the ship, you’re in trouble.
I’m not ranting about “worldliness” as some pietistic bogeyman. I’m talking about the fact that we yawn at a five-minute biblical text but almost trip fawning over a minor celebrity or athlete who makes any vague reference to being a Christian.
We’re like a fawning wanna-be just hoping the world thinks we’re cool! Our kids meet the real world, which mocks our “we’re cool like you” posing. In our effort to be “like them,” we’ve become less of who we actually are. The middle-aged pastor trying to look like the 20-something audience isn’t relevant, and the minute you aim to be authentic, you’re no longer authentic!