Youth programs and activities are not sufficient to stem the tide of young people leaving the church. The church's best investment in young adults is to confront difficult questions, preach relevant sermons, and reclaim the sense of God's mission for the church.
It’s a common trend nowadays to hear from pastors and ministry leaders about the increased absentee rate of young adults and teenagers in church pews. South of the border, the term “graduation evacuation” has developed to refer to the mass exodus of teenagers leaving the church upon entering post-secondary education. Canada is no different, and despite statistics favoring the evangelical church compared to other Christian branches (i.e. Catholicism, Anglicanism, etc.), the trend is still the same.
In 1971, a survey was conducted across Canada which detailed the religious demographics of the nation. At the time, only 1% of the Canadian population identified as “non-religious.” Given the growing influence of the sexual revolution in the 1960s, that number increased to 23% after two generations. Although these statistics included other religious faiths, it didn’t seem to be much of an issue. That is until we came across the findings of a 2002 study of teenagers and young adults. It was reported that 66% of 15-29 year-olds regarded religion as unimportant. That number jumped to 78% of teenagers and young adults in 2009, demonstrating a steep decline in religious interest.
Some have said that religion may altogether be facing an uphill battle, but that’s not quite true. What we have instead seen is an exchange of religion, from theism in its various forms, to humanism. It is, however, humanism that disguises itself as a neutral and irreligious worldview, a belief system centered on man himself as opposed to anything outside of man. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, secularization is an on-going process in our modern society, and it has had a negative effect on the church and culture these past decades.
If we were to turn the calendar forward a couple of years and find that our church pews were nearly empty, it will be because the church had failed to respond to its surrounding cultural challenges and neglected the needs of teenagers and young adults, who are inevitably the leaders of tomorrow. It’s an issue worthy of attention, and it communicates that something isn’t being done right by the Church.
In a conversation with a prominent youth speaker State-side, his response to this issue was an attempt to “empower students” by developing “student-led ministry.” Intellectual, theological and cultural issues were of non-importance, so long as youth had a task at hand to fulfill, such as leading youth groups, participating in food banks, fulfilling assignments, amongst other things. In essence, the primary importance was to give youth something to do, to keep them busy and have them lead something or someone; that would resolve the issue. Unfortunately, despite the sincerity behind this initiative, it falls short of resolving the issue of the youth exodus. Given my own personal experience and hearing what other teenagers had to say, here then are three predominant reasons why millennials are leaving the church:
Questions without Answers
The education received by a student in both secondary and post-secondary institutions will always prompt questions that challenge the authority and integrity of God’s Word. In Genesis we read of God pre-existing before time and space, the sovereign agent of creation, but in our school systems we learn of a blind watchmaker orchestrating by sheer randomness the beauty that would be the cosmos, a complete anti-theism. In classes about religion we learn that all religious beliefs are equal in truth, none superior to the other, whereas the Bible clearly states the exclusive nature of Christian belief.
The historical person of Jesus is called into question by liberal scholars and atheists, distorting and corrupting the perfect biblical image of Christ as dictated by the Gospel accounts, a different image as presented by the church. It is only natural that a student in a secular anti-Christ society will face challenges to their own faith that will inevitably prompt skeptical questions of all kinds.
What type of response are these Christian youth receiving from their ministry leaders? In most cases, there has been a failure in the pulpit, and most particularly in their youth and young adult programming. Wherever we have delivered talks, lectures and sermons, it has been a common complaint by millennials that questions that they pose often go unanswered. A post-secondary student in Manitoba, studying to become a physicist, struggled with attempting to reconcile the Big Bang theory with the Genesis creation account. Another student studying to enter the field of biochemistry struggled with Darwinian evolution and what it meant for her faith as a Christian.
These are experiences I know all too well, having struggled with creationism and evolution, atheism and theism, and having no local leader to walk me through these issues. It’s been a common evangelical trend, to check your brain at the door, embrace emotionalism and spiritualism, and to label your subjective experiences as faith. Churches endorsing the “relationship, not a religion” movement fail to recognize that they do more harm than good, promoting subjective experiences over the teaching of doctrine and truth.
It’s a mistaken concept that Christianity is not a religion, when in fact it is the only true religion, a set of beliefs held by an individual or group. What difference is there between a Christian and an Atheist when it concerns beliefs? Each have a belief regarding origin, meaning, morality and destiny, the four questions required of every worldview, of every “religion,” which qualifies Christianity (as well as Atheism) as a religion.
To be out of touch with the intellect is to alienate the millennials who are preparing to make their mark on this world, leading them to believe that the intellect plays no major part in their faith. This is why students flock to debates, dialogues and other intellectually-stimulating events, because they’re starved and searching. This also explains why many youth and young adults are leaving the church, because without satisfactory answers, they are led to believe that there are no answers, and therefore the Christian faith fails to be that comprehensive worldview that they had once thought it was. This is why apologetics is absolutely necessary for the church, to advance the Christian faith in a secular society, to strengthen and equip our students to become campus missionaries, and to engage culture in the public square. As long as this remains neglected, the exodus is going to continue, and our youth are going to suffer.
Sermons without Relevance
The other reason youth are leaving the church is because there is a lack of relevance in the teachings and sermons that they’re listening to. How many times have youth sat through sermons on the Prodigal Son, the Beatitudes, or other passages and walked away the same as they had entered? You may or may not be surprised that it’s happening quite a lot. A local pastor in Southern Ontario had recently shared with a group of students that despite his sermons being “expository,” they never touched on culturally relevant matters such as abortion or same-sex marriage.
Youth are well aware of what’s happening in the public square, they’re exposed to it daily, and to be taught the Bible without its application is fruitless labor; pastors do a disservice to the Word of God and to their congregations when they fail to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Scripture for all of life. There is an excitement to listening to the pastor’s sermon, and finding that the Bible does have a message to address present-day events in our society.
Unfortunately, students are often led to believe that what the Bible does attest to is simply personal transformation and nothing more. Not much is said about cultural matters, as controversial subjects are altogether avoided out of fear or because they have been deemed “irrelevant.” The urgency over the moral deterioration of our country is not a major concern for most of the church, hence why Canada is what it is today. In fact, it is a surprise to millennials that the church in Canada once provided education and health care services to the public, and that Canada was an unashamedly Christian nation, painting a very different image of the church than what we know today.
The perceived view of the relevance of the church and its Gospel message of Christ as King and Redeemer was certainly held with higher regard in our national past and with farther-reaching implications than what the church of the twenty-first century currently holds. To apply biblical truth to the different aspects of society is new territory for most millennials, a grander view of the vast implications of biblical teaching. To consider matters of nation-building, legislative reforms, educational provisions, and other such matters unveils a Gospel that is relevant and applicable to every case, setting and era.
It’s been a real problem in the church though, with youth often complaining that despite being seated Sunday after Sunday, they are not receiving anything from the church pulpit. The Word of God is powerful, but if in delivering the message there is no understanding of it, the fault does not lie with the text but with the messenger.
Every effort ought to be made to exhaust the applicable depth of biblical truth, and in so doing we come to learn how inexhaustible God’s Word truly is. Just imagine the teaching of being a “city set on a hill” from Matthew 5:14-16, what exactly does that mean? And what kind of applicable understanding can we derive from that meaning? If youth won’t find relevance in the church, they’ll find it somewhere else, and if we haven’t noticed, this world is working overtime to lure youth into believing that relevance and truth can be found just about anywhere else but Christ.
Church without Mission
The other reason youth are leaving the church is because of the lack of mission in the church. The youth speaker who had earlier stated that “student-led ministry” was the answer to the exodus was evidently wrong, but there was a hint of truth behind his philosophy. There is a cry for more than just personal transformation, there’s a cry to form part of a greater narrative, to play a fundamental role in God’s unfolding plan in renewing His creation. There is a desire to strive for a goal, to work towards a particular end, to be a part of something bigger and greater.
This is not the common understanding amongst modern youth, who instead see church as a transitory social club, an isolated community embracing an escapist mentality. Young adults do not want to be sitting in church pews with no aim in mind, just waiting for Jesus to return; they want to know that they are being prepared and discipled to make a mark in their world, commissioned to carry out a divine task, the advancement of God’s kingdom on earth.
Consider the commonly-held mission statement of the church, Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…” (NIV).
The command to “make disciples of all nations” is not a reference to individuals of various national communities; it’s a particular focus of reaching the entire people-group, whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc. It was the desire of Paul the apostle to preach the Gospel of Christ to the Roman Emperor to reach the entire empire. This is culturally explained in that the Hebrews generally perceived their people as a whole nation, and so the phrase “all nations” literally means all literal nations.
Just what are the implications for this? The Great Commission is the proclamation of the good news, that Christ is King and sits on His throne, and that He has expiated sin and removes the stains of unrighteousness from those who repent and turn to Him. This evangelism concerns both the salvation of the individual and of the nation, a commission to disciple nations and to apply biblical truth to every area of life, including national government, federal law, healthcare, etc. The implications are far-reaching, and it incorporates cultural engagement; how else can we expect to see national renewal?
The teaching of personal salvation, transformation and renewal are all biblical, in fact they are central to the changing of a nation, but it is not what we are limited to. We are encouraged by Scripture to set our focus beyond the person and towards the collective people. Consider that Jeremiah writes to the Israelites being carried into exile, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare” (Jer. 29:7, NASB), which implies that if judgment were to fall upon the nation, they too would be affected.
Take into account the international scope of the Messiah’s reign, in which the Psalmist writes “May He [Christ] have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth!” (Ps. 72:8, ESV). A church without mission is a church without an identity, for to identify with Christ is to be a “city set on a hill” (Matt. 5:14), the city of light which proclaims objective truth and moral righteousness unto the world. It was the historical position of the Canadian church, in which historian John S. Moir writes “the role of religion in our past and present… had begun as a practical here-and-now attempt to realize the Sermon on the Mount, to make His Kingdom a here-and-now affair.” This is what young adults want to form a part of, a grand narrative, a marvelous work that glorifies God, and a place where they can use their skills and giftings towards advancing the kingdom of God.
Despite the bad news, there is certainly good news to consider; there are churches and ministry leaders who have correctly identified these problems and are working to address them within their own communities. Questions with answers, sermons with relevance, and a church with a mission – addressing these areas of concern will help to remedy the youth crisis and reflect the change in the statistics of faith abandonment. It ought to be the prayer of every believer that the church reclaims its biblical identity as a missional church, and that it invests in its teenagers and young adults to prevent losing them to growing secularism and humanism. Change is possible, but a concerted effort will be required from coast-to-coast.
 The Globe and Mail, ‘The Future of Faith in Canada’, The Globe and Mail, last modified December 15, 2010, accessed May 27, 2015, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/the-future-of-faith-in-canada/article1320092/.
 Napp Nazworth, ‘Young Christians Spiritually Failing in Real World Because Youth Groups Depend Too Much on Emotional High, Says Nancy Pearcey’,Christian Post, last modified April 14, 2015, accessed May 27, 2015, http://www.christianpost.com/news/young-christians-spiritually-failing-in-real-world-because-youth-groups-depend-too-much-on-emotional-high-says-nancy-pearcey-cp-interview-1-2-137420/.
 Joseph Boot, ‘Sanctifying Compromise’, Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity, last modified May 14, 2015, accessed May 27, 2015, http://www.ezrainstitute.ca/resource-library/blog-entries/sanctifying-compromise.
 Joseph Boot, The Mission of God: A Manifesto of Hope (St. Catharines, Ontario: Freedom Press International, 2014), 16.
 Stephen S. Smalley, ‘World Biblical Commentary, Volume 51: 1, 2, 3 John’, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Colombia, USA: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 20.
 Smalley, World Biblical Commentary 18.
 John S. Moir, Christianity in Canada: Historical Essays, ed. Paul Laverdure (Yorkton, Saskatchewan: Redeemer’s Voice Press, 2002), 7-8.