Dropping Out: Why Young Adults Are Leaving Our Churches
By J.R. Ensey
Timothy Leary was the Pied Piper of the 1960s, leading America’s youth away from God, family and country. Spaced out on LSD, he declared that young people ought to “tune in, turn on, and drop out.” They got it. Millions tuned in to his anti-establishment message, turned on to his drugs of choice, and dropped out of the mainstream into the subculture of rebellion. That set the stage for the America we are forced to work with today. That is why millions of contemporary moms and dads have very little background for parenting and directing the lives of their teens and twenty-somethings. A huge disconnect has occurred.
Consequently, multitudes of young adults are tuning in to the postmodern culture. They are turned on to the drugs of music, technology and all things “extreme.” Unless church can fit comfortably into the context of those elements of young life, they are apt to drop out, viewing Christian practices and doctrines as irrelevant. Studies have shown that Apostolics are losing at least 75% of our youth to the world, meaning that they don’t continue serving God and faithfully attending church after they leave home. The crisis is real.
Why is this happening? There are probably more answers than there is room to list here. However, let me suggest a few.
Cold, dead churches. Where there is excessive formality and a lack of spontaneity, young adults will be turned off. Snobbish members will find no place in their lives. Unfriendly saints, untouchable pastors, services that do not relate to their lives and the challenges they are facing will not move them to roll out of bed to attend next Sunday morning. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Living stones (I Peter 2:5) are the masonry of the church Jesus is building. That means smiling Christians. Happy believers. With contagious joy. Bearing consistent hope. Having tangible peace. Manifesting active faith and resolute trust.
Unrealistic spirituality. This is the other extreme. Young adults are looking for authenticity (yeah, that’s still our word!). Some churches example a brand that is truly extreme—every service must feature a supernatural display or be a shoutdown. If folks aren’t bouncing off the walls, they haven’t had church. Or they feature a neo-spirituality that is weird, Oprahesque, or so mystical and mind-altering that only the modern Gnostics can experience it. Such perceived spirituality is conjured up rather than prayed down.
Wonderful miracles happen in believers’ lives, but not every thirty minutes. A lady recently told me that her pastor has already achieved “immortality,” can regress into dead relatives’ lives and change them, and declares that the Bride of Christ will be complete on February 11 and no one else will be accepted after that. That is focusing on the sensational rather than the supernatural.
A minister at a recent conference in Houston told me that some pastors had become jealous of him because of his “deep spirituality.” Having known this man for a number of years, my chin dropped. “Oh?” He explained that his ministry now centers around dream interpretation. Young adults who are down to earth and sincere about serving God will be disillusioned by such subjective claims. Both cold, lifeless churches and the new spiritualites being displayed are extreme and will be ultimately rejected by thinking adults who crave balance.
A lack of solid Bible teaching. Nothing builds churches like great teaching and preaching from the Word. It motivates soulwinners. It makes people want to invite others to partake of what they are receiving. Poor preaching is a heavy burden to bear. Few of us could fill the shoes of an Apollos, but if we genuinely preach truth with love, not fearing or favoring, folks will come to hear. And sooner or later they will bring friends who will in turn bring others.
The souls of men hunger for God’s Word. It is the bread of the soul. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. Hungry, unfed sheep will eat the wool off of one another’s backs. Young adults know when the preaching is relevant. They know when the Book is brought to bear on the issues of life affecting them. The Word of God touches every aspect of our lives—“According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (II Peter 1:3). Many of our sermons, should they be distilled to find the Word, wouldn’t have enough in them to fill a flea’s navel. A lack of solid spiritual nourishment will cause young adults to begin to search for it elsewhere.
Inordinate focus on music and worship to the detriment of Bible teaching. One pastor reportedly told his staff in a recent meeting: “The music and choir ministry of this church is just as important as the preaching.” Is the tail wagging the dog at that church? Of course we are to worship wholeheartedly—“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). But people can see who is really in charge of the church when the music program is front and center. Notice attitudes when the music director is rebuffed by the pastor, or when there is a change in the number of songs, or when the pastor questions the trending style of music.
Many Charismatic or semi-Charismatic churches featuring multifaceted forms of entertainment invite the rise of carnality and sensuality in the congregation. The more we adopt secular styles of music and worship, looking and sounding like the rock bands playing in the darkened, smoky, discoball-lit ballrooms of the world, the more young adults will come to see little difference in the godly and the ungodly. A single step and they are over the line. Music and worship styles should encourage enhancement of one’s relationship to God and pave the way for the preaching of the Word.
An emphasis on education that steals one’s faith. We have worshiped so long at the altars of materialism that we think education is the way to get and have things. To have much, one is told he must learn much. Jobs are for the intellectuals, the ones with sheepskins on the wall, youth are told. So we urge them off to the universities where political correctness reigns with atheism, and the primary objective it seems is to oppose all things Christian. The cultural climate is decidedly anti-Bible, anti-Christian. It is said that 80%+ of the professors are liberals, agnostics or atheists. People of faith are routinely ridiculed, Darwin outshines Christ, the Bible is scorned, and Nietzsche is preferred over Paul. Science courses and textbook authors scream for the surrender of one’s faith. College sports stadiums become temples where men are elevated to a godlike status.
Casting our high school graduates at the feet of fools (Psalm 14:1), can we expect much more than to see them stripped of their faith? Oh yes, I know some who made it through college with their faith intact, but they are in the minority. Both parents and youth have to weigh the potential impact against the need to learn particular skills. They also need to be aware of the alternatives and choices they have at this point of their lives—ways to advance their education and develop skills without losing their faith. Let’s concentrate on saved kids, not wealthy or socially prominent kids. If someone leaves high school never having fashioned a serious prayer life, without learning how to touch God in sincere worship, it is unlikely they will make it through the secondary education cycle and the marriage experience with their soul on fire for God.
Lack of a real relationship with Jesus Christ. Young adults often drop out of church because they never nurtured a personal, comfortable relationship with the Lord. They can blame the church or the pastor, and those can be factors, but each is responsible for his own association with God. Perhaps they related to the church programs, or the church members, but not God Himself. Some walk with God, and others walk with people who walk with God. God has no grandchildren; each of us must develop our own relationship with Him. So many come to this point of their lives not having developed self-discipline that good parenting could have provided. Their inclination is to test the boundaries and push the limits until they go over the edge. Sooner or later all who dwell on the periphery fall away. Then church seems irrelevant. It appears to have failed them. They join the tens of thousands of former believers who failed to be truly discipled and “fell out of bed” because they stayed too close to the place where they got in.
Let me challenge our young adults to continue to worship in a lively church that is truly Apostolic, with a balanced Word- and Christ-centered ministry. Love preaching, meditate in the Word, worship in the Spirit. Refuse to surrender your faith to the professorial fools. Develop your relationship with Christ. Walk with Him daily. God will then be able to lead you into green pastures, beside still waters, and He will restore your soul. Marry someone from a godly home, then dedicate yourself to raise up godly generations (Psalm 78:4-7).
That is the simple path to peace and spiritual prosperity.