I have been one of those authors and speakers that has talked at length about the phenomenon of high school graduates who have left the church following their active years in youth ministry. To be clear, I am certainly not one to blame youth pastors for this departure. In fact, I champion church leaders who are trying to emulate the many positive aspects of youth ministry and who are trying to build those characteristics into the fabric of their churches as a whole. (For more on this topic, see my book Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for The Church, Chapter 7 beginning on page 71.)
The statistics seem overwhelming. The majority of young adults who were once active participants in youth groups are leaving the church in droves once they become adults. Plus, the majority of today’s Millennial generation feel no loyalty for any particular church polity or denominational structure. Let’s face it – our kids are leaving the church and are expressing no real allegiance or commitment to church once they reach adulthood. These trends are real; but they don’t include everyone. Not every young adult has walked away from church. So, I intentionally spent some time over the past several months identifying and interviewing Christian young adults who remain active in church to try to pinpoint the common denominators of why they stayed.
I talked with scores of young adults, including my own 3 children, who are now actively involved in church – and I asked them why they didn’t walk away. Here’s what I found:
1. Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents demonstrated a genuine love for the Lord.
The majority of young adults I talked to described the consistent Christian testimony of their parents as the most important role model in their lives. If their parents’ faith is real, the kids know it, and they are much more likely to want a genuine faith of their own.
I did talk with some young adults that are now very active in church, but grew up in non-Christian or incredibly dysfunctional families. These individuals each spoke of a clear message of God’s grace that overcame human sinfulness and weaknesses.
The take-away here was 2-fold: Christian young adults are much more likely to remain plugged in to church themselves if their parents were genuine, Godly role models. Yes, there were exceptions to that general rule; but in those cases God’s matchless and amazing grace did something miraculous that overruled the missteps of the parents.
2. Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents were consistent about their own personal and family commitment to the local church.
Again, the majority of emerging adults I spoke to mentioned the commitment their parents had made to the church during their own formative years. Several shared anecdotes of parents that “never missed a service” or who “made us go to Sunday School and youth group”. Some spoke about not being allowed to take part-time jobs or get involved in sports if that interfered with church activities. It was clear, if the parents made church a priority – the kids most often grew up making church a priority too.
3. Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have experienced the church working in collaboration with their parents for the spiritual growth of the young person.
Every one of the young adults I interviewed spoke highly about a significant adult, often several adults, who took a personal interest in them during their days growing up in church. My own personal interest in youth ministry was stirred when I heard so many speak about the youth pastors or lay youth workers who played an active role in their lives. They each identified various Godly adults who cared enough to build a personal relationship with them during their maturing years. My conclusion following these conversations was obvious – the positive relationships they had with Godly adults was a key factor in their long term spiritual growth.
4. Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have not been actively involved in specific ministry and service initiatives throughout their lives as children and teenagers.
Another conclusion was also clear – if the church entertained kids, once they became adults they would most likely walk away. The converse is also true, if the church (and youth ministry) was intentional and missional about involving young people in specific ministry and service projects, the participants were more likely to stay involved in those things into adulthood.
Again, the take-away here was clear: youth programs don’t work – youth ministry does work, and it lasts!
5. Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they see the relevance and importance of Biblical truth and if they can vividly see how God’s Word applies to their current lives.
My final observation seemed to jump out of every single conversation. Young adults who see God’s Word as relevant and life related are the ones who also see The Church as vitally important. They realize that The Church has been designed by God to help people come to Christ and grow in Him into spiritual maturity. These young adults participate in church to worship Him and to hear God’s Word taught.
I absolutely loved talking to these young adults. They each craved the opportunity to be a part of an inter-generational community of Christ-followers who gathered together often to open the Scriptures together because they knew they needed to grow closer to Him.
(Note to Readers: Full disclosure - I serve on staff at Summit University of Pennsylvania, a school where all of our students are Bible majors. This means that I am surrounded every day by students who are preparing to serve the Lord in a variety of ministries or careers. These are students who are all actively involved in various local churches and therefore are students who have made the commitment not to walk away from The Church.)