Why Young Adults Are Leaving Your Church


Many churches are struggling to attract and retain young adults in their congregations. Many of these young adults— college-aged through mid-twenties— grew up in youth groups and fell away from the church and potentially their faith during college or shortly after. This mass exodus has been felt in churches across the country, leading pastors to strategize how they can better reach this slipping demographic.

Before we get to how, though, it’s important for us to consider why this is happening at all. Why are young adults, especially those so zealous in their youth group days, failing to find value in organized religion today? Is your church offering something that they will find valuable? Reaching young adults is not for the sake of pandering to any one demographic but for the health of your church community today and tomorrow. [+] Chances are, this great exodus can teach us something about the state of our church today.

WHY are young adults leaving the church?
If you’re feeling a generational gap in your congregation, you’re not alone. A recent Barna study tells us that 59% of millennials who grew up in church “disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.” Pew Research Center tells us that older millennials identify as less religious now than they did ten years ago.

It can be easy to dismissively attribute a lack of young people in the church to moral insufficiency. Some cynical Christian thought leaders suggest that younger Christians are falling away because they never truly believed in the first place, or their liberal arts colleges (or queer friends or reality tv shows) have seduced them away from the ways of God and toward the ways of the big bad culture. But we know in our heart of hearts this isn’t true. XYZ study reveals that x% of young Christians who were active in the church as children and teenages yet no longer attend church reject the church while holding onto their faith. People aren’t always being driven from their faith altogether, but from their faith communities. And, if they have lost their faith, it’s often from disillusionment from the discrepancy between how Jesus lived and how the church teaches and behaves. [source]

Research shows that members of the younger generations— millennials and Gen Z— hold fast to three particular values when choosing brands, navigating careers, and, yes, investing in faith communities. Those values are:

  • Authenticity and Transparency
  • Purpose and Meaning
  • Learning and Growing

Barna, a Christian culture research powerhouse has done studies on why young people are leaving church. Their results show that young people are put off by the exclusive, judgemental, and simplistic culture of evangelical faith communities that go against their own personal values:

“36% of millennials feel like they can’t ask “pressing life questions” in church
23% believe they can’t express “intellectual doubts” regarding faith
17% feel judged in church because of mistakes they’ve made
25% believe the church demonizes things that happen/exist outside church
22% believe the church ignores the problems happening in the world around them”

So, when young Christians visit a church and are met with:
Pretense and spectacle instead of authenticity and transparency
Rules and admonishment instead of purpose and meaning
Unexamined answers instead of learning and growing

It’s no wonder, no matter their commitment to their faith, that they are turned off by church.

HOW can we make room for young adults in our churches?
Young adults are searching for meaning, authenticity, and opportunities to grow. We all know that, at its best, the church should be a safe and challenging place to nurture these things. And yet, in modern evangelical culture— whether intentionally or not— many young adults are instead feeling judged, limited, and disillusioned by the hypocrisy they witness. How can we as a church create a space that nurtures our younger members rather than alienating them?

Keep it real with authentic priorities.
It’s easy to divert our time and resources into creating an environment we think will attract young people. Turns out, smoke machines, more electric guitars, and light shows aren’t what they crave. Production value, while not a bad thing in itself, doesn’t add the value that young adults crave from the church. You’re better off putting your energy into developing authentic relationships and thoughtful teaching than making your stage bigger and better and brighter.

Invite meaningful conversations.
Young adults don’t want or expect you to have all the answers. In fact, hard and fast certainty comes across as arrogant, foolish, and untrustworthy. The Christian faith is steeped in mystery and young Christians want to explore how they interact with that mystery with authenticity and humility. When you encourage your congregants to embrace mystery, wrestle meaningfully with doubts and questions, and lead with transparency you have the opportunity to build trust and jumpstart conversations that can change lives.

Learn and grow with intergenerational relationships.
Young adult groups are good; it’s important for everyone to have a space to talk and connect with other people in their same stage of life. Want to know what’s better? Fostering intergenerational relationships where young people and older congregants can learn from each other.

The mass exodus of young Christians from the evangelical church is not a problem itself, but a symptom of a problem. If we listen instead of blame, we can start to identify where we might have traded in honest discussion for platitudes, messy journeys for shiny veneers, humility for certainty. Every generation matters to God. Every generation has a voice that our culture needs. Thank you for listening, praying, and finding ways to love on your young people as we seek God’s kingdom together.

For more resources on this phenomenon and how to meaningfully move forward, check out David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me.

Emma Tarp, Author

About the Author

Emma Tarp is a writer and worship leader based in Minneapolis, MN. On her best days, she's highlighter-deep in a good book or teaching herself to sew. On her other best days, she's helping passionate folks and inspired businesses put words to their work. Find out more at emmatarp.com.

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