By Matt Marino
It is now axiomatic among church researchers that young adults are leaving church in unprecedented numbers (see Luis Lugo, “The Decline of Institutional Religion and Implications for American Civic Life”). In 2008, the Pew Forum reported that those in their 20s and 30s attend church at one half the rate of their parents and one quarter the rate of their grandparents. Brett Kunkle listed seven other such research reports in 2009. Depending on the researcher, between 60 percent and 88 percent of churched youth will not attend church in their 20s. Books are being published, conferences held, and churches are going to great lengths to address the issue of young adults “distancing” themselves from the Church. Often these efforts result in appeals for market-driven changes to the worship and theology of the Church. There is a danger here: If we start where people are without first knowing how they got there we will perpetuate our problem.
The issues we face with our young adults are a result of what we did with them in the last ministry they were a part of: youth ministry. After all, the 15-year-old of a decade ago is the 25-year-old dropping out of church today. Could what we have done in youth ministry in the last two decades and today’s problems with young adult retention result in a predictable picture? Is the abandonment of church by young adults the natural and logical outcome of youth ministry as commonly practiced?
In mainline churches, many of our young families have trickled away in the last two decades as we became distracted with sexuality arguments and defunded leadership for youth. When I went to work for our diocese six years ago, only three of 62 churches had a full-time youth director. The director of the local youth ministry network told me that 25 percent of Protestant churches have a full-time youth director. We had 5 percent. In any organization priorities predict outcomes. Show a decent consultant your church budget and you will hear a fairly accurate estimate of your church’s demographics. What are our priorities? I know of churches that can afford a full-time assistant organist but not a youth minister. I know of an Episcopal Church in which the choir’s discretionary budget is 100 times the youth budget.
The years from birth to 19 comprise 25 percent of our life expectancy. According to researchers, 77 percent of those who choose to follow Christ do so before turning 21. Here is a question to ask your church treasurer: What percentage of our budget is dedicated to the 25 percent of our lives in which four-fifths of us make decisions to follow Christ? Is yours anywhere near 25 percent?
How Do Churches Grow?
In fast-growing churches (regardless of theological tradition) the first full-time hiring a church usually makes after senior pastor is the youth pastor. In many Episcopal churches youth director is our last hire. In the majority of churches in our diocese we spend more money on our trash than on our children. In many we spend more on our coffee than on our kids.
Why do fast-growing churches hire a youth pastor first? It is a strategic decision. The largest age cohort is 35-54 (26%). What are these people interested in? Their children, who make up the second-largest age cohort. Infancy-19 accounts for another 25.5 percent of the population. So when an ambitious church wants to grow, it draws in the emerging tither’s children. Captivate the child and you have more than half the population. I am told the average age of Episcopalians is nearing 60. Even in a state like Arizona, loaded with retirement communities, only 20 percent of people are older than 60 (missioninsite.com).
I know of an Episcopal Church that spends the same amount on children, youth, and music as the evangelical church up the street. The evangelical church spends 80 percent of that money on an army of children, youth, and young-adult workers. Our church directs 80 percent to paid singers, choirmasters, and a six-figure salary for an organist. Results: In the past five years our church shrunk from 600 to 400 per week. Their church grew from 600 to 1,400. I am not arguing against organs or choirs. I am arguing against leaving our young people without leadership or investment.
In the evangelical world, when a church reaches 150 in Sunday attendance people begin expecting a full-time youth pastor. We have churches with 600 in Sunday attendance that lack youth ministers. It’s possible to invest in the wrong sort of youth ministry, but what’s worse is not caring enough about young people to invest in them at all. Priorities predict outcomes.
Where we do still give students leadership, we tend to give them community built around fun without much spiritual formation and a strong commitment to progressive political causes. Many students tell us that they want to “know God” and leave us for churches that are unapologetic in their Christian message and willing to give answers rather than endlessly “embracing questions.” Others, realizing that they don’t need the church in order to have community based around political causes, leave to the political cause.
We lost students when we defunded leadership for them, organized them around social and political goals, and did not give them a gospel to orient their lives around and articulate to others.
While we underinvested in our young people, evangelicals invested heavily in youth-ministry’s equivalent of junk bonds: Easy returns, but little long-term staying power. Imitating successful parachurch ministries in the 1980s and ’90s, evangelical churches began attracting students with games and activities. But what the parachurch did in neighborhood living rooms with careful evangelistic purpose was a train wreck in the youth room. All across America, evangelism without much content was in, rigorous discipleship was out. Youth ministry without content often produced youth rooms full of empty students.
The One-Eared Mickey Mouse
In the 2000s, bands, fog machines, and light shows became the rage in evangelical youth ministry. Tim Elmore, in his book Generation iY, called today’s young adults “the overindulged generation.” Evangelicals overindulged kids with abandon, “wowing” them with noise, technology, and millions of pizzas. Students were segregated away from the adults in “youth services.” What Stuart Cummings-Bond has called “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse” essentially turned “student ministry” into a parachurch ministry within the Church: Christ-centered in its message and developmentally appropriate, but segregated from the congregation in order to make programs attractive to students (YouthWorker Journal, Fall 1989, p. 76).
The entire congregation embraced this paradigm shift. It was the drug everyone wanted: Parents wanted their kids to like church. Pastors wanted undistracted parents listening to their sermons. Worship leaders wanted to avoid the complexity of pleasing multiple generations. Youth pastors liked the numbers and accolades. Kids liked the band, fog machine, and shorter message. Donors were excited to write large checks to build expensive facilities to reach lost and hurting kids. And if your metrics are filled seats and satisfaction surveys, it looked like it was working. But what are the long-term effects of a segregated, program-driven youth group?
It starts with the affiliation bond. In a segregated group, students grow relationally bonded to youth pastors. Because youth pastors have high turnover, new youth pastors have continually to win over the last youth pastor’s group. Students become used to adults catering to their desires and preferences. The One-Eared Mickey Mouse, led by theologically untrained entrepreneurs, becomes what the market demands: the great show kids desire and the teaching parents require — just enough God to motivate kids to avoid the risky behaviors that parents fear, like drug abuse and sex.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, in their groundbreaking book Soul Searching (Oxford, 2005), call this Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. In this model, students graduate from high school and, whether or not they may have had a real spiritual transformation, they have never been connected to the larger Church that will sustain their faith in the course of their life. Now, too often, older adults have no real investment in the young, parents oppose transformational “radical” faith, and the young have no interest in taking their place in the concerns and councils of the Church. And so students graduate from the youth group into something that will cater to their preferences, like the local Starbucks.
The Church’s Response?
How would the church respond to young adult departures? More innovative programming, of course! This time in the form of youth group-style worship services for young adults. The “big box” church moves its young from the nursery to the children’s program, then to the “youth service.” It graduates them to college groups, and now, increasingly, moves them to separate young adult programs. No one seems to see what is happening: young adults are not actually leaving church at all — they were never in church to begin with!
What is next, church services for 30-somethings? Will the future of the Church consist of unraveling theological traditions for age-affinity groups? When do we expect people to become mature Christians, participating in and leading the body of Christ? This is the antithesis of St. Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 on equipping the saints. This is the infantilization of the saints. And our young people are increasingly saying “Buh-bye.”
The emptying of young adults from churches, both evangelical and mainline, is a reality caused not primarily by cultural change but by Christian leaders: youth ministers, senior pastors, and church boards. We did this to ourselves, either by failing to invest in our youth or by investing in the wrong outcomes. What can we do in response? Surely the answer has more to do with repenting of where we failed them as youth than pandering to where we left them as young adults.
Next: Building Faith that Will Last
The Rev. Matt Marino is the Diocese of Arizona’s canon for youth and young adults, architect of a summer youth camp program at Chapel Rock, and vicar of a multiethnic church plant, St. Jude’s, Phoenix. He blogs at thegospelside.com.