The “Church” Continues to Fail to Reach and Keep Young Adults

Jan. 18, 2019
by Bob Adelmann

I love my church. My wife and I have been attending there for nearly 50 years. It is our spiritual home until He comes or takes us Home. We sing in the choir. We deliver plants to the homebound and call on those in assisted living. We tithe. We believe the Gospel – the Good News – that Jesus Christ died for our sins and nailed our account books to His cross.

But lately we’ve noticed a distinct change. Our church is trying to become more “relevant” in order to “reach young people.” The problem is demographic: half of the church’s members are 65 or older. The church’s membership is half what it was when we joined. Giving, in real terms, has declined as well.

What to do? The church changed its logo and its mission statement. The former logo showed His cross emblazed on a field of blue. Now it’s a silly combination of the church’s name, using its first two letters. It was designed by a local PR firm which was chosen because – ready? – it was secular and “tuned in” to the local culture.

It’s mission statement? It sounds like an ad for our local utility company, which gives life and light to the city.

For years, LifeWay Resources has been tracking the decline in membership and the walking away from the church of teenagers upon graduation for decades. Its current survey, released earlier this week, confirms the national trend. LifeWay, a creation of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked 2,000 young adults between the ages of 23 and 30 (who had a history of regular church attendance while teenagers) 55 questions about their faith. Said LifeWay:

Two-thirds of [those] who attended a Protestant church regularly for a least a year as a teenager [said] they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

There was scarcely any good news in the study, said Scott McConnell, LifeWay Research’s executive director: “The good news for Christian leaders is that churches don’t seem to be losing more students [today] than they were 10 years ago.” He added: “The reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within.”

Those surveyed were asked why they left and didn’t return. A third said they went to college and stopped going to church. Another third said that local congregations were filled with hypocrites and judgmental types with which they wanted nothing to do. Nearly 30 percent said they didn’t feel “connected” to the church anymore, while a quarter said they disagreed with the church’s position on current political and/or social issues. A quarter [percentages exceed 100 percent due to multiple responses from those surveyed] said that work kept them so busy they didn’t have time to attend church.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay, said that “for the most part, young people aren’t leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith. What [our] research tells us [is that] there was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life.”

There was some hope, nevertheless: “We can be encouraged that some return,” said Trueblood. More than half of those who kept attending or returned after a period of time said it was because “church was a vital part of my relationship with God” and “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions for everyday life.” A quarter of them said they experienced the feeling that God was calling them back.

In other words, the Gospel that was preached to those 2,000 teenagers didn’t stick with the vast majority of them, but it did “stick” with a significant minority.

This has been a great conundrum for church leaders for decades: how to reach young people, and how to get them to accept the Gospel and have it stick with them, through thick and through thin.

Our church has done what most are doing: it offers two traditional services and two “contemporary” services, replete with a rock band and a female with little or no voice training. There’s much waving of hands and shouts of “hallelujah!” to the chagrin of those in the sanctuary who enjoy the traditional worship service. The church has “youth ministers” and serves free lunches to students as the local secular college who are happy to have a free meal.

And still the church’s numbers, and income, decline.


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It shouldn’t surprise that part of the answer comes from a non-religious libertarian, Albert Jay Nock, who lived and wrote wisely around the turn of the 20th Century. Nock told the story of being asked his opinion about how to reach “the masses” with a great new idea developed by an acquaintance – a “very learned man” and “one of the three or four really first-class minds that Europe produced in his generation,” wrote Nock – an idea in which “I could find no defect.”

Nock’s story was published by and is available online at the Mises Institute, titled “Isaiah’s Job.” (See Sources below)

Nock retold the story of Isaiah’s call using the vernacular of his day:

In the year of Uzziah’s death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are.” He said, “Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them.

I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job – in fact, he had asked for it – but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so – if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start – was there any sense in starting it?

“Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

Nock wrote to preachers, teachers, and any other promoters of virtue, noting that Isaiah

preached to the masses only in the sense that he preached publicly. Anyone who liked might listen; anyone who liked might pass by. He knew that the Remnant would listen; and knowing also that nothing was to be expected of the masses under any circumstances, he made no specific appeal to them, did not accommodate his message to their measure in any way, and did not care two straws whether they heeded it or not. As a modern publisher might put it, he was not worrying about circulation or about advertising. Hence, with all such obsessions quite out of the way, he was in a position to do his level best, without fear or favor, and answerable only to his august Boss.

In other words Isaiah didn’t water down his message of “repent, or else.” He didn’t try to make it palatable or flexible to meet the changing mores of the culture. He didn’t hire a secular PR firm to make up posters announcing his speaking engagements. He gave it to the Israelites “good and hard” and kept doing so regardless. Nickels and noses meant nothing to Isaiah.

Nock added:

In any given society the Remnant is always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them. You can be sure of those – dead sure, as our phrase is – but you will never be able to make even a respectable guess at anything else. You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant is, nor what they are doing or will do. Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you.

Nock warned about trying to make the Gospel “acceptable” by trying to make it “relevant”:

He may be quite sure that the Remnant will make their own way to him without any adventitious aids; and not only so, but if they find him employing any such aids, as I said, it is ten to one that they will smell a rat in them and will sheer off.

One thing about young people in today’s culture: they can smell hypocrisy from 500 yards. When they smell, they sprint in the opposite direction.

Ken McFarland, “America’s No.1 Public Speaker,” often told a story of a confrontation he had with an atheist who asked McFarland “If you’re so sure you’ve got the true stuff, why do you preachers ‘cut it’ to make it acceptable to us?”

Why, indeed?

In today’s sinful and declining world, believers and those involved in the freedom fight can take comfort in Nock’s story: the Remnant will find their way if the message they hear is true, clear and distinct. The Remnant remains. It always has. It won’t do for the church to go chasing after them.

---------------------------

Sources:

LifeWayResearch.com: Most Teenagers Drop Out of Church as Young Adults

Background on LifeWay Christian Resources

ChristianityToday.com: The Top Reasons Young People Drop Out of Church

Tennessean.com: What new LifeWay Research survey says about why young adults are dropping out of church

Mises.org: Isaiah’s Job, by Albert Jay Nock (1936)

Background on Albert Jay Nock

History of Ken McFarland

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