Statistics tell us that many teens leave the church once they hit the adult years and do not come back. When I was writing Truth Matters, I was shocked to see the statistics from Lifeway publishers that run as high as four in ten young adults leave the church during their college years. It has led me to think about why this is and what leadership can do about it.
Some New Realities
One of the causes is a phenomenon that we do not think enough about. It is called “emerging adulthood.” Today, young people are taking longer to “land their lives” and establish new families. Education is extending longer and has become more expensive, thus people who go on in their studies concentrate on completing their education. People are putting off getting married for this among other reasons, while some are choosing not to marry at all. Whereas a generation ago one could expect young people to graduate from college in their early twenties, get married, and have children in that same decade, today young people are putting off getting married until their thirties, and kids are following behind much later as well.
In this new extended emerging adulthood period, young people establish their adult habit patterns to a deeper degree, so that by the time they marry and have kids, they are less likely than the previous generation to return to church as a way to be sure that their kids are raised in a positive church environment. The result is that two generations, not just the current one, are lost to the church.
What makes emerging adulthood even more significant for the church is that most church educational programs assume a family structure, so being single at church can be awkward. A strictly singles program risks isolating singles or merely turning that life stage’s program into a place to look for relationships.
How Churches Contribute to the Problem
As staggering as that problem is, the problem runs deeper. Most churches place a great deal of energy in their high school programs. Then when teens graduate and go off to colleges, the church’s attention ceases because they have moved away. High school graduates go from being the church’s focus to entering a world where the church has let them go because they are no longer geographically present. In a life stage where authenticity is an important value, teens can sense this shift. The risk here is that young adults may infer that now that they have “grown up,” the church doesn’t really care what happens to them now that they are on their own. The church risks getting what it pays for when it lets its young people go. And as discussed above, the leakage not only effects losing this generation but risks the loss of the next generation as well.
Some Probing Questions
Given all the technology that exists to keep geographically separated people connected, should this situation even take place? Leaders who think about the next generation should also think about being creative and even aggressive in keeping some staff dedicated to staying in communication with those who have moved away for college, at least until there is a transition of them into a ministry setting at the school where they attend.
But there is more. What kinds of opportunities do leaders take to pull in and encourage their young people directly versus handing them off to a youth minister? Are there ways, which the youth can sense and see, that your church says to them, “You are important and relevant to our community?” Do we adequately prepare young people for the challenges they will face before they get to college campuses where often times challenges to their faith are intense and direct? Do we treat them as a part of our larger community or as an appendage?
Leaders with an eye on the future of their communities should be considering these questions. At stake is the future of their church since the next generations will occupy the church for the next fifty to seventy years. It is easy to just let the shifts in culture play themselves out, blame our world and its distractions, and let the hurdles I have described remain in place. Good leadership sees a problem, even with its obstacles, and works to tackle it. When it comes to young people, our leaders need to give more creative thought into how the church can and should stay better connected to those they congratulate for gaining their high school diploma.
At the Hendricks Center, we are hoping to tackle this problem. In some of our podcasts we have been and will be speaking with campus ministry leaders around the country probing them for what churches and parents can do to better prepare their children for campus life and for what they can try to do to encourage students spiritually.
Our hope is that the study of multiple campus environments will stimulate you and your church to lead young people more intentionally, be more focused on how to prepare high school students for what they will face, and work harder to maintain those relationships to the long term advantage of the kingdom and your own communities. Leadership thinks long term. How we engage our young people is at the core of long term thinking.