Did you know that only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as children still do today? Or that three out of five young adults who stop attending church will also drop their affiliation with any Christian tradition? The facts are clear: our children are leaving the church.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has released a report entitled Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church. Researchers listened to the stories of 72 young adults aged 18-34, and received feedback from another 2,000, all of whom were raised in a Christian tradition. By showing why and when many left the church, the report can help us more effectively engage the emerging generation in their faith journey beyond the adolescent years.
Not surprisingly, young people often leave at points of transition: for example, between junior high and high school (yes, that early!) or when a youth leader moves on. Navigating life’s transitions can be tricky for anyone, but it’s most challenging during childhood and adolescence. How can we reach out to our young people? What bridge-building opportunities can be created to help keep them connected to their faith? The young adults in the report identified four common factors that can be both motivators and barriers to faith.
1. How parents express their faith. This can be either a motivator or barrier to church attendance. Although the influence of peers and church programs is significant, the message that parents send is stronger. Perhaps we need an approach to youth ministry that includes a greater emphasis on the role of parents and the spiritual leadership of the family.
2. Young people’s own experiences of God. When young people have a personal sense of God’s presence, they stay more engaged with church and faith. This awareness may come through answered prayer, a powerful worship experience or even in solitude. Those who do not share such experiences can feel disengaged. That is why we must walk alongside youth, discussing together frustrations that arise when God seems absent. Gently pointing out the presence of God in their lives can be the gift of a lifetime to a young believer.
3. The example of other Christians. Many young adults haven’t given up on Jesus—just the church. Where the church is a dynamic, encouraging and caring community of authentic believers in Jesus, it is a strong motivator for young people. They are watching to see if Christians live out their faith in practical ways, both inside and outside of the church. We can create opportunities for intergenerational interaction and missional experiences that will strengthen the value of community and give young people a chance to express their faith. How can we be more welcoming and embracing of our youth? Perhaps we should start by asking them.
4. The church’s approach to teaching. Youth are looking for opportunities to openly ask questions and integrate their faith with their everyday lives. To stay engaged, they must see the church as a partner in their faith journey. We must explore new ways to create open dialogue and intentionally mentor young believers as they discover and apply the teachings of Jesus.
Hearing the thoughts of Christian-raised young adults is a gift provided by this research project. What will you and I do with what we have heard?
Colonel Floyd Tidd is the chief secretary of the Canada and Bermuda Territory. Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church can be accessed at hemorrhagingfaith.com.