Spiritual Spectators

Spiritual Spectators

Booth University College students share why young people are leaving the church—and what can be done.

August 1, 2013 by Kristin Fryer


“I don’t have time” … “I think it’s boring” … “I just did it for my parents” … “My needs are not being met.” Whatever the reason, a trend has emerged: young people are disappearing from the church.

A recent survey by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada found that only one-third of Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child still do today. Some of those who stop attending retain the Christian label, but most drop any affiliation whatsoever.

What does this mean for The Salvation Army?

Salvationist surveyed 35 Booth University College students about their experiences with the church. The results show a generation that still sees some value in going to church, but is reluctant to commit.

Growing Up Godly

Almost three-quarters of students surveyed (71 percent) were raised in a Christian family and, for most of those, church played an important role in their lives when they were growing up. Many students credit church for helping them develop morals and values.

“The church has shaped the lens, in a significant way, through which I see and encounter my world,” says one student. “So much of my world is wrapped, for better or for worse, in the Christian story.”

Most Christian-raised students said their parents were “very involved” or “somewhat involved” in the church (72 percent), and nearly two-thirds noted that their parents prayed with them (64 percent), read the Bible with them (60 percent) and encouraged them to ask questions about their faith (64 percent).

About half of students who were raised in Christian families were involved in leadership at their church—usually teaching Sunday school or helping with music ministry—and three-quarters were part of a youth group.

But looking back on their church experience as a whole, only about half of those surveyed said they felt like full participants at their church—that church was a place where they developed their gifts and talents—while the rest said they felt more like spectators.

“Church is Not God”

Today, 86 percent of students say they consider themselves to be a Christian, and most have a favourable impression of church: 69 percent currently feel “very positive” or “somewhat positive” about the church.

“As a student away from home, church has been such an encouragement,” says one student. “I look forward to being with other Christians there every week.”

“Church still plays a very big role in my life,” says a Salvationist. “It’s one of the best parts of my week.”

However, only 63 percent of Christian students attend church every week. Ten percent go at least once per month, while another 17 percent say they go at least once every few months.

“I am not involved but I still enjoy what I gain when I do attend church,” notes one student who says she attends at least once every few months.

“It’s there when I need it,” says another, who attends at least once per year.

Such responses are in keeping with a general feeling among students that church is not a necessary part of being a Christian: almost all (94 percent) believe that it is possible for someone to be a Christian and not participate in a local church. As one student puts it, “Church is not God.”

“Christ is everywhere,” says a Salvationist. “One can live a Christ-driven life without steady church involvement.”

Yet many students still see the value of participating in a church.

“Church is not a building or a service—it’s a community,” says a student. “You can be a Christian and not go to church, but I believe church is very important for accountability, fellowship, teaching, love, acceptance and overall spiritual growth.”

“Christians have a fuller faith when in community,” says a Salvationist. “It is possible to continue in faith while alone, but this is undesirable.”

Go or No Go?

If they see some value in attending church, why do so many young people choose not to? The students offered several answers.

Many felt that young people leave because their Christian faith was never their own—they only went to church because of their parents. Among young people who are committed to Christianity, church attendance is often low because the programs offered by churches do not meet their needs.

“Church is often considered an ‘old-fashioned’ notion, and young people tire of the constant rituals and church activities,” says one Salvationist.

“There is no room to engage with difficult questions,” says another student. “Anti-intellectualism cripples young people who are trying to understand their world and their faith, and they see the faith being offered to them as small.”

On the other hand, students said that the key to ongoing church attendance among young people is an established relationship with God and a strong community—one made up of family, friends and mentors who care for them and invest in them.

As one Salvationist puts it, “They keep going to church because they love the Lord, and they feel they belong.”


A Way Forward

Though The Salvation Army faces some challenges in helping young people stay connected to the church, Major Keith Pike, territorial youth secretary, sees many opportunities for reaching out. He believes one of the Army’s greatest strengths is its camping ministry, which serves more than 4,500 youth each summer.

“Camp has a tremendous impact, not only on their ability to relate to one another, but also on their spiritual development,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for them to ask questions and come to answers within a community.”

He also points to new regional initiatives, such as one in Toronto, that bring youth from the same area together to help connect them with their peers and build a sense of the broader Army community. In smaller towns, where corps may not have the resources to run youth programs, it means partnering with other like-minded denominations.

But Major Pike cautions against seeing programs as a solution on their own.

“At the end of the day, what we do has to be relational,” he says. “Programs will always attract people on the surface, but no one will ever have a deeper Christian experience because of one. Programs have to be vehicles.

“We want to encourage young people to go deeper—not just in relationship with peers or youth workers, but in relationship with Christ,” he adds. “And we want them to know that even if they don’t choose a relationship with Christ, it’s not as if they’re just thrown away. We’re still there for them.”

(Photo: © iStockphoto.com/pastorscott)

Comments

  1. I believe that some teens/adults don’t go to church on a regular basis due to the general public life style these days. When Sunday became a day the stores were open, they said employees would not be forced to work them, but try not being available on Sundays on a regular basis and see how quick you get layed off. That means your evening/saturday job is gone…no income, no funds for schooling/transportation etc. For every person who tries to “not work” on Sunday there are 500 willling to work on Sunday.
    I also believe we expect too much out of each other. We are all a work in progress. We need to keep our eyes on God and we won’t be let down or hurt by our church family. It only takes one wrong sentence at a very difficult time in a teen/adult’s life and the hurt stays for a long long time. We do not give permission for those hurt to say they are hurt.
    Some adults like myself, at one time, feel that a lot of services are too far over our heads, or don’t dig deep enough for more mature Christians. We don’t feel important if for one reason or another, we are unable to be a part of the songsters/band/ongoing prayer meetings.
    It needs to be said and repeated and shown often that everyone is an important part of our church family, no matter who you are, your age,your wealth etc.
    It also needs to be said repeatedly and I think this is the most important that we do not attend church to ‘get something’, although to be fed milk or God’s food is important. We go to church to smile at those who need the smile, to worship with like minded people, so we can bond as members of God’s family-the church! Perhaps someone needs a hug, a wave across the church, someone asking how they are etc etc. We are God’s people to help and pray for each other, if we don’t do it, who will?
    Having said this, due to health, I have been away a long time, but my goal is to return to church on a regular basis and I have sought medical and spiritual help in doing so and I am on my way to reaching that goal sooner than later, I pray.
    We need to pray about all of these things,constantly, asking God “what do you want me to do today?”

  2. Don Jefcoat says:

    This is a great article. First I want to say I resisted heavily any change until the Lord revealed into my heart and sight that the old church was on a dying path. With this revelation came some personal changes and some answers to decline in our churches.

    Second I want to say to the seniors (and about). Seniors are a great resource to history and have lots of great answers. They are great mentors. And are great at shedding light on history. But allot of them are out of touch with today’s world and this world is constantly changing. If your church is still doing things the old fashioned way and its growing the question is it bringing in new to the faith or just transitioning other Christians from one church to another?

    I am a church planter and have left the old traditional church to plant a church that is relevant to today’s world. I hope my input here creates discussion and may be able to help your corps to grow and be relevant.

    Get rid of Sunday traditions and replace it with Family day. I often say if I was to take over an old traditional church the first thing I would do is remove the pews and replace them with big round tables. on each table would be water, coffee, tea, cookies, pie. I understand the plow sermon only because I grew up in rural Ontario. But allot of people I know don’t know what a plow is and don’t care. So we need to share the gospel with modern parables. After service we traditionally bolt to the parking lots instead try having lunch together not just once a month but weekly. After lunch have a church family soccer game. the older members can grab an old padded pew and nap. have a bonfire in the parking lot and sing some great songs.

    We want to be active in the community. I heard an old timer once make the fateful statement we as a church should not be a service club. I disagree. The church should be the best service club. When was the last time the church embraced the community. Go to the park and hand out water free. Maybe rent the park and do a family based community diner or do a craft in the park. A story night. anything to say to the community we care. It doesn’t have to be religious. People will be more open to hear what our message is when we have built a relationship.

    Get WIFI and make it an open connection. Guess what our time has us using, laptops, tablets, phones, iPad, etc. I have the bible downloaded on to the phone. With WiFi i can look up words I don’t understand, I can access lyrics to songs. I can make notes, and if the pastor is open to it I can send him/her a text to ask a question or even quietly correct without creating a scene. there is so much more options available.

    Get rid of black boards, bulletins, and ugly carpets. It may surprise you but out dated dark dreary buildings will send people away. I went into a church nursery once and the change tables were from the 60s we had no young families. If we did have one try out the church they lasted a few weeks. An up-to date facility says you care. White boards are easier to see and not as dusty. Having projectors available to use by leaders/facilitators to the old fashioned the teacher. All class rooms need to be able to be used by more then one class or group.

    I could go on with little tidbits that would make for positive growth but I will end with this one. A couple of weeks ago I met with a person who had been deeply hurt by the church. She had been shunned by her faith community. They told her because she was a lesbian she had no right to worship God. She asked me a question that I had hoped to never have to answer but not only did I but was asked this in a public coffee house and I knew by other patrons shifting I had to answer this question promptly and directly. I silently prayed “Lord help me”. Before I could think the following words came forth. “Jesus came into this world to not condemn but to save the world, It is not my job to hold you into judgement, nor is it my job to say who will or will not enter Gods Kingdom. If you know what the bible says and are prepared to answer to God on any decision then your orientation is between you and God. I will not tolerate lewd behavior and that also goes to hetero sexual, I will not tolerate abuse, discrimination, I will not allow the LGBT flag or colors as they do not promote christian principals. But you are permitted to worship God with us, And those of your orientation are welcome to worship as long as they are respectful. And if you have problems from others seek me out I will help you.

    Now I don’t have homosexuals pounding down my door but it makes me wonder how we can preach Love God, Love others, Love enemies and end that love solely on sexual orientation. But we do. sad really. My congregation is growing because we embrace each other. and are relevant in our age.

  3. Mark MacLean says:

    The problem with the emergent church nonsense, as this article is positioned, is that people are more concerned with numbers than preaching the Gospel. We should be concerned that the young people are not hearing the Gospel, thus not being saved! The church is for Christians, not the unsaved. It is to equip the flock to go out into the world and carry out the great commission. How many people claiming to be saved are living out the Great Commission? We are to witness to the darkness, share the Gospel, and when God saves them – they will want to be obedient to corporate worship. They will want to tithe. You don’t gather with the body in worship to get “our needs met”. That is selfishness and rooted in pride. We go to worship God. If you are not going for that reason, then stay home.

    There are a lot of people calling themselves Christians … who are not. In fact how many people are telling others that the majority of people will not see heaven? How many are warning of the wrath that is to come? We used to preach the Gospel in the parks and streets. Now we don’t even do it from the pulpit.

    We should be encouraging every person in our churches to watch “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” on the Living Waters website. We are so focused on numbers that we cater to the unsaved, and try to bring the world into the church, as this article promotes. Scriptures say we are to do the opposite.

    That is how you get all these prosperity preachers and mega-church pastors that don’t even know what the Gospel is. The Osteens, Myers, Campolos, Warrens, Bells, Maclarens, Hinns, Tiltons, etc. The list is almost endless for the heretics that cannot articulate the Gospel, and certainly don’t believe it.

    We need to be sharing the Gospel, not using gimmicks to get the darkness into the church. If the unsaved feel “comfortable” in your church service then you cannot be preaching the Gospel. It is a message of conviction not comfort. The message is the same today. A watered down, wordly message may bring in larger numbers and more money, but it will not lead to true conversion. It will just make people feel better about being on the broad road to destruction. We are supposed to be helping to point people to the narrow gate, Jesus, which you cannot do with heretic teaching. Repent and trust in Jesus alone. That is the Gospel and is the Good News. But rarely heard in most churches these days.

    We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone.

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