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the new exodus: why emerging generations are leaving the church

Millennials and Gen Z'ers are leaving the church at an accelerated rate these days. In the words of David Kinniman and Mark Matlock, today’s “overall dropout rate (from 59 to 64 percent in less than a decade) is a sobering referendum on the effectiveness of our ministry to kids and teens” (Kinniman and Matlock, Faith For Exiles, 63-64). If such stats from 2019 weren’t sobering enough, according to the most recent findings from the Barna Group, the globally felt COVID-19 pandemic and the forced shift for many churches to online ministry has only expedited these rates of disengagement among the emerging generations.

While this particular issue is not new news for most of us – or at least it shouldn’t be – the question still remains: Why is this happening? What is the reason behind this mass exodus of emerging generations from our churches? Why are teens and young adults so disinterested with the church these days? And what, if anything, can be done to fix the issue?

In their book, Growing Young, Kara Powell and her team from Fuller Theological Seminary highlight a lack of personal connectivity as one of several key contributing factors to the dissatisfaction of youth and young adults toward the church. We live in a day and age where humans, particularly emerging generations, are starving for connection and relational depth. According to Jean Twenge, professor of psychology and one of North America’s leading voices on Gen Z, those born between 1999 and 2015, while the new reality of social life for today’s emerging generations is conducted online, there remains still a deep yearning for in-person interaction (Twenge, iGen, 90). For many if not most young people these days, online friendship has generally replaced face-to-face relationships. And yet the data is crystal clear: today’s emerging generations are, more than any preceding generation before them, unhappy, depressed and exceedingly lonely. Today’s teens and young adults are deeply desirous of real, authentic, in-person human interaction. In other words, they’re longing for connection; they’re craving it... Yet sadly, the Church, they say, has not offered this to them – at least not in the way they desire.

For a large number of emerging adults, both the statistical data and stories of personal experience would show there to be a felt relational deficit between them and their churches. When describing their ideal church experience, many teens and young adults use words like ‘participation,’ ‘life shared,’ ‘authenticity,’ and ‘connection’ (Powell, Growing Young, 160, 164, 193). In other words, they're not looking for a cooler Sunday gathering. Rather, their greatest desire of their church experience is to be relationally involved with those around them in a meaningful way. They want to be seen, heard, invited in. They want to be known, and known by name, not simply by function, or of what they can do for the church.

Finally, many young adults continue to express a deep desire to be personally invested in by the preceding generation. They want to be mentored, discipled and challenged – and particularly by senior church leaders. Did you hear that, pastor? The emerging generations want to be mentored... by you! That said, overwhelmingly, far too many in this age cohort sum up their church experience as a simple exchange of goods and services that lacks the deep relational, interpersonal connectivity their souls crave. The end result? They leave. They go elsewhere to find the community and belonging the church promises but fails to deliver them.

To this end, I wonder, is a lack of personal connection to the next generation killing the North American church? Is it killing yours?

For today’s emerging generations, a community that values relationship with one another is far more meaningful and significant reality than a church’s Sunday morning expression (Rohadi, Thrive, 162). To put it bluntly, merely hosting attractional church services is no longer attractive to the emerging generations. Rather, today’s youth and young adults are looking for something more substantive, real, authentic, personal. They are looking to be known, and most likely, by someone like you reading this.

If you are a church leader or pastor, I encourage you to take then next few minutes to stop and prayerfully ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many of my church’s emerging generations do I know by name?

  • How many teens or young adults have I gone out of my way to ask about their day-to-day lives this week or month?

  • How many young adults have I invested in, mentored, or even simply taken out for coffee in the last year? The last 5 years?

  • How many emerging generations am I personally praying for, or have asked to personally pray for me?

If you find these questions difficult to answer, chances are this may be an area to take note of for you and your church. While committing to cultivate a deeper sense of connectivity with the emerging generations in your church will not solve everything, it will, at the very least, give you a greater sense of who is still with you. It will also give those still sticking around – and maybe even those who’ve already left – a hope that things are going to change for the better!

This post is the first in a series. More thoughts on the contributing factors to the emerging generations’ exodus from the Church are coming soon. In the meantime, check out Kara Powell, et al.’s Growing Young for further insights on this issue.

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