Why are many young adults leaving the church? Individual choice and ineffective evangelism

Blake Tousignant walks outside of the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. Sunday, March 20, 2021. (Photo by: Xander Ordinola)
Blake Tousignant walks outside of the Collegedale Church of Seventh-day Adventists. Sunday, March 20, 2021. (Photo by: Xander Ordinola)

Written by John Kent

The phenomenon of leaving the church is not unique to young adults. The United States is progressively becoming a “non-religious” country. According to Gallup, in 2020, only 47% of U.S. adults had membership with a religious organization. Additionally, 51% of Millennials described themselves as unaffiliated with Christianity, according to data published by Pew Research Center in 2019.

The difficulty in answering the question, “Why do young adults leave the church?” comes not from a lack of reasons for leaving, but disagreement regarding which reasons are legitimate. Studies have documented why young adults withdraw from church, yet it is easy to dismiss these reasons and instead claim them to be aliases for “worldliness.” 

Instead of evaluating the validity of existing answers, I’d like to attempt to refrain from contributing my bias to a question already saturated with conviction. I’ll provide two helpful paradigms for processing this question: a sociological perspective and a biblical perspective.

In sociology, socialization is the process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society — or in this case, the church. The church presents biblical truth and its values, which young adults then interact with to understand how to be a Christian. In other words, “church socialization” is a form of evangelism, the spreading of Christian gospel. 

I asked some of my friends why they thought many young adults leave the church. Some of their responses included: “The church isn’t relevant to my life,” “Members mistreated me,” “Hypocrisy” and “I was irrelevant.” 

The causes of these reasons are not inherent to the individual, but to the church. The socialization, or evangelism, that young adults experience seems to be ineffective, and young adults who leave may have never been truly a part of the church, as suggested by John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. 

When on Earth, Christ exposed the fallacies of His people’s interpretation of Scripture and held believers accountable for proper evangelism. The church is not exempt from Christ’s rebuke. If the church’s method of evangelism is faulty, it is irresponsible to attribute the cause of rejecting Christianity solely to those who the church is tasked with witnessing to.

However, young adults are not free of responsibility. A useful framework for understanding individual responsibility is Christ’s parable of the sower. Biblical truth is dispersed by the church to varying environments. Each individual, regardless of whether  their conditions are “thorny” or “fertile,” ultimately decides for themselves if they accept biblical truth. Yet Christ did not use this parable to attribute the cause of Gospel rejection to the individual nor to the church; He simply described circumstances that evangelism would encounter.

Perhaps the approach to answering this question should not be attributing blame but placing responsibility where it is due. The church should be held accountable for its quality of socialization. Similarly, young adults should be held accountable for their decisions regarding biblical truth––not by the church, but by God. 

This question is not about others, but about us––we are the young adults of today. So, why do we leave the church? Ask yourself why you would, or perhaps, have left the church. You might find some insight into this polarized question, and possibly some compassion for others as well.

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