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When Youth Leave the Church

When Youth Leave the Church
Jerry Robbins

A profile of youth in the ’70s, A Study of Generations (1972), documented that of all age groups in the church young people between the ages of 15 and 22 were the most troubled in faith and the least involved in congregational life. Almost 20 years later, Newsweek (December 17, 1990) reported that of the young adult–early middle age population today, almost one-half are unchurched. When the youth of the ’70s grew up, two-thirds dropped out of church, and the majority of those stayed out. If this trend continues among our current youth, some of whom are children of these older dropouts, within the next several generations we could witness the demise of the church as we now know it. But is this a likely possibility?

From where I work on the edge of a large state university it appears that such a collapse could indeed occur unless decisive steps are taken to avert it. In the Newsweek article noted, a student of the ’60s reminisced, “Sunday mornings at the sorority house consisted of talking about your dates of Saturday night. People didn’t go to church.” Things have not changed very much since then. Visiting in the dorm on Sunday afternoons, I often find students still in bed recovering from the night before. A recent graduate remarked, “In college, the church was like a fraternity or sorority, only no one pledged it.” It appears that a considerable number of this current generation of youth are on their way out of the church just like the generation before them. Their story is summed up by a student who recently told me, “I stopped attending church during my freshman year and haven’t returned.”

The rate at which young people are abandoning the church is alarmingly high. In my experience, the number of students involved in the church at the college level has dropped dramatically in the last two decades. The list of students who identify themselves as Lutheran is a fraction of what it was 25 years ago. To be sure, there are fewer youths to go around. But the other figure in this picture ‘Is the small number of
those from the list who are active in the church. Many young people seem to have decided against participating in the life of the mainline church. This can only further undermine a seriously weakened institution as it moves into the third millennium.

Some defection from church ranks by today’s youth obviously takes place at the college level, Youth active in their home congregations simply go into religious hibernation while on campus. One-half seldom or
never go to church, and a staggering nine out of ten avoid all association with campus religious groups (Religion in America 1990). In more and more cases, however, the rupture seems to occur before
young people reach the university. Over the last few years I have discovered that most of the students whose names I glean from various sources make no significant contact with the church on campus. This is
not for lack of information about the church or efforts by the campus ministry to elicit their participation. Rather, it appears that many students have already determined before they arrive at college that they will not pursue any church involvement at this time in their life.

one of the reasons for nonparticipation while in college are practical-many students work, others are older with families, and others commute or go home on the weekends. Some are just too exhausted by the rigors
of academic life. As one student said to me, “A serious’ college student is usually ,to tired from mental work that church just isn’t a priority.” But in many cases none of these is a significant factor in a student’s decision about church. Rather, many bring negative feelings about the church with them when they set off for college. These feelings create resistance and even anger toward efforts to serve them or involve them in campus ministry activities. A student bolts from her dorm room when I try to visit her; a young man rips an announcement from our signboard; an engineering student coolly requests we remove his name from our mailing list; and the solitary visitor to our center lounges here but never attends an event ,with any religious content.

Unlike students of previous generations, who at least made excuses I or their attitudes about the church, students today will readily admit to feeling indifference, disappointment and even hostility toward it.
Something traumatic, or at least very negative, has happened to them in their religious growth that the church needs to recognize and address. More important steps need to be taken to slow the exodus of young
people from the life, of the church. What can the church do to both conserve its youth and preserve its own future? I suggest the following as possible strategies for church action.

First, the church should do a better job of teaching its youth the fundamentals of’ the faith. In what amounts to an experiential verification of earlier studies of church youth, I encounter many students who have somehow missed the central message of the Christian gospel in their religious education-the good news of God’s love and grace available to all through Jesus Christ. Also, like the generation before them, youth today do not read the Bible. A game of Bible Trivia on the campus is an embarrassing exercise in guesswork. Students also lack basic knowledge o the history and theology of Christian tradition. Humanities professors report that they can no longer assume their students will know the great biblical epics of Western civilization. It seems fair to say that church youth today do not know what they
believe.

Such a breakdown in Christian education is especially troubling when the campus is an arena of secular ideologies and fractious sectarian groups as it now is. Youths from mainline traditions present an easy
mark for dogmatic activists. Unable to articulate their own beliefs, they are easily intimidated by missionaries from campus clubs who are able to outline principles or quote Bible verses with considerable
skill. Students from mainline backgrounds become prey to creeds that offer perspective and answers that were not provided by their own religious education. To overcome this weakness we need to equip our
youth better with basic theological content that gives real substance and firm shape to their confession of faith.

Second, youth ministries and campus ministries must provide an atmosphere where young people can discuss their faith–reflect on it, respond to it, question it, respond to it, question it Of all age groups, young people are most likely to experience a crisis of faith that raises doubts about received teachings. Yet studies show that many church families do not talk about religion at home. Youth most commonly complain that confirmation class and church school are “boring” (Read, “I’m not allowed to discuss what I think is
important.”) One student wrote to me, “When I -grew up the church’s approach to education was don’t question it. Just accept it.” At a time when youth are most in need of exploring and testing their beliefs, the church seems to have imposed a “lock out” on discussion. consequently, young people, who are working through identity-forming dilemmas and moral problems, find little help in the church at this crucial point in their lives.

An unexamined faith is a faith fixed at James Fowler’s third stage of religious growth: its content is non-reflective and peer-dominated. When youth with this kind of faith reach college they do one of two
things. Some continue to cluster with their familiar peers on campus or at home where the pattern of non-reflective traditional belief is reinforced and continued. Their insular behavior, in effect, serves to
inhibit growth to a more mature stage of faith. Others, overwhelmed by new-found freedom and the stimulation of University classes, will simply jettison their religious heritage as antiquated and oppressive.
Somehow the church needs to be a “laboratory” for both of these sets of’ young people-a place where they can experiment with their doubts and questions and find support for their searching. Unless it is
possible for this to go on within the church, youths will go outside the church to do their theological growing.

Third, the church needs to be more adept at relating religion to ordinary life, and placing the challenge of service before its young people. In the September 18, 1985, issue of The Lutheran, psychologist
researcher Merton Strommen reported that many churchgoing adults do not connect their religious belief, with acts of kindness or love. Although not without social conscience, the now aging baby-boomers,
including the minority with religious affiliation, constitute a group of which it has been said, “Their favorite charity is themselves.” Is it any wonder that a recent study of adolescents revealed that while 82
percent believe in God, less than 50 percent of those believers would help a classmate in need (Daniel Heischman, “Adolescents’ Moral Compass, Adults’ Moral Presence,” The Christian Century, January 30,
1991)? Further, is it any surprise that youth in college are motivated by largely self-serving ambitions and goals?

The lack of any “theistic compass” that directs choices and behavior according to religious belief plays into the hands of the moral relativism rampant on campuses today. Our young people are set adrift
on a sea of ethical pluralism without a rudder to steer them. They have neither heard nor seen in their families or churches sufficiently powerful moral exemplars that could guide them through the confusions
of modern life. If students choose altruistic careers or projects, they sometimes do so over the protests of their parents. Some will simply give in to the “me-first” mentality and never go near a volunteer program. Other will still channel their latent idealism into campus organizations, but more often than not these will be either secular activist groups or religious sects of the Eastern variety. To remedy a new aimlessness and disorientation among our youth, the church will need to spend more time and energy teaching Christian ethics, eliciting commitment, and promoting its many fine volunteer and professional service ministries. If the church does not stand for something, its youth will continue to fall for anything.

Fourth, we need to provide our youth with opportunities for significant involvement in the church’s life,. While a large segment of the believing population is not active in any religious fellowship by choice, a great number of young people feel shut out of the church by design. The book A Study of Generations reported that 50 percent of’ the youth surveyed believed that their congregation was not interested in their participation or input. Young people feel disenfranchised, closed out of the church, without ownership of any important role in its life. Often those who find leadership opportunities do so in regional or national youth programs, church camp or volunteer service, but not in the local congregation.

though in some cases it may be more an excuse than a reason for noninvolvement, students in college will sometimes describe their home church as a place A here the “old folks” make all the decisions. In fact, many are ill-equipped to assume the leadership roles that are offered by campus ministry. They are both surprised in unsettled by the opportunities and responsibilities they can have on campus in the ministry of’ the. church. certain there will be no place for them, others do not even give campus ministry a chance. These are usually the students who take their need for self expression and participation in meaningful action to a secular group or one of the many peer-led religious groups on campus. In order to plug this drain of potential leaders from the mainline church, congregations and campus churches will have to find structures and strategies to promote the lay ministries that are the very center of their life.

Finally, the church must prepare its youth to live in an ambiguous and confusing world. Although growth to a stage of openness and integration in one’s faith may not come until late in life, youth are thrust into a crucible of conflicting values and truth claims early in their maturating. A professor/pastor recently shared how he was brought to believe that the biblical world is the true world, but once he reached college he never again heard anyone say that the world conforms to the Bible’s testimony. a student explained to me that what he was taught in church is too “one-sided” to stand up against anything else he is learning in class. The educational process tends to blur the vision of young people by placing a secular view of the world next to their largely unexamined inherited biblical view. The cognitive dissonance that results often leads youth to give up their life in the church with its seemingly old-fashioned outlook.

A frequent complaint I hear from Christian students is the sad lament, “I am so confused. “The university experience often levels a quadruple-barreled assault on religions faith Scientism attacks the rationality of belief, while relativism calls into question all absolutist claims. Pluralism discredits the uniqueness of
Christianity, and secularism casts doubt on divine transcendence. All these challenges shatter believing students’ mental composure. Unable to integrate the university’s enlightened worldview into the church’s
biblical worldview, they suffer severe intellectual disorganization and stress. For the sake of sanity they will either relinquish the enlightened view and revert to a religious absolutism, or they will reject the biblical view and become hardened skeptics about religion. The task of the church in both its youth and campus ministries is to help its maturing members bring both the biblical and enlightened views of the world into meaningful discussion. We must enable believing seekers to keep their faith without losing their minds, and to grow in understanding without losing their souls.

In its ongoing search for centeredness and direction, the church would do well to give more attention to the younger ranks of its membership. It may well be that the dropout of youth is a generational phenomena
and will be corrected when those youth return to the church in middle age. However, recent statistics document that of the youth who left the church in the ’70s, only one third came back. More than ever,
Paul’s imagery of the body should instruct us. If any part hurts, other parts suffer, and the whole is harmed. If youth ministry and campus ministry suffer, so do other parts of the church and the body of Christ as a whole. There are ways, however, to secure the spiritual integrity and strength of our youth. To our young people, let it be said that we cared, and that we cared for them enough to invest the church’s best attention, resources and energy in their religious future.

The above is from The Christian Ministry, May-June, 1993 pp. 21-24.

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