They’re leaving fast – do we care enough to do something?
In a conversation with a 26-year-old at 37,000 feet, I heard several heart-stinging facts from her faith journey:
- She grew up in church, attending almost every Sunday;
- Was very involved in youth group, even served as president for a year;
- Was briefly involved in a campus ministry when first attending college.
Then, reflectively, she said, “I’m not a Christian any longer. I’ve apparently asked some tough questions and often been told, ‘Stop asking – don’t question the right way’. I feel repeatedly shut out. My Dad is a pastor and he is really upset with me.”
Isolated example? We may wish so, but a recent article in Christianity Today entitled tells another story about current church life in America:
“Among the findings from the 2009 ARIS study (American Religious Identification Survey), Americans claiming ‘no religion’ doubled in about two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend was not confined to one region.
Those marking ‘no religion,’ called the ‘Nones,’ made up the only group to have grown in every state, from the secular Northeast to the conservative Bible Belt. The Nones were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18-29 year olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990.
The study also found that 73 percent of Nones came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as ‘de-converts.’
Other studies in numerous research groups are even also grim. Robert Putnam and David Campbell, in their recently book, “American Grace,” reported that, ‘young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).’”
As United Methodists we find ourselves all too familiar with these realities. Can our Bishops change it? Can our pastors and laity leaders reverse it? It is a pervasive and complex crisis. Before we know it, we can lose several generations of young adults to all kinds of philosophies, systems and cults, many of which are growing at amazing rates.
Running through many of these “alternative” beliefs is a focus on self-will rather than aligning one’s self with God’s will.
Our question today is: Do we care enough about our own young adults, many of who are rapidly exiting, to truly invest in changing how we authentically care for them through the unconditional love of Jesus Christ? While this may feel like the proverbial sand dollar story - tossing back one at a time while tens of thousands of them have washed up on shore - if we are willing to make a change in our church, it might truly make an impact on at least one young adult at a time. Like the story – when we bring one back into Christian community, we can know, “It made a difference to that one!”
Here are five doable, immediate strategies we can practice to influence this tragic trend, at least one young adult at a time:
- If your church has even one young adult who shows up during Sunday school, and there is no “class or group” for them, plan ahead for two of your most caring, relational leaders to visit with them as friends. The three of you may drive to Dunkin’ Donuts or a Starbuck’s down the block for a casual visit.
- Remember that when talking with young adults or any other person, unconditional love is the key. We are called to love one with the love of Jesus Christ, unconditionally, expecting nothing in return. The biggest part of this mission is listening and understanding. It’s not a time for apologetics.
- Relate to them where they are in life – find common ground and connect. Build trust. The trust, over time, becomes a bridge across which faith options can be shared with them – not shoved at them. Sharing what Christ means to us is great – but not if “preachy” or aimed at another person’s situation. We offer a testimony through not only our words, but through the very attitude in which we share.
- Vow today as an adult in your church to never again walk by another teen in church and not look them in the eye, with a smile – initiating a friendship by greeting them with something as simple as “Good morning,” “Hello,” or perhaps, “I don’t think I remember your name, mine is ________ and it’s nice to see you today. I hope to see you again.” Then the next week, search for the one you met.
- Encourage them in something that matters to them in the present. Discouragement often outweighs encouragement in church settings. If we listen enough, we may hear the other person share what they are looking forward to, hoping for, or praying about. Then be an encourager – and be on one of the shortest paths to real friendship.
To do these five well, we can discuss them in our small groups, Bible Studies or Sunday school classes. We can also try “role-playing” the strategies. If we are fortunate enough to have a young adult who could help us learn how to do these well – all the better! Let’s care enough to invest in caring with excellence.
Rev. Jim W. Hollis is a General Evangelist, the founder and Executive Director of Proactive Ministries – a long term, teaching and consulting ministry with churches and Districts across America. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.