Why young people are sticking with church
It is no secret; young people are leaving the church.1 And although it is tempting to scoff and declare that this has always been the trend, studies show that, even after having kids and crises—they are not coming back this time.2 Churches and administrations are devoting vast sums of time and resources to investigate why. Recently, our team conducted a research study for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, asking the opposite question: Why are they sticking around? We wanted to find out what keeps vibrant young Christians, who have not left, still active and engaged in church life.
Our study focused on Oakridge Adventist Church (OAC) in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, because— despite trends and statistics—the number of young adults at OAC is increasing. Not just in terms of presence at weekly worship services; young adults are active in all areas of ministry, as leaders, board members, elders, and preachers. They are the crucial group of a unique congregation that represents the surrounding community— a multigenerational, multicultural, and multiethnic mix.
Oakridge Adventist Church
Located in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan centers in Canada, OAC has struggled to establish its relevance as a community within a swiftly changing urban environment. The Vancouver Sun reports, “B.C. [British Columbia] has the fewest Christians on average of any province or territory.”3 Amid the influential waves of secularization and postmodernity, those between the ages of 18 and 35 are the last people anyone would expect to be at church on Sabbath morning. Yet OAC has gained a reputation as a safe haven for young people who are on a spiritual journey. In 2014, survey results revealed that 63 percent of all visitors were between the ages of 18 and 35, the majority unmarried.4 About 15 percent claimed to have no Seventh-day Adventist background; 13 percent had no religious background whatsoever. About half of these visitors come with a friend or family member, while the other half learn about the church through an Internet search.5
We extended our study of OAC by also examining the trends among young people in the wider British Columbia (BC) Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. We asked a total of 130 young adults 62 questions that reflected eight broad areas of church life, from family connections to spiritual authenticity to community involvement.
Engaging in meaningful relationships
In the first of these eight areas of church life, we asked how relationships motivate young adults to engage with their local church. As expected, the correlation between personal relationships and church engagement was firmly intertwined. Only 15 percent of young adults at OAC claim to attend church alone. A key characteristic of today’s young adults—the millennial generation—is the primacy of relationships. They thrive in teams and refuse to compartmentalize their lives.6 They are, therefore, less likely to be secretive about their faith and more likely to live out their spirituality within a community of friendship and support. Within this, the significance of the parents’ role, even beyond childhood, cannot be overstated. An overwhelming 81 percent of OAC respondents and 92 percent of BC Conference respondents affirmed the statement “One or both of your parents attends a church.”
Engaging in authenticity
The second area we looked at was church climate, asking whether or not an accepting church will more likely attract young people and what exactly “accepting” means for millennials. Overwhelmingly, young people at OAC affirm statements such as “My church cares about its members,” or “I am proud of my church,” or “My church is hospitable to visitors.”7 This is surprisingly positive compared to a broader study conducted by LifeWay, revealing that half or less than half of Protestants ages 18 to 30 saw church members as “caring,” (51 percent) “welcoming,” (48 percent) or “authentic” (42 percent).8
It is important to note that millennials tend to take more liberal and pluralistic positions on social issues. And the church is not exactly keeping up with the changing cultural landscape in attitudes toward race, religion, and sexuality. Currently, 68 percent of millennials favor the legalization of gay marriage, up from 44 percent in 2004.9 Their position on social issues, such as gay marriage, has dramatic implications for how they perceive the warmth of their churches. Young adult attendance and engagement hinges largely on being theologically faithful while constantly extending radical hospitality to all people, especially the marginalized.
Engaging in community outreach
The third area pertains to outreach and community involvement. We asked if young adults are attracted to churches with a strong impact in the community. Because millennials are known for their passionate cries for social justice, we assumed this would be a significant factor for church-engaged young adults.10 It was. Given the statement “My church serves the community,” 95 percent of OAC young adults agreed. However, only 55 percent claimed to have served the poor through their local church, and when asked to choose their favorite aspect of church, out of six options listed, 0 respondents chose “outreach.” Millennials seem much more attracted to the idea of social justice and community involvement than to the actual active service it requires.11
Engaging in meaningful theology and spiritual disciplines
The fourth and fifth areas dealt with transformative change and spiritual authenticity, asking whether young people feel that the church influences their worldview and whether church-engaged young adults share a stronger commitment toward spiritual practices. According to a 2011 Barna survey on American Christianity, young adults often leave the church because they perceive Christianity to be shallow, lacking a connection to their everyday life.12 It might seem obvious, then, that the young adults sticking around to be active in church life have a more intense spirituality. According to our findings, however, this is not always the case. We found that only 19 percent of OAC young adults and 30 percent of BC young adults claim to engage with Scripture daily. The most common answer in regard to how often they read the Bible was “occasionally” (40 percent). This decline in Bible engagement has been noted not just among young adults but also among older generations as some argue the church attempts to heal the wounds of an unhealthy biblicism of previous generations.13
Not only are we suffering from lack of Bible engagement, the young adults in our congregations, even those in positions of leadership, seem to be lacking solid theological grounding. When it comes to grasping the unfailing grace of God, Seventh-day Adventist youth do not have the best historical track record. In the ValueGenesis II study, when faced with the statement “There is nothing I can do to earn salvation,” only 58 percent of high school and 32 percent of grades 6–8 “strongly agreed.” When we asked similar questions related to a person’s understanding of God’s grace, the results were similar. The statement “I have assurance of my salvation” was affirmed only by 32 percent of OAC young adults and 36 percent of BC young adults; “I am going to heaven” was affirmed only by 24 percent of OAC young adults and 29 percent of BC young adults.
In order for young people to stay engaged in church life, they must first have a genuine conversion experience. Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, comments, “Many young adults leave the church because they were never truly converted to Christ in the first place.”14Similarly, Rachel Held Evans in a popular CNN opinion blog writes, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”15 While we might be asking why young adults are leaving the church and why they are staying, maybe we pastors ought to ask a more fundamental question first: are our church members, at every age, converted and having a real relationship with the living God?
Engaging in mentoring and lay leadership
The sixth area of church life we questioned them on was ecclesial leadership, asking what role the leadership, especially the pastor, plays in creating an atmosphere where young adults can engage in church life. Consistently, OAC and BC young adults strongly agreed with such statements as “I trust the leadership of my pastor,” and “I believe the leadership of my church is authentic.” But while the paid staff and visible leadership are important factors, what seems to be more significant is lay leadership. The Church of England conducted a study between 2011 and 2013 to find out why some of their churches were experiencing incredible growth. According to the study, “Active involvement of lay members throughout the congregation’s ministry was a hallmark of growing churches.”16 The sustainability of church health depends on the lay leadership of the church, who remain long after the church pastor moves on.
Out of our survey respondents, 60 percent of OAC young adults said they were involved in ministry; however, 50 percent said they had never been asked to serve as a ministry leader. The more active young adults are in the leadership of the church, the greater likelihood they will engage with the whole of church life, but that can be possible only if longtime members intentionally invest in young adults by passing the baton to new, capable leaders. Young adults are willing to serve but are not going to accept token titles of leadership. They want to be respected and entrusted with responsibility; they long to be seen, not as the future of the church, but as competent and reliable leaders now. What must be cultivated in congregations—if we want to keep young adults around—is authentic mentoring and discipleship programs, relationship building that spans generations, and providing positions of responsibility.
Engaging in creative ways to talk about Adventism and other faith walks
In the last two areas, we looked into Adventist distinctives and evangelism, asking questions about the young adults’ commitment to the Adventist denomination and its distinct message, as well as whether young adults are concerned about the faith of their friends and family members. While 84 percent of OAC young adults indicated they had a Seventh-day Adventist background, only 66 percent claimed to self-identify as a Seventh-day Adventist. In an age of pluralism, millennials are less likely to commit to an organized religion and denomination compared with previous generations. A recent study of Adventist millennials, conducted by the Barna Group, found the importance of creating a space for questions. Adventist doctrine has historically been considered absolute, with no place for questions or disagreement. A. Allan Martin says the Adventist study found “the biggest differences were in the areas of feeling like ‘I can be myself’ and of feeling like ‘doubts are tolerated.’ ”17 Church leaders are being encouraged to provide a safe place for questions and room for doubts, placing an emphasis on the Christian life as a spiritual journey rather than an after-death destination or a means to an end.
When it comes to sharing their faith, young adults today face a unique challenge. One-third of all millennials say they are not affiliated with any religion.18 Because these “nones” have no previous religious or church experience, sharing one’s faith with them requires a different set of sensibilities than those used to reach past generations. Every church must wake up to the fact that the church struggles to be relevant to a constantly changing world and culture. One OAC young adult we interviewed for our study voices his frustrations with the Seventh-day Adventist Church: “We’re like an antique chair in a modern condo,” he says. “It’s not relevant. It doesn’t fit in. . . . It doesn’t reflect the world, the culture, the context that we live in.” The three young adults we personally interviewed all said that at some point they had seriously considered leaving the Adventist Church.
Beyond faceless numbers
Young adults retain the same zeal for the gospel and the imminent return of Jesus Christ as did the early founders of Adventism, but they are questioning their place within the church. Some worry that their doubts and fears will make them ineligible to participate in worship services. The vast majority have a different outlook on social issues, and they are worried they will be perceived as liberal and written off as apostates. Scare tactics are not going to keep them in the pews, nor will a conflated sense of duty. What is keeping them engaged is an active community of friends and family, as well as open and authentic dialogue that happens across generational, racial, and cultural divides. But even these are not enough to keep young adults in the pews and active in ministry. We must be more than community centers and social networks; the church must devote itself to preaching and teaching theology grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, to participate in the abundant life He offers now, to tirelessly work to ensure each member and visitor knows that through His grace, all will be well.
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1 See David Kinnaman, You Lost Me: Why Christians Are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) and Roger Dudley, Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church: Personal Stories From a 10-Year Study (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1999).
2 See Barna Group, “Five Myths About Young Adult Church Dropouts” (November 2011), http://www .barna.org/millennials/534-five-myths-about-young -adult-church-dropouts.
3 Douglas Todd, “B.C. Breaks Records When It Comes to Religion and the Lack Thereof,” The Search (blog), May 8, 2013, blogs.vancouversun.com/2013/05/08/b-c-breaks-records-when-it-comes-to-religion-and-the-lack-thereof/?__federated=1.
4 Each week, visitors are invited to the front two pews to receive a free gift bag during a post-service element called “7 minutes or less.” In less than seven minutes, a trained hospitality team member welcomes those who come forward and asks them to fill out a brief survey card in exchange for a gift bag. The survey results provide church leaders with crucial information about the visitor’s experience along with key demographic information.
5 OAC has a strong Web presence through social media and is using strategic methods to maximize its ranking in Internet search engines. In 2014, the church changed its online brand presence to ChurchInVancouver.ca.
6 See Karen K. Myers and Kamyab Sadaghiani, “Millennials in the Workplace: A Communication Perspective on Millennials’Organizational Relationships and Performance,” March 5, 2010, http://link.springer .com/article/10.1007/s10869-010-9172-7.
7 When given the statement “I am proud of my church,” 95 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed (85 percent BC young adults). When given “My church cares about its members,” 95 percent agreed or strongly agreed (87 percent BC young adults). Again, the vast majority (95 percent) agreed or strongly agreed that, “My church is hospitable to visitors (82 percent BC young adults).
8 The LifeWay study surveyed 1,023 Protestants ages 18 to 30 who said they attended church at least twice a month for at least one year during high school. See Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Young Adults Aren’t Sticking With Church,” August 6, 2007, USAToday, http:// usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-08-06-church-dropouts_N.htm.
9 See Millennials in Adulthood, “Chapter 2: Generations and Issues,” http://www.pewsocialtrends .org/2014/03/07/chapter-2-generations-and-issues/ (accessed January 19, 2016).
10 See Joshua Stanton, “Social Justice in the Millennial Generation,” The Huffington Post, February 17, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joshua-stanton/ social-justice-in-the-mil_b_2708224.html.
11 Joanna Chau, “Millennials Are More ‘Generation Me’ Than ‘Generation We,’Study Finds,” The Journal ofHigher Education, March 15, 2012. See also Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before (New York: Atria Books, 2007).
12 Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church,” http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles /528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church.
13 See Kyle Stiemsma, “The Decline of the Bible,” Converge Magazine, October 2014, http://convergemagazine .com/the-decline-of-the-bible-14940/.
14 Jason K. Allen. “3 Reasons Young Adults Are Leaving the Church,” Pastors.com, August 6, 2013, http:// pastors.com/3-reasons-young-adults-are-leaving-the-church/.
15 Rachel Held Evans, “Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church,” CNN Belief Blog, July 27, 2013, http://religion .blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/.
16 Lovett H. Weems Jr., “Update: Learning From Growing Churches in England,” http://churchleadership .com, July 9, 2014. The full report “From Anecdote to Evidence: Findings From the Church Growth Research Programme 2011–2013” is available at http://www .churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/UserFiles/File/Reports/ FromAnecdoteToEvidence1.0.pdf.
17 A. Allan Martin, “Ministry With Millennials: What’s Good About Church,” nadMinisterial, June 9, 2014, http://www.nadministerial.org/article/837/for-nad -pastors/articles/ministry-with-millennials-what-s-good-about-church.
18 Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave the Church.”