Some highlights from John Bowen’s new book, Growing up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church
You have seen them and so have I: bright, enthusiastic young people leading worship, heading out on short term mission trips, collecting food for the food bank. And we think, “Ah, the future of the church is in good hands.”
But what happens to those young people in the years that follow? Do they fulfill their potential for church leadership. If so, why? And if not, why not?
For many years, my wife and I worked in a Leadership Training Program at Ontario Pioneer Camp, an interdenominational camp in Ontario, Canada. Over that time, we worked with around a total of over 1,200 young people.
In 2003, I had the opportunity of a sabbatical from my teaching, and decided to try and find out what had happened to this particular group of lively, committed Christian teenagers. Where were they now, in terms of faith and church involvement? And what might we learn from them about what keeps them in the faith—or drives them away?
I prepared an online survey, and invited them to fill it out. They were asked to identify where they were at spiritually, and answer appropriate questions. Their main options were:
- “You still call yourself a Christian and are involved in church.” There were 251 who chose this survey, 75% of the respondents. I refer to these as Loyal Believers.Roughly one third of these (eighty-three), although they are active Christians today, had a time of six months or more when they were away from church and/or faith. This is a distinctive group, so I call them Returned Believers.
- “You would no longer call yourself a Christian and have dropped out of church life.” There were fourteen who chose this survey, 4% of respondents. I refer to these as Former Believers.
- “You still consider yourself a Christian but have more or less dropped out of church.” There were fifty-seven who chose this survey, or 17% of respondents. I call these Absent Believers.
All told, I received responses from a total of 333 people, about 28% of the potential pool. As I read through the answers, there were a number of things that jumped out at me. Each one is discussed more fully in the book, but here are some of the highlights:
- The first surprise was why those who were continuing in faith and church involvement did so. I had assumed that friends would be the primary influence. Well, friends came high on the list, at 80.9%, but two factors were rated higher. Mentors rated fractionally higher, at 82.3%. But topping the list was (can you guess?) “my relationship God” at 89%. It’s obvious, I suppose, as soon as you say it: people continue in their Christian faith because of the reality of God.Not only that, but I was quite startled to find that, in response after response, people spontaneously stated their faith in strong, personal and passionate ways. They testified to their love for God, their dependence on God, their gratitude to God, and so on. These are clearly people who are not involved in church and faith out of a sense of obligation. They are involved because they feel strongly about their faith.
- I thought that the main factor causing Former Believers to leave faith would be suffering (what I called a “catastrophe,” such as the loss of a child, parent, or partner). Since only fourteen Former Believers responded, I cannot draw sweeping conclusions, but certainly among those fourteen the problem of suffering received hardly a mention.What was surprising however, was the string of stories told by Loyal Believers about their suffering, including the untimely death of children and parents, and chronic debilitating illnesses. For these people, although the suffering was sometimes unbearable, it did not drive them away from faith and church, but instead their faith gave them the resources to cope with it and to survive.
- It is remarkable how many people have changed denomination since the time they were teenagers. Three-quarters of respondents have left the denomination in which they began life. The book looks in some detail at what these changes are and why they take place, but as a general rule many would sympathize with the Absent Believer who wrote: I don’t subscribe to denominations, but rather, prefer to find a specific church with a pastor and congregation that I relate to.This research confirms what others have found, that changing denominations is a very common thing these days, although, as sociologist Reg Bibby has pointed out, the switching is often within church “families”—that is, from one conservative church to another, or from one mainline church to another. Many, but by no means all, of the changes among my respondents confirm this.
- Many of the respondents, whichever category they put themselves in, have experienced difficulties with church and with faith: many speak of finding “hypocrisy” in the church, having values that differ from those of their church, encountering intellectual difficulties, and so on. Not only has this driven many (Absent Believers and Returned Believers in particular) away from church: it is also the thing that most often challenges the faith even of Loyal Believers! This theme of what we might call “the disappointing church” crops us frequently in the responses.
- Largely because of this, fully one third of those presently involved in church were absent from church (less often from faith) for a period of six months or more, the longest “absence” being one of seven years. However, the range of reasons they leave, and the reasons they later return, are varied and (particularly in the reasons they return) often startling. This reinforces the fact that a number of people who are presently Absent Believers will likely return to church at some point. But, equally certain, some of those who are presently Loyal Believers will move away from church at some point. Of those, some, though not all, will return later. And (according to other people’s research), some will leave and return more than once.
- A lot of people say how difficult moving from one town to another has been for their church involvement. It’s not easy uprooting from a faith community where you feel at home, comfortable, and needed to another where “none of the above” applies—at least, till you’ve been there some time. As Reginald Bibby says, “every time people move, about half of them will stop attending regularly.”
So what might we learn from all this?
There is much to learn from these respondents. Three preliminary questions come to my mind:
a) Do our youth groups teach their members what it means to have a meaningful relationship with God which will last and grow over the years? Do we dare to teach them spiritual disciplines, or do we assume these would be beyond the average teenager?
b) Can we help young people, when they move to another town or city, to find a suitable church? Obviously it is not enough to suggest that Presbyterians (for example) simply look for another Presbyterian church. If they are leaving a family-oriented evangelical church, they are highly unlikely to settle in an ageing, theologically liberal congregation (or vice versa), even if both are Presbyterian. Are we prepared to think “kingdom” more than “denomination”?
c) What can we learn from their criticisms of church? What these people are looking for in a church is not rocket science, neither is it inappropriate. They specifically ask:
- that followers of Jesus should cultivate a warm and open community
- that they should consider issues of truth, and be open to questions and discussion
- that they should be active in service to their community and the world, and
- that worship (whatever form it takes) should be done with excellence and should include thoughtful preaching.
In some ways, all they are asking is that churches should act like churches. After all, these criteria are pretty basic for any church. It seems as though, if we want young people to find churches credible, the best thing we can do is actually very simple (though deeply challenging): to take seriously our commitment to be a community of followers of Jesus. Is that too much for them to ask?
Growing up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church is published by Regent College Publishing (2010), and is available online from Amazon here or (at the end of March) from Chapters/Indigo, or it may be ordered through local bookstores.