Leaving the Church?

I just read this column on the Associated Baptist Press website and wanted to pass it along to my readers.  It’s by Carra Hughes Greer, Minister to families with youth at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, GA.  She titled her column: “Why 20- and 30-year-olds are leaving the Baptist church.”

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(ABP) — Many 20- and 30-year-olds share a distaste toward Baptist churches. As a young minister, I believe my peers need the community and nurturing of a church. I hope the church will hear the cries of these young Christ-followers and see the value, the vision and the deep compassion they possess.  

Young adults decide not to attend church for a number of reasons, but there is a particular trend among 20- and 30-year-olds that pertains to local Baptist churches.

The split of the Southern Baptist Convention caused many young Christ-followers to be very disillusioned with the church at an early age, but that isn’t solely to blame. There are more compelling reasons keeping 20- and 30-year-olds at an arm’s distance from the church.

There are two types of Baptist churches which young Christ-followers are familiar with — and disinterested in — the “harsh church” and the “watered-down church.”

The harsh church isolates itself from other denominations. Its voice is brash, critical and cold to the changing culture. This church has leaders who speak with loud voices, not just in decibels, but to the media and government in protest against issues regarding school curriculum, the health-care system, marriage or churches with female pastors.

Young Christ-followers hesitate to be associated with a group of Baptists labeled as “crazy” by society for making outrageous statements such as declaring that the cause of Haiti’s earthquake was the result of a pact they made with the devil or that the Sept. 11 attacks were brought on by feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. Why would anyone want to join a community of “believers” that seems hateful and compassionless?

In contrast, the watered-down church is unappealing because of its prophetic muteness. More concerned with institutional preservation, this church avoids stepping on theological or ideological toes.

Young Christ-followers want to hear the church discuss and dialogue about homosexuality, social justice issues, women in ministry, poverty, environmental concerns, human rights issues, health-care issues, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, orphans in China, monks in Burma, etc. They are eager to have open, honest, almost jaw-dropping, conversations balancing current issues with their faith.

Instead of church politics, they want churches to become missional. They understand the institutional church but desire the simplicity of the early church. They grow weary of time and money spent maintaining the large church grounds, renovating empty Sunday school rooms, installing the latest technology and managing growing numbers of committees. When the church becomes too distracted to be a church on mission, young Christ-followers focus on serving through a para-church or nonprofit organization that is directly meeting the needs of others.

So, what can our churches do to reach out to young Christ-followers?

First, churches have to be willing to open their doors to a new generation of Christ-followers and understand they do things differently. This new generation thinks, communicates, tithes and serves differently. It is guarded when it comes to trusting authority, so it is crucial that leadership within the church be transparent with them. This group is searching for authentic faith, authentic leadership and authentic ministry.

Churches must also practice what we preach. If we tell these 20- and 30-year-olds we are open to dialogue about social issues, the environment, etc., then we must actually talk about these issues in our Sunday school classes, Bible studies and sermons. Watering down the gospel or avoiding issues altogether only causes bigger rifts in the relationship between the church and young Christ-followers.

Third, our churches must begin to reflect our changing communities. The ministerial staff must diversify to include people of all ages, races and genders as leaders. With a diverse staff, the church will begin to experience things through others’ eyes and more voices will be represented from the pulpit. Young Christ-followers will feel accepted as part of the congregation if they see faces just like their own doing things like preaching, teaching, leading, reading and serving.

Finally, all preconceived notions of these young Christ-followers must be thrown out. Not all of them expect loud, Christian rock music, want to wear torn jeans and a T-shirt to church, seek a coffee bar in the worship space or the biggest and brightest LCD screens. Many of the stereotypes our churches have concocted of young Christ-followers are false or at least skewed. 

There is a lot at stake. For older generations, it can be painful to recognize that the institution they worked so hard to establish, buildings they worked diligently and gave sacrificially to pay for, and familiar traditions are of waning importance to young Christ-followers. Instead, the mission and service of the church ranks as highest priority.

For younger generations, what’s at stake is our ability to find ways to relate, engage and work side-by-side with older generations finding common ground on issues of social justice, faith development, worship experiences, etc.

Contrary to what some Baptist churches believe, young Christ-followers are not pagans running from God into the arms of another religion. They simply desire to be heard and understood for who they really are and for their vision of the future of Baptist churches.

9 thoughts on “Leaving the Church?

  1. I can see this being done at FBC. I think that invitation to presently non-FBC member 20-30 year olds could be done is if FBC members from that age group be more visible in the action of the church…having more visual roles in parts of worship ( especially televised services ) and Mission activity.

    I think a positive move for FBC would be to get a team of that age group to seriously look at what they think are the reasons for their age group decline in church participation and attendance; ideas of what could be done to encourage non members to check out FBC; and what FBC members of that age group could realistically commit to in activating those ideas.

    If FBC 20-30’s could commit to it I think a good start would be having that age group represented in every team in the church … especially in the input and decision making.

  2. I think my church is pretty typical in the area of this age group. We have a vibrant youth group, but after high school, we rarely keep them (unless there are strong family ties in the church). Them we get them back when they get married and have kids. But some don’t get married and some never come back. What do we really teach them about church when they are in youth group that causes this to happen? Do they not see the rest of the fellowship as relevant? Or do they just change and ‘grow out of it’? I don’t have the answers, but it’s an answer we need to get. Those Christians ARE the future of the church.

  3. I like Carra’s title… “Minister to families with youth” at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain; not the typical “Youth pastor” title given at most churches. I wonder if she literally helps “families” connect with their youth on a spiritual level in a practical way outside of church. It almost implies the concept of a staff member and parents co-minstering the kids. I like that!!!

    I like Carra’s comments and agree with most, but “issues” (and she gives a laundry list) can be divisive. They make for interesting topics to discuss, and I like those discussions, but they can draw deep lines in the sand. Deep enough to distract from the beauty and awesomeness of the ocean just a few feet away. For me personally, I can get so caught up in the issue, that I lose sight of the beauty of the main thing.

    What would Jesus say about homosexuality, human rights, women in ministry, poverty, etc.? It’s obvious to me and it may be obvious to you, but are we on the same side of the “line in the sand”? Probably not. Will these discussions attract 20 and 30 year olds and cause them to stay at the church? If so, it might be like high attendance on a church conference day. Did they come to meet Jesus, or to see the outcome of good arguement? Enter conversations with caution… Just saying….

    Oh, And Jim if you agree with Carra, and let’s say FBC Richmond begins a new “topical” Sunday School class, make sure you post “what God is saying” about these topics as they check them off the list. I would like to compare my answers. 🙂

  4. Chris: These are great thoughts! I love what you say about drawing lines in the sand and missing the ocean just a few feet away. I’ll keep that in mind as we think about how to love twenty- and thirty-somethings into the arms of Jesus.

  5. Though “boomers,” my wife and I attended a “millennial” congregation for about three years.

    Twenty and Thirty-somethings could not care less about the institutional Baptist church; e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention. I don’t blame them! Despite re-structuring of the Convention, the SBC still has a 1950s mindset.

    It is up to individual Baptist churches to be relevant to this generation! Millennials are real about their faith and there is nothing “phoney” about them.

    Lest we forget, Christianity has always been one generation from extinction!

  6. I have noticed that many churches, Baptist and others as well, tend to have a “ruling inner group”. If you are part of that group, you can lead and serve. One tends to be able to get into “ruling” groups by being born to one of the “ruling inner group” families or one comes from the outside and is some sort of very influential person in the community. Not part of that group? Forget about serving, forget about being a Deacon or other leader. Churches need to have a “path” to servanthood and to leadership, including various sorts of training and “apprenticeship” sorts of experience which one, such as a young person or older recent “come here”, can follow. There is also often a lack of “outreach and follow up”. Especially in large churches, it is very easy to “fall between the cracks” becoming a “lost sheep”. Churches need to better shepherd the flock, especially the younger people and “forgotten older people”. In my humble opinion.

  7. Twenty and thirty year olds are not the only ones who want this in church. I am past that age group and have yearned for all of these things for many years. I did not find it, so I left the Baptist Church to look at other denominations where authentic, loving discussion was available. We live in a very complex world. Life needs to be simplified on many fronts. Religion is part of of society. Richmond is an amazingly diverse community. My heart would love to see collaboration among churches within our community. My heart would love to see openness as opposed to rigidity. There is a lot of confusion in religion, and fear seems to be at the core of a lot of religious extremism. Extremism is a reactionary stance that tries to control events and draw boundaries. There is extremism both political and religious in the American culture although it is not militant most of the time. If the church is not willing to discuss current issues we all deal with on a daily basis in the media and in the workplace, it will be dealt with on the outside of the church. People are making decisions as I type out this response. My daughter and I had a deep discussion on a serious matter at lunch today regarding a mutual acquaintance. I have always made it clear to my children that they are loved no matter what. I would be there for them no matter what. There are no subjects that I am not willing to discuss. If the church can’t do that, it is only a museum for saints and not a hospital for searchers trying to process the world they find themselves living.

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