Krish Kandiah has been writing about the tragedy of ‘the missing generation’ for years, but when his own children stopped going to church, the issue took on a new urgency for him. Here he shares what he believes to be the five things that push young people away from God
The demographic studies of the Church make sobering reading. Over the years there have been catastrophic losses of young people from the Church. The overall downward trend has inoculated us a little from the shock, perhaps, but there’s no escaping the devastating impact. Why are so many students and young professionals absent from or leaving the Church? And what can we do to re-engage them?
A missing generation
For many years, there has been a worse church survival rate for the children in our Sunday Schools and youth groups than on the Titanic.
In 2020, a Church of England study revealed that for the first time its attendance of 0-16s had fallen below 100,000, representing a 20 per cent fall over a five-year period, compared to a 12 per cent decline in the average adult Sunday attendance.
Their disproportionate loss has impacted the number of retained young adults now, but there are also other factors at play – not least the impact of Covid and the influence from social media. There may not be current research to quantify it, but every church around the country can see the glaring sparsity, if not the total absence, of young adults in their Sunday services.
I have been writing about the tragedy of this missing generation for many years. But now my own children have joined the young adult category. With the odds stacked against them, the task has taken on a new urgency for me. Their challenges have also helped me see the huge obstacles they and their peers are facing – as well as the moment of opportunity we may have to make strategic changes on their behalf.
every church in the country can see the glaring sparsity, if not the total absence, of young adults in their Sunday services
1. Struggle to belong
I seem to have spent much time over the past eight years relocating my three grown up children. Whether for work, or training, or studies, they, like many of their peers, pass hardly a year in the same place. Multiple different towns mean multiple times of researching local churches, of visiting churches, of falling into the ‘newcomer’ category, of making friends, joining groups, finding their place. And before that process is even complete, it’s time to move again. It hardly seems worth all the effort.
And there are other obstacles to overcome too. Sometimes the first steps on the job ladder don’t free them up regularly on Sunday mornings. Sometimes they can’t afford the time or the travel costs. Sometimes they are ill or have simply run out of energy. Sometimes weekends have had other priorities. Two years of pandemic isolation still haunts them with a reduced stamina for socialising, shrunken friendship circles and changed Sunday morning habits. It is a lethal concoction that has left young adults struggling to find in church a place they feel they belong.
2. Struggle to believe
Many of our young adults are also deconstructing their faith. Some of that is entirely appropriate. Using our intellect to examine our beliefs can be good; questioning our traditions, habits and assumptions, instead of blindly following along, can be healthy; taking time to check if the Bible is relevant today is vital. But many young adults are deconstructing their faith without the support of friends and Christians who have different cultures and perspectives and stronger theology with a deeper understanding. I am reminded of those many occasions I deconstructed computer hardware in my youth – I discovered important things about how it all worked, but I invariably ran into trouble when I needed to put it all together again.
Any newfound appreciation I may have had for the inner workings of the computer counted for nothing when I couldn’t even switch it back on. The deconstruction of our faith might also be temporarily useful, but sadly it is often difficult to reconstruct a robust belief system that works for the long-haul, especially when you are doing it on your own.
3. Struggle with betrayal
I meet many young adults who feel let down by the Church and its leaders. This is unsurprising in the wake of recent headlines about high profile leaders like Mike Pilavachi, Ravi Zacharias and too many others.
Their public failures point to the strong likelihood of widespread unreported and private instances of bullying, misogyny and abuse. Many young adults struggle to rebuild their trust – or have their trust repaired – following these betrayals. They are left more inclined to believe those who accuse the Church of hypocrisy, bigotry, naval-gazing and worse. Some of those disappointed and disillusioned young adults have left the institution of Church while still trying to hold on to their faith. Others have walked out on both the Church and their beliefs.
4. Struggle with branding
Like it or not, our churches have an image problem. Too many young professionals simply don’t want to be associated with churches they feel are pressing the wrong political or tribal buttons. They might not want to be seen as anti-gay, for example. Or they might not want to be labelled as pro-life, pro-traditionalism, or pro-status-quo. They might not want to be pigeon-holed as Baptist, Church of England or Methodist.
This is not to say that young people don’t care about politics or theology – quite the opposite in fact. In its most recent survey the Barna Group found that young people want the Church to make an impact on issues of poverty and injustice. There seems to be a disparity between the narrow issues the Church is seen to speak up about and the broader issues the young people would like the Church to engage with.
5. Struggle with boredom
In a recent youth event I spoke at, attendees were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking about their relationship with church. To my surprise, a large proportion ticked the box that said they felt it had “untapped potential”. This needs to be waved in the faces of those who have written off this generation as “snowflakes” – not resilient, inactive, uninvolved. They do not, as per the criticism so often levelled at them, simply spend their time wallowing in the disappointment that they never became megastars or millionaires. No, this generation has been inspired by people like Malala Yousafzai and her work advocating for girls’ education despite being shot in the head by the Taliban, or like Greta Thunberg and her work raising awareness about climate change, despite her autism.
This new generation of young adults doesn’t want to simply become pew-fillers. They get bored just thinking about sitting still and listening to a 30-minute sermon. They want to be challenged, inspired, utilised, listened to, activated. They know they can make a positive difference in the world. They are just waiting for the opportunity to raise their voices, stand up for their values and spread their vision.
A missional generation
They say the best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago and the second-best time is now. I believe we can apply this principle to our investment in the lives of young adults, students, and young professionals. It’s not late for us to do something radical to help not only engage them with church on Sundays but also, more importantly, to inspire and empower them to serve God in their day-to-day activities.
I’d love to be part of a conversation that aims at revolutionising our engagement with young adults. I think we can start by finding ways to recognise the value and potential of all children and young people, and show them they are welcome. I think we can find new ways for them to develop a robust and rigorous understanding of faith. I think they can be encouraged to question, doubt and challenge their faith within a secure environment. I think they can be released to make their mark for the Gospel in their positions within companies, government ministries, our armed services, health care, education and anywhere else they find themselves. I think we can tap their potential and release it into the world.
I believe, with encouragement, imagination and collaboration, the missing generation can become a missional generation.
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