Why Young Adults Leave Church

Mark Sayers

is blogging on some of the most common reasons 25-35 seems to be a dead spot for young adults when it comes to engaging in church life.

If you’re in youth ministry of any sort then this is a blog you need to be reading

Here are a few snippets:

From Your Faithclock is Ticking

In Logan’s Run death comes at thirty. For young adult Christians in the West it seems to be some time between 25 and 35 that the fire of faith begins to dim. For some it will remain a faint flicker, they will retain some kind of allegiance to Christianity; despite the fact their faith has lost any active component. Others will find their faith simply growing cold and then dying, the way a campfire goes out, it is burning when you go to sleep, but when you wake in the cold of the morning, it is nothing but cool ashes. You don’t know at what point it went out over night, but the fact remains it has gone out. Others will throw in the towel deliberately. It could be that a life of faith has simply become too hard, or perhaps faith did not deliver the kind of life that they thought that it was promising and thus it is abandoned.


Everything changes when I ask my favourite question “How long do you guys plan on staying in this church?… Ten years?’ I normally get two responses. Response number one is “Are you joking. Ten years!!!” this is usually followed by laughter. The second response is simply blank stares, as if I have asked them a question in Swahili. My experience is that it does not matter what sort of church young adults are attending, be it large, small, emerging, contemporary, traditional; they are not planning on hanging around for any more than 3 years if you are lucky.

From Reason no.1 ‘Choice Anxiety’:

Christian young adults are stuck with a constant splinter in the mind, the never ending nagging feeling that they might have made the wrong decision. Maybe they have chosen the wrong church to attend, should they be at the hip contemporary mega-church down the road, or the small emerging church in the next suburb, or should they rejoin their friends and family at the traditional church that they grew up in? Did they even make right choice in following Christ? Maybe they should move Cities, States, Countries? Should they change partners, careers, lifestyles, ethics?

From Reason no.2 Post Christian Identity:

Christianity is perceived in the popular imagination as being intellectually ludicrous, our behaviour and opinions are seen as bigoted. Whilst obviously I disagree with these assessments, they are a daily reality for many young adults trying to live out their faith in the secular world.

From Reason no.3 The Pornification of Christian Resources:

I am constantly meeting young adults who are still passionate about their faith, but are no longer part of a faith community. When I ask them why, they tell me that there is no need. I ask them how they grow as Christians? They will tell me that they download podcasts from some of the worlds best preachers, they watch sermons on line from cutting edge churches, they read books from well known Christian writers, and attend all kinds of conferences and worship seminars. Some even regularly go on ‘mission trips’ to the third world. Many now choose to not go to their local church because every Sunday they can roll out of bed at midday and turn on Christian cable and watch services from the world’s most successful churches. They read blogs ( irony duly noted ) and frequent Christian chat rooms to connect with other believers. Like the Japanese Otaku they feel that technology has superseded their need for real world – real time relationships.

22 thoughts on “Why Young Adults Leave Church

  1. i think there is a largely unexplored consequence of churches failing to cater for the change in faith stages of young adults (see fowler and jamieson for eg). While they are changing developmentally, experiencing the multiplicity of “greys and truths”, many churches are locked into a black and white understanding of God and the world around them and it just doesn’t have the capacity to hold the tension of the questions being wrestled with by these young adults.

    Ironically the mystery of God and his Truth that contains all truths, and many of the ancient traditions and rhythms of the church actually sit inside this challenge perfectly, just like they are equally able to dance with postmodernism without fear or threat.

    Unfortunately many of our current churches are maintained inside a one-dimensional, efficiency and production/reproduction model of gathering that just can’t handle the confusion, doubts and questions that young adults are wading through.

    Whereas these young crew need space to be unsure and possibly even “heretical”, the church often seeks to reign them in even tighter, making sure they are kept busy in roles of service and leadership, living lives of holiness and being ‘above reproach’.

    ahhhh if i had a dollar for every time i went over this stuff in my head.

  2. This from a former youth/young adult lay minister pursuing a degree in psychology with support work in sociology centered around families – I agree with the comments made by otherendup. At one time the benchmark of adulthood was to marry and have children whereupon many young adults would seek church membership as a part of their family responsibility. Now, the benchmark of adulthood is to finish school, find a good job, save money for a big wedding (many will not marry until this happens), buy a house, and then start a family. Common sense says that following this priority plan causes any thought of church membership to be put on hold as well. However, spiritual needs continue to exist and these young folks continue to look for something that will meet that need. As mentioned above, the old way of doing church does not cut it anymore and we need to stop expecting the spiritual leaders of the future to adhere to the old framework of church. That said, I will repeat what otherendup said: “Ironically the mystery of God and his Truth that contains all truths, and many of the ancient traditions and rhythms of the church actually sit inside this challenge perfectly, just like they are equally able to dance with postmodernism without fear or threat.” Now, how do we put this into play?

  3. Pingback: some good links… « There goes rhymin Simon

  4. sojourner – i used to be a young adult pastor and am now half way through my Social Science degree with focuses on Community Development, Youth Work, Indigenous Studies and Addiction studies. nice to “meet” you.


  5. Hi Matt nice to meet you. Hmmm no wonder your comments made so much sense to me. Great combination of studies you have going. Should go well with a new direction of call that may be in your future :0)


  6. Do you think that Christianity is still the “Road less traveled?” You know the Pilgrim’s progress type stuff of a narrow path. Maybe this 25 – 35 (maybe 20 -35) deadspot is just a natural point of challenge in the journey.

    I have seen many young people drop away from the church and their reasons vary greatly. They also seem to be mirrored by other young people who do not drop away as they face the same life situations (relationships, work etc).

  7. I believe young people (and all of us) need to learn how to passionately and radically follow Jesus and not just “do church”.

    This involves engaging with a community as otherendup put it where we can handle the confusion, doubts and questions that young adults are wading through.

    We also need to learn to “walk as Jesus did” and I believe this covers everything from loving the poor and being a humble servant to healing the sick and experiencing signs and wonders.

    I have recently started relating with a group of 20 somethings who are passionate about their relationship with God and each other. They have experienced the power of God in their lives, seen God operating in miraculous ways and are eagerly pursuing God by even devoting entire nights to prayer.

    Mark says: “For young adult Christians in the West it seems to be some time between 25 and 35 that the fire of faith begins to dim.”

    I would dare to say that for most this is probably because “Christianity” is mainly a passive, intellectual, organized church experience.

    If we were able to tap into the supernatural realm in a genuine way here in the west and release the church to really “walk as Jesus did” I think we would experience the fire of faith burning more brightly than ever rather than growing dim.

  8. In terms of the “fire of faith” growing dim, I think that word “faith” needs some qualification. For some people we are genuinely talking about loss of faith, for it is more about exploring alternative faith options, wether that be Buddhism, Paganism or some variety of mix and match consumer spirituality. In terms of the latter, the dying embers imagery could be somewhat misleading. It needs to be remembered that ours is a pluralistic society and its not just a simple black / white, faith / faith no more world any more. Secularity does not equal atheism.

  9. For some religion and spirituality mean exactly the same thing. For others, religion and spirituality are not related at all (as different as the East is from the West). The gap between the two may be directly associated with a greater world view (thanks to WWW). We are all spiritual beings with spiritual needs. When we see the two as separate, religion becomes the discipline to the end and if the discipline does not fit who we are (our current faith development if you will) we struggle, turn away, and look for something else that will fit. Young adults are more open to other beliefs and thoughts that touch their spiritual selves (some good some not so good). Andrew hit the nail on the head when he says, “I would dare to say that for most this is probably because ‘Christianity’ is mainly a passive, intellectual, organized church experience.” Many of the young adults I know and encounter are deeply in touch with their spiritual selves (very passionate people)yet they find it hard to fit into “church” life because their spiritual experiences do not fit with the church experience the encounter. As Andrew also says, “If we were able to tap into the supernatural realm in a genuine way here in the west and release the church to really ‘walk as Jesus did’ I think we would experience the fire of faith burning more brightly than ever rather than growing dim.” For the Star Wars groupies “The Force (Holy Spirit) is Strong” with these young folks. We just need to let the sides down in the boxes we construct in order to let the Spirit take control – or at least validate the Spirit’s presence in everybody’s lives. We need to recognize that the Spirit can and often works before the discipline of religion. In other words, for many people the spirit needs to be the means to the end rather than the other way around. Yet the question remains, how do we do that?

  10. Pingback: Young Adult Christianity « Disciple of The Way

  11. I was going to add my 2 cents worth, but by the time I finished it was much too long so I posted it at my blog instead.

    Being a young adult Christian myself it is definately tough. The crux of my comment was there seems to be 1 of 2 outcomes.

    1.) You become so ‘Christian’ you struggle to fit in outside a Christian bubble. This is how I feel.

    2.) The pull of society is so strong that, rather than fight it, you just merge into it. It sometimes feels ‘easier’ to not be a Christian than be one…so why fight it? I think that’s what many Christian young adults feel.

  12. The third issue is more problematic than the reasons offered (although I recognise we only have a slice of the whole here). I wonder if many in that age category DO want the relationships church CLAIMS to offer, but find that the reality does not match the hype. The biblical language of family infuses the NT church yet for those who are the generation bearing the brunt of family break-up the church isn’t provide the alternative family it promised.

    So why not podcast a great expository sermon from Driscoll or Bell or someone like that rather than sit through the tired old “7 steps to a great life” pap that is served up so frequently? IMHO the pornification that is spoken of is just as readily found in the “seeker” services that promise much yet deliver so little.

  13. I’m guessing – we have a large group of 25-35 year olds who have experienced the established church mentality because they “had” too and say as one said to me the other day – they are a bunch of hypocrites!!!, want nothing to do with the it. They have see it all, how we hurt each other, destroy each other, they see through the mascra, they have seen you return from a church AGM!!! I don’t blame them, keep them away from the b@@@@@@@!!

    But I’m guessing also something more exciting is out there – a group of 25-35 year olds who have ‘never’ experianced church in their youth and I know they are there – the emergent, incarnational, non attractional model of church holds great possibilities.

  14. Liking steve mac’s comment about family! Sociology pushes for the secular world to redefine “family” because the traditional discription does not work any more. Far too often using the traditional definition of family tags many families as disfunctional because they do not fit. I’ve been pondering the same issue with the Theological notion of church as “family.” I believe we can change the definition and the language we use without changing truth.

  15. My experience is two-fold.

    For 16 years I experienced and participated in a church that offered and delivered authentic family-based reciprocal intimacy. This was the place i grew up in, joined the youth group at 12, got married in and had a new family. These years were full of joy and love.

    Then I worked for the same church for 6 years as a young adult pastor and discovered my family membership had been unknowingly replaced with an employer-employee relationship that delivered authentic but shallow, role-based work relationships.

    The work relationship ended after I chose to wrestle out my personal “heretical” faith deconstruction in what was deemed to be an inappropriate forum. The result was not a return to family peace and union but rather a physical, emotional and spiritual shunning that was directed at not only me but my wife aswell.

    The past four years has seen me reconcile the actions of my fellow work colleagues as simply that of a business transaction that had expired – something that makes sense in a corporate world but I’m convinced should have no place within a family.

    Since being outside the walled city, I have encountered young adult after young adult that has explained similar experiences in their own journey – unfortunately, in some of the cases, these were young guys and girls I had pastored, and it was me that had done the shunning when they had not been able to fit our requirements of faithful young adult volunteer leaders.

    However, it wasn’t until I had personally experienced the rejection that I could see how I had participated in the perpetuation of the same cycle. It has been a process that has been both humiliating and healing for me.

    Many of us have begun to make our beds outside the walled city – in a place of exile from where we were once welcomed and celebrated. We are learning to reconnect with one another, to worship with one another, to risk to love again.

    Young adults who leave the church have many good reasons to do so. Just because they no longer visit your programs and attend your services and volunteer in your youth groups and run your small groups doesn’t mean they have lost their way or rejected their faith in the One who has always kept his promise to them.

    Rather than devise ways of getting these “lost” souls back inside, maybe some would be willing to dare come outside the city and sit with us in our shanty, make-shift places of gathering. To share that space like we shared the other for so long. Maybe….

  16. The question in my mind is not to “devise ways of getting these ‘lost’ souls back inside.” But connecting with each other no matter where any of us might be – exiled, in the city, believer, non-believer, or whatever label we carry (self imposed or not). Like otherendup, I am finding a very different perspective from outside “the walled city” and it is an eye opener indeed!

  17. found this great quote cited over at prodigal kiwi(s)

    “…The church accepts no responsibility for the increasing tide of disaffection, but rather wants to call into question the integrity of those who have been alienated…”

  18. I think the problem is that the 25-35 year olds are being seen as ‘the problem’.

    25-35 year olds for the most part are gaining ‘life-experience’. Pastors and church staff, for the most part, are not gaining that interaction with real life.

    That’s just because the 25-35 year old is not spending all day in an air-conditioned office getting their PA to filter out all the calls from the nuffies and lining-up their next speaking engagement….So the 25-35 year old is more likely to encounter situations that you wouldn’t typically find in a church.

    The 25-35 year old tends to become more ‘grown-up’ through their real-life experiences and they leapfrog the church pastors and staff in being able to apply real-world solutions to real-life situations and integrate that into their personal theology and their advice to others.

    Because they have to. Life forces them to.

    Church pastors and staff tend to gravitate more towards ‘dickhead experience’, whether that be through contact with other church people who also haven’t been forced to grow-up by real-life experience … or they learn directly through colleges of advanced dickhead education; (church-based bible colleges)

    You know the type who runs churches. The ‘I’ve just come back from an awesome time of fruitful fellowship with Brother Brian’ type. Nobody talks or thinks like that in the real-world.

    I still laugh when I hear radio ads for colleges like ‘Tabor’ that offer ‘real-life practical hands-on experience’.

    What we’re getting is this huge gap between the 25-35 year olds who’ve been forced by life-experience to abandon their dickhead ways, and the dickhead culture upon which churches are based.

    And of course it’s much easier to run away from a dickhead when you’re 30, than if you’re 15 and still living at home or you’re 23 and you’re only just realising that your entire circle of friends are dickheads.

    The answer therefore is not to try and re-structure things in churches for the 25-35 year olds, but to find ways to give the dickheads who RUN churches some life-experience.

    Here’s an example.

    We know that the prosperity gospel is BS ..and very few people prosper under it (except those at the top..think Amway, think Ponzi scheme, think Pastor Brian H.)

    For those who do prosper..it’s a co-incidence. It’s like saying, ‘someone told me the Dockers are the best team and always win, the Dockers thrashed North Melbourne, therefore the Dockers will always win.’

    Life-experience would suggest otherwise.

    As life-experience would suggest that lots and lots and lots of people have lost their houses and financial livelihoods by swallowing the prosperity gospel.

    Their church taught them something, but real-life proved that it wasn’t true.

    If this happened to a 25-35 year old, then they would learn from the real-life consequences from the failure of what their faith taught them, and come to a more mature and balanced understanding of the teachings. And they would then then impart that more balanced and mature understanding to others.

    Now let’s take the real-life example of Christian Sh*tty Church senior pastor Phil Pringle.

    His church’s teaching that God prospers those who faithfully ‘tithe’..was contradicted when the church had a $2 million cost over-run on their new auditorium.

    Instead of having abundant supply – as taught by their church – they found themselves two million dollars in the red.


    So they went cap into the hand to a lender to get them out of the skubala and then put the hard-word on their congregation to cough-up the dough to cover the loan.

    Today, they still teach the same ‘tithing causes prosperity’ crap …because……..

    ****the church culture/structure prevented them/saved them from experience the real-life consequences of the faulty church teaching******

    What SHOULD have happened was a realisation in the church that …’ahhh…this teaching doesn’t work’.

    But they effectively insulated themselves from learning from life-experience by plundering the congregation to save themselves from a visit by Mssrs IronKnuckles and Wheel Brace who want their money by 4 o’clock.

    But the 25-35 year old who applies the prosperity principles and goes broke can’t appeal to a congregation to save their arse. They have no option but to learn from the real-life experience.

    So what do you think?

    Life experience for pastors and church staff. Make them do it every 3-5 years for 6-12 months at a time.

    Call it ‘Community Outreach Leave’ if you need to get it through your Board of Dickheads…errr…Elders.

    I know there won’t be much support for such a concept in the church world, but I thought I’d throw it out there because I’m sick of church types blaming 25-35 olds for growing-up.

  19. Very interesting discussion. It is eye-opening to pastors, like me. It is much tougher pastoring nowadays then 30-50 years ago. The pictures about ‘church’ and its leadership now are different. world’s cultures, mindset, etc are changing too. Te attitude of curch-goers toward ‘church’ changes too. It is clear that the church must make adjustment, otherwise it will be viewed like a museum. Its theology, ministry, culture, etc need to be evaluated again and again, and adjusted, then serve the world relevantly, while it is still faithful to the Word. Easy ? No ! Who will do it ? the young generation – 25-35 years or olders who claim to live in the real world, with the need of real experience. The way to do it ? violent take-over or revolution ? no ! Let us remember that God is always in the business of changing people, His church, including the way they live – metanoia. At te end of the day, the adjustment must be done by the church herself, and that includes every believer. Just to talk about it only, does not make change. Shallom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *