Quarantining a Generation
Churches are striving to keep young people coming, but their methods may be keeping young people away from what’s best about church.
Following a powerful message about influencing our culture, our group of around 80 joined together for worship. The message had exposed some nerves, and as I stood there, surrounded by my peers, a deep sense of loneliness gripped me. I longed for my mom’s reassuring words or my dad’s warm embrace. Instead I was met with an oddly uniform sea of youthful faces — faces of individuals, I guessed, who felt as adrift as I.
I wondered why, surrounded by the body of Christ, I would feel so spiritually isolated. After all, didn’t Christ establish the church as a support system where people could belong? Why, then, do we as young adults struggle to find our place in churches? Perhaps the answer lies in a movement that is radically changing the face of the church.
In a report published several years ago by the Barna research group, David Kinnaman reports, “Americans in their twenties are significantly less likely than any other age group to attend church.”
Not only are twenty-somethings being out-attended by older generations, but those who have grown up in the church are leaving. Between the ages of 18 and 29, more than half abandon the church.
A potential reason for this mass exit, Kinnaman says, is an overwhelming feeling among young adults that they are being overlooked by the church. Other deterrents include busyness, a skepticism of church, a lack of commitment and an aversion to traditional methods.
These statistics suggest that the church is heading toward extinction. To counter this alarming trend, churches are seeking new ways to reclaim this faltering generation. Hoping to attract and engage young adults, many churches are creating alternative services where the music is hip, the teaching is relevant and the community is homogeneous.
This movement began several decades ago with a big push to reach Generation X. Since then, young adult churches have sprung up across the country, gaining widespread popularity. Referred to as the “emerging church,” these congregations emphasize relevancy, authenticity and unconventional methods. Noble goals. But is this approach reaping the intended result of greater church involvement?
With these words to Peter — “On this rock I will build my church” — Jesus founded a broad new institution. The first church was a multi-generational congregation. “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” (Acts 2:44).
The church was established to glorify God and to provide a place for believers to challenge, encourage and support one another. Those who previously had little in common became one unit through belief in Christ. Paul explained it like this: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” single nor married, young nor old, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I added those last two, but I believe they are in the spirit of Paul’s intent.
This unity inspired people to share everything they had, to invite widows and orphans into their homes and to demonstrate a love and cooperation that drew non-believers like a magnet. Spending their time together in each other’s homes, church members operated much like a family.
Young adult services seek to foster community through peer groups. These relationships satisfy to an extent, but they fall short of the family model. Instead of partaking in the warmth of intergenerational bonds, young adults find themselves segregated, even quarantined, from other age groups.
When I moved to Colorado five years ago, a family, who I’d met while attending college in Oregon, became involved in my life. They had me over for meals, gave me furniture, invited me to their church and even helped me get to work on snowy days (I was not used to driving in snow). That nurturing relationship helped me overcome those first lonely months in Colorado and formed a bond that continues today.
I recently had lunch with a family from my church. The mother of the family expressed her disappointment in our church’s decision to begin a separate service for young adults. “Maybe I’m being selfish,” she said. “But I want you to be with us. I want my kids to grow up seeing godly young adults.”
I don’t think this mother is being selfish at all. In fact, her desire is exactly in line with Scripture. In Titus 2:4-5 Paul instructs the older women in the church to live lives of example and train the younger women in purity, virtue and the finer points of marriage and motherhood.
Speaking to the mature men, Paul continues, “Encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good.”
In order for these relationships to take place, all ages must exist in community together. With the growing number of alternative services, young adults are missing out on relationships that provide wise counsel, build spiritual maturity and help bridge the gap to the next stage of life.
A lack of mentorship may also contribute to the growing confusion in single circles concerning marriage. Bombarded by media that portray marriage as boredom and bondage, single guys have little motivation to pursue a woman and start a family. Instead of being encouraged to develop gentle and quiet spirits, single women are pushed by society to be independent and self- sufficient.
Mentoring relationships combat these and other unbiblical ideas, while allowing young adults to see first-hand the rewards of marriage and family.
The cry of the emerging church is for relevancy. To keep young adults from slipping out the back never to return, churches believe they must compete with bars, coffee shops and nightclubs.
Jesus didn’t try to compete with the culture. He loved people and He spoke the truth, and those were the qualities the masses responded to, not His showmanship. Expecting the church to be relevant to every age group at all times is unrealistic.
I grew up in a community church of 90 people (my family boosted that number to 96, the biggest attendance hike in five years). Church wasn’t always exciting for me. We didn’t have a fancy youth program. In fact, my parents rounded up a ragtag bunch of us, made brownies on Sunday nights and called it youth group. The program was not attractive, but out of that youth group the majority of us continue to walk devotedly with Christ.
Obviously the relevancy of the program didn’t inspire this dedication. But each teen in that youth group felt connected to the body. We were present at business meetings. We volunteered to teach children’s church and vacation Bible school. We did yard work for widows.
On Thanksgiving Eve the entire congregation gathered to sing hymns, share praises and eat pie. My peers and I thrived in the richness of everyone being together, from the silver-haired saints to the stumbling toddlers. Through that experience, I learned that the goal of the church was not to make me happy. The goal was to serve.
Scripture sets the bar high: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
Sacrifice and submission are staples of Christianity. When the church separates young adults from the body for the sake of taste or style, it does them a disservice. We come to believe we’re entitled to special treatment and not obligated to participate in the duties of the larger body. Services meant to empower young adults may end up letting them off the hook.
The church is changing. But as it moves toward a more segregated format, young adults are suffering the consequences: lack of nurturing relationships, loss of godly mentors and the growth of a self-indulgent attitude.
Young adults should expect more out of church — and themselves. Kinnaman reports young adults are less likely than any other age group to donate to churches, commit to Christianity, read the Bible or serve in the church. A poor track record for those next in line to lead the church.
Our generation needs to first step up to the basic responsibilities of being believers. Then we need to seriously consider if we are engaging the church in the way Christ intended.
One person cannot reverse the trend of generational division overnight. But I can share my concerns with church leadership, commit to becoming actively involved in my church and devote myself to believers of all ages. And as I do, I hope to find myself standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow believers instead of alone in a crowd.
Copyright 2005 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Suzanne Hadley Gosselin is a freelance writer and editor. She graduated from Multnomah University with a degree in journalism and biblical theology. She lives in California with her husband, Kevin, who is a family pastor, and her four young children: Josiah, Sadie, Amelia and Jackson. When she’s not hanging out with her kids, Suzanne loves a good cup of coffee, conversation with friends, musical theater and a trip to the beautiful California coast.