If you work with young adults, I’m sure you’ve heard the stats about them dropping out of church. You’ve hopefully wrestled with the current realities and also helped to forge a positive path forward that seeks to create a ministry environment that welcomes young adults into our churches, seeking to reach both the never-reached and the prodigal. Lifeway Research recently released the findings of some new research centered on young adults and their views about Christianity and the church. This is a follow-up study to some initial research initiated 10 years ago.
There are some great posts summarizing some of the findings that you can check out here and here. Or, you can download the full research here. Additionally, our director of student ministry, Ben Trueblood, has taken the findings and compiled them into a book format called Within Reach. The book is written with youth ministers as the primary audience, but there’s great insight that can be applied to anyone working with college students and young adults. Ben does a great job of taking the quantitative results of the research and pulling out principles to help ministry leaders think through the best path forward and helping us see a hopeful future in the midst of some dismal numbers.
I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book for a more thorough analysis, but as I’ve spent time digesting the data, a few things have stood out:
- Connections with older adults matter.
An undeniable correlation was made between the investment of adults into the lives of youth and their likelihood to remain engaged in church. The more adults investing in an individual student’s life, the less likely the student is to walk away from church after graduation. College students and young adults continue to crave mature Christians to pour into their lives and help them navigate faith and life. These kinds of genuine relationships, where young adults can see Christians cling to Jesus in the midst of real-life situations (the good and the bad), create the kind of culture that they want to be a part of. This is where they can learn how the gospel speaks truth into every part of their lives.
- There’s no substitute for Bible engagement and spiritual disciplines.
It will probably not shock anyone, but the research shows that youth who consistently read their Bible, prayed, and practiced spiritual disciplines were more likely to stay committed to church. I’m sure all of us would say that is important and could point to ways we encourage Bible engagement in our ministries. But we can’t only focus on how to get young adults to read the Bible more. We should also be asking how we can help them to really understand it and to see it as a relevant book in their lives. The bigger win is not just checking off a box for reading the Bible but helping them to experience true engagement with God’s Word.
- We must call young adults to something bigger.
I think we often assume young adults stop attending church because they have a bad experience or a change in their belief system. The research, however, would suggest that young adults didn’t run from the church because of bitterness or a drastic change to their worldview. Instead, for the majority, they just sort of fizzled out because they stopped seeing church as a relevant part of their lives in the midst of other pressing needs (work, studying, etc). It was a passive decision because they failed to see how an identity rooted in the gospel was central to every part of their lives.
Helping young adults encounter others who exude a growing, vibrant faith and teaching them how to read and study God’s Word for themselves is critical. But it is also important to help young adults see how Christianity calls them into a mission that is bigger than themselves and worth giving their lives to. They long to understand that their little “c” church is part of a global movement that is far bigger and further reaching than just the local expression they experience on Sunday mornings. Ben Trueblood reminds us that “living with a Kingdom mindset will develop a thirst for the kind of biblical community found in a local body of believers and students will be more likely to search it out when they move away (Within Reach, p. 120).”
A staggering 66% of young adults said they stopped attending church regularly (twice a month or more) for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. It is a sobering statistic. It reminds us that continued influence in the lives of young adults matters. It forces us to wrestle with the other findings in the research that can help inform our ministry priorities if we want to see these numbers change. Most importantly, it forces us to cling to Christ as the One who brings true transformation in the lives of young adults and is the King Who promises to build His church!
Bill Noe is the Collegiate Ministry Specialist at Lifeway Christian Resources. A former campus minister (and current collegiate ministry volunteer at church), Bill loves being a part of seeing college students grow in their walk with the Lord. Connect with Bill on Twitter.