Where have all the young people gone?

For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9b)

Right after John tells a bunch of religious leaders that claiming a lineage from Abraham can only get them so far, he declares that God is able to raise up children for Abraham…from stones.

John says, it doesn’t really matter what your bloodline is. You don’t inherit faith. Knowing God is a gift from God, offered to everyone. It is a gift that can only be received in humility and repentance, not by claiming any particular spiritual heritage or predecessor or denomination. God can raise up children from stones.

When I think of God raising up children from stones, I think of all of the concerned conversations about the vast numbers of youth and young adults leaving churches, across most Christian denominations in the US. One person inferred from a number of different studies that one million youth will leave the US church every year for the next several decades. He wrote a dissertation-sized piece about it. It’s kind of a lot.

These concerns are not exactly new―their most recent iteration has been around for at least two decades―but they are still growing.

And the church leaders and others who fret about these things aren’t making stuff up. Church attendance in the US really is declining, and at an alarming rate. (Alarming, that is, if you think that church attendance is a reasonable measure of spirituality, or faith, or faithfulness to God―which, I would say, it may or may not be, depending on the person and situation.) More young people than in recent memory identify themselves as agnostic or atheist, or just don’t identify with any particular religious tradition. The rise of the “nones” is real.

So, church leaders get together to bemoan all of this…and to strategize.

They discuss the big, existential questions. Why are young people leaving the church? Where are they going? They take surveys and worry and go to conferences and write things and read things.

They also discuss the practical, hands-on questions. What can we do about it? How can these tender young souls be saved…by us and our efforts? (Answers definitely include a new sound system, more fog lights, better church coffee, and more skinny jeans.)

Some individual churches have been able to make some changes and attract more young people. But looking at the US church as a whole, it seems like there are plenty of strategies and lots of effort expended, but nothing really seems to be working.

And so, church leaders sometimes think, we need new strategies, more strategies, different strategies. We need to gather more people, smarter people, different people, to think about these things. We need more conferences, different conferences, better conferences. More board meetings, more books, more studies, more social media use, more podcasts. (Definitely more social media use and podcasts. That’s where the young people are. That’s what the young people want.)

Strategizing and meeting and surveying and thinking and tweeting and podcasting can all be good things. But church-y people’s fears around young people’s exodus from the church can often, all too easily, provoke efforts to control and manipulate young people rather than to serve and love them.

How might reflection on John’s words―that God can raise up faith-filled children from stones―impact and perhaps redirect our responses to the reality of a shrinking US church?

Maybe we would be more willing to seek God in the wilderness, and less quick to assume that God stops interacting with young people the moment they choose not to place their bodies within the four walls of a church building.

Maybe we would be more willing to be a little weird and different, and less obsessed with trying to be cooler and more attractive.

Maybe we would feel more free to be ourselves, and less compelled to follow someone else’s ministry model, grasping desperately onto anything that seems to work in some other community (but may or may not make sense in ours).

Maybe we would be more honest about our failures and wrongdoings, and less concerned with trying to protect our image.

Maybe we would find ourselves more intrigued by and supportive of young people’s movements that operate outside of church-y authority structures, and less suspicious of or defensive against them.

Maybe we would be more interested in listening to young people talk about what they experience as healthful vs poisonous, and less interested in telling them what we think is good (and demonizing them when they don’t agree).

Maybe we would think more about good fruit, and less about good marketing.

Some of these things might resonate with young people and prove “effective strategies” for drawing them to church and keeping them there. Or they might not. Either way, that’s not the point.

The point is to do right by young people, not to manipulate them into joining our communities and staying there. The point is to be who God calls us to be and do what God calls us to do, not to do whatever it takes to get more butts into pews.

God can raise up children from stones.

May we, as individuals and church communities, live like we believe this. May we set down our controlling impulses and opt instead for repentance―for a renewed commitment to love young people, and listen to young people, and seek to be the kinds of communities God calls us to be.

2 thoughts on “Where have all the young people gone?”

  1. I've been thinking a lot about this issue, and I think the conventional conservative narrative about why young people are leaving the church is so wrong. It's not bc the secular outside world has corrupted the youth. Maybe it's bc the youth actually see how the church has been corrupted from within and clearly yielding bad fruit. The church is always reluctant to admit that is playing any negative role, and too willing to blame everyone and everything else.

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