They Aren’t Coming Back

Where have all the Young Adults gone?

In almost every church I go into, I am asked some version of the same question. How can we get young adults back into our congregation?

I should probably mention that I work with churches, and that ministry to and with teenagers and young adults are two of the main focuses of my work. So…not such a stupid question after all.

But the thing is, it’s the wrong question.

Recently I was at a conference where Pastor Erica Liu, a Presbyterian campus minister at The University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented some compelling data suggesting that college-age adults are no less engaged in churches today than they have been for the past 40 years. I was slightly surprised at this, until I took a look at this trend alongside other data on the religious trends of Americans across the generations.

While those we traditionally think of as “Young Adults” (18-25) are indeed displaying reasonably similar behavior to even their parents generation’s religious behaviors, that is where the similarity stops. In our parent’s generation, the Baby Boomers, our parents were settling down, purchasing homes, marrying and having families by their early thirties. They were coming back to church – not for them, but for us – to have us baptized, take us to Sunday School, and raise us in the Christian Faith.

But things have changed.

Young Adulthood now usually extends to at least age 30-35, leading to a new and different phase in the life cycle of Millennials – emergent adulthood, stretching from age 25-35 or even later. And this is throwing off all the tried and true formulas that far too many churches are clinging to to “save” their church…waiting for young adults to “come back to church”. But here’s the thing…

They aren’t coming back.

The real truth that most churches just aren’t willing to face is that the cultural ground has shifted under our feet. We have experienced a social and technological earthquake..and the world has changed. And most of our congregations are still doing ministry for the old world – a world that no longer exists.

Older Millennials (30-35 year olds) are beginning to reach some of those traditional signposts of adulthood – marrying, owning a home, starting to have children – and yet…they are not darkening the door of a church. Exactly at that moment when they are “supposed” to be coming back to re-energize the church and bring droves of young children with them to flood the halls of our Sunday Schools.

In fact…

The data tells us the exact opposite is happening. About a third of older Millennials (adults currently in their late 20’s and early 30’s) now say that they have no religion, up nine percentage points since 2007, when the same group was between the ages of 18 and 26.

In other words, even if college-age young adults are no less involved in the church than ever, as they are growing through the new phase of emerging adulthood in their late 20’s and early 30’s they are leaving the church faster than ever – the exact opposite trend from their parents, and previous generations.

And this clear trend is the exact opposite of the assumption most churches are staking their futures on. Too many of our churches are doubling down on an all-or-nothing bet that is doomed to failure…and yet – somehow – they consider this to be the “safer” option than change.

We are staking our future on a logical fallacy.


Next blog post: Why they aren’t coming back…


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