Why Are Churches Losing Their Youth?

There is an old joke about a parish church that had a bat problem. The parishioners, not knowing what to do, called the bishop to fix it. The bishop went to investigate, and within an hour the bats were gone. The parishioners asked him how he had gotten the bats to leave the church. The bishop said, “I confirmed them.”

This joke cloaks a very painful reality about the Episcopal church: Too often, our youth grow up, get confirmed, and then leave the church. This is also the subject of “You Lost Me,” a new book by David Kinnaman, president of the research firm Barna Group.

Kinnaman found that “no single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant reasons why nearly three of every five young Christians (59 percent) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.”

Reason No. 1, says Kinnaman, is that churches seem overprotective. Today’s teens and young adults have unprecedented access to a variety of ideas and world views, as well as an unending buffet of popular culture. And naturally, as Christians, they want their faith to connect to the world they live in. Yet, much of their experience of church, according to Kinnaman’s research, “feels stifling, fear-based, and risk-averse.”

This isn’t a problem that happens only in other churches, in other places; I have heard similar critiques here in Arkansas. Youth have told me that the main thing their church is concerned about is taking care of itself. This maintenance-minded church, as opposed to a mission-minded church, seems to make both youth and young adults wonder why they should be involved, and eventually they find something better to do.

Yet I also see a very different youth and young adult perspective from many of our churches. For example, St. Peter’s in Conway is continually involved in mission, both locally and globally, and St. Paul’s in Fayetteville is involved in community efforts all over that town. I see youth who are proud to be a part of these congregations.

I was speaking to the Rev. Dee Stayton, vicar of St. Alban’s in Stuttgart. He told me that, when he first started in that position, he found himself with some free time, so he began walking through the neighborhood surrounding the church, knocking on doors, and introducing himself. I was surprised. I had never heard of an Episcopalian doing that. I thought only evangelicals and Mormons grew their churches that way. Dee was and continues to be a visible sign that St. Alban’s Episcopal Church is interested in its immediate community.

I told this same story to a group of youth at a recent event and they were also surprised that an Episcopalian would go door-to-door like that. Is that how we see ourselves? Are we that disconnected with our world?

We as a church must invest in and be involved in the world around us. We must not only profess but also live out the idea that we exist for the people outside our walls. We must always work see the resurrected Christ in our world. Only then will our youth and young adults find a church they want to be a part of.

Randall Curtis, Jr.
Ministry Developer for Young Adults and Youth
The Episcopal Church in Arkansas