Young Adults: Forget Church, Follow Jesus

Two recent articles grabbed my attention, partly because they resonate quite a bit with the pieces I’ve written about Why Young Adults Leave Church. It’s also interesting to me that so many people seem to be talking about this at this particular time. Rachel Held Evans and I came out with some pieces at the same time, and then a similar story by Andrew Sullivan hit the cover of the April 9th issue of Newsweek. My wife, Amy, sent me an article by Adam J Copeland from The Christian Century called No Need for Church: Ministry With Young Adults In Flux.

In the article, Copeland recounts three snapshot portraits of three “typical” young adults who are seeking to follow the way of Christ without church:

A young woman told me that she too had grown up in a loving Lutheran church but felt pushed out when she revealed her sexuality. She now prays regularly, attends spirituality retreats at a Catholic ministry center and volunteers in a variety of settings. But she is not connected to a congregation.

A young man described how he had hoped to be a youth pastor in his conservative evangelical denomination, but then the rigid faith he was taught at Bible college sent him into a crisis of faith. Now his questions about the Bible, and about piety and certain theological doctrines, make him feel unwelcome in the church of his youth—and uninspired to try another church.

A young woman explained that she  planned to live in Fargo for only a year. She felt that it wasn’t worth expending the time she’d need to get connected to a congregation but wished she had a place where she could ask faith-related questions, a place where she might grow in her love of God and neighbor.

Why is this happening? There are a number of reasons, many of which I’ve already discussed in the articles I wrote and linked to above. And there’s no need for me to rehash everything Copeland and Sullivan wrote in their own pieces. but there are a few themes that emerge wherever I look for clues about this trend:.

The teachings of the church are seen as devalued. This doesn’t have so much to do with the inherent importance or validity of what is being said, but rather it’s a reflection of the value of information overall. It’s really a matter of supply and demand. Abraham Lincoln probably wouldn’t have walked so far to get a book from the only area library, after all, if he had Wikipedia and Google Books at his fingertips. Most anything being said, taught or preached about in a church on Sunday can be found somewhere else, wherever and whenever we want it. Why wait?

The institutions have outlasted their original purpose. Most of our churches were built when populations were static. People didn’t divorce, change jobs and move around like they do now. This mobility, combined with the diversification of networking opportunities, on-line and through other means,  puts bricks-and-mortar institutions in an awkward spot of hoping people find them where they are. And much of the outreach efforts of church is still an attempt to get people “in the doors.” But the fact is that most young adults don’t particularly care.

Brave New Films

Our understanding of community has changed. This builds on the previous point, actually. Community used to imply a specific geographic focus, like a church, country club or lodge. All of these kinds of institutions, incidentally, are not what they used to be. Our understanding of relationship is different, and what we come to expect out of being connected to one another has evolved (or mutated, depending on your point of view) in both size and content. For example, I am still in contact with hundreds of folks from my past who are all around the world. A few years ago, we would never have heard from each other again. But I also don’t have many close friends. Everyone’s too “busy.” People are increasingly wary of investing their limited time and resources into anything new, including other people.

This all being said, there is still a significant interest in, and pursuit of, a life following the path lived out and described by Jesus. In some ways, we younger adults are starving for the very community we’re wary of much like the young woman from Fargo described above. But we’re distracted, skeptical and even a little paranoid, especially when it comes to institutions.

So what’s the answer? Those invested in ministry have to decide what matters most.

There’s a question I ask nearly every congregation I get asked to come speak to. Before we get into any other real substance about congregational transformation, I ask them: “If you could realize your vision for the community today, right now, but it meant closing the doors of your church forever, would you do it?”

If the answer is “no,” then the mission has taken a back seat to something more nefarious. If the answer is “yes,” and if they are truly committed to doing WHATEVER it takes with their personal and material resources to live out the gospel, then we have something to work with.

I’m not saying every church has to – and will – shut down forever in order to meet their new mission field’s needs. But if we’re not even willing to consider the possibility, it’s we who have a distorted value system; and those young adults wary of our motives are actually right in their skepticism about us.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. He is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. Christian has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.Visit, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Christian Piatt

Christian PiattChristian Piatt is an author, founder of the Homebrewed CultureCast Podcast and owner of Crowdscribed, a publishing house, social networking platform and crowdfunding tool.View all posts by Christian Piatt →

  • “There is still a significant interest in, and pursuit of, a life following the path lived out and described by Jesus.”

    Feels like you’re beating around the bush here. Let’s call it what it is: young people are thirsty for a real-time relationship with Jesus the Lord, and the typical American church chokes out this relationship.

    Why are we so afraid to admit that we’ve taken control of the reigns and forsaken Jesus as Lord?

  • Eli

    I am glad many are unplugging from the church matrix. Appeals to church leaders and congregations to change their ways will only go so far, because the clergy/laity divide is so entrenched and militates against the leading of Jesus. If someone’s goal is to find a better or more healthy church then the church can help them, if their goal is to follow jesus, the church for the most part hinders that process sooner or later. In the beginning perhaps a church community will give space for jesus to become lord of my personal life, but as time goes by and our vision of jesus increases we realize he is meant to be lord of all.
    I have a theory that if enough believers in the west unplug from institutional church there will be so many of us we will increasingly find Church all over the place. Nothing new really, im thinking china where there is the state endorsed and underground church… perhaps westerners are waking upto the reality something similar is going on where they live as well.

  • Amjuicer

    While it’s certainly true that “mission should not take a backseat” to anything, perhaps mission shouldn’t be the goal of a church. Mission is what we do everyday as individuals, and that’s what people feel, i think. They feel they don’t need the church for mission, and they don’t.
    Paul tells Titus that the goal of his command, or pastorate, is love (1:5). that might make it the goal of the church as well. Paul also seems to think the goal of the church is strengthening each other’s faith. 

  • Jacqui

    Let’s not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit
    of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day
    approaching.  Hebrews 10:25


    I struggle with the notion that church (meeting together
    with other Christians) is out-dated. Billions of people meet together every
    day, in businesses, in schools, in parks, in homes, in cafes… sure we need to
    be relevant to our world, but at what expense? Is our culture influencing how
    we operate as a body of believers? And just because young adults don’t particularly
    care doesn’t mean that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sure we
    need to adapt, but we also need wisdom to know what negative influences our
    culture is having on the Church. Covenant relationships are so counter-cultural
    to our individualist society, where relationships are disposable, like our lives.


    I understand why people move away from the church. Fear of intimacy
    and vulnerability are hard to overcome when we have been hurt, rejected or
    experienced abuse. I have had some of those experiences but I chose to move on
    and look for a new community. I approached it like a failed partner
    relationship, whilst it caused me a lot of pain, tears and sleepless nights, I opened
    myself to new relationships. Most people will do that for intimate partner
    relationships, why not for their faith, for the Church?


    I encourage people who find themselves in a crisis of faith,
    or pain at the hands of church folk or simply those who feel like a square peg
    in a round hole… to continue meeting with other Christians… to be the change
    you want to see in the world… and the Church.

  • Scott

    Sorry.  I am anything but a right-wing, old-guard, young Republican-type Christian. But nowhere in your post do I see even a hint of what the true reason for attending a “brick and mortar” institution on Sundays is – to worship the Lord. There are many benefits of being part of the church body, visible and invisible. But please let’s not forget the reason we’re called to come together – Worship.

    There is a distinct difference between private and corporate worship. The latter can only be accomplished as a corporate body. Which, no matter which way you slice it, or which social networking tool one uses, can really only occur in the physical presence of brothers and sisters.

    I completely agree that the 21st century definition of community is radically different. And that difference brings revolutionary possibilities as well as extreme dangers. We are called to live in relationship, just as the perfect relationship is modeled by God, three-in-one. If God exists as three persons, clearly we need to remember that as it gets easier and easier to slip into techno-driven isolation.

  • Peter Hitchmough

    I’m with you so far …then I’m not. It’s true – we are less and less likely to want to commit to a community and yet we urgently desire one. The question is how to make that live for each of us. Through my local church and other affiliations, I am determined to show mission through meeting the needs of the local community and sharing the good news. I strongly believe this kind of hand-on-hand human-scale community is best and virtual communities can only be shadows of the kind of incarnation that Jesus practised and Jesus taught. I am incredibly active online and acknowledge our extreme connectivity, but it’s nothing compared to the relationships in action tied to a locality. I aim to serve in the little settlement in which I live, and in the nearest big city. Authenticity through incarnation – that is written on my heart at the moment.

  • I definitely have had many of my own experiences with faith and how it really is a difficult time to be a young adult seeking to know God and the divine in this pluralistic ever shrinking world. I really have enjoyed your articles on the subject please keep up the good work this is an important dialogue that needs to happen for the soul of our generation to thrive.

  • mike

    I can only speak for myself but church is like high school in a lot of ways.  It can be very cliquish, people can excel at church and still be immature in their faith, and friendships are Sunday friendships and are shallow in depth.  Also the people in charge seem to have a hidden agenda. Popularity or I am a super Christian. , Etc. Church’s only want you to sacrifice your money and a little time.  I really do not hear a call for personal obedience and radical everyday living.  We want to make a difference in the world but not in our community or neighborhood.  I think we want planned safe church functions like mission trips, soup kitchens , etc., so they can be schedule in and will not interfere in our daily lives.  We want convenience and ease and to feel comfortable.  However then we complain of boredom. I really enjoy the blogs on why young people are not going to church.

  • mike this is done by shane Hipps and might answer so of these questions

  • I get frustrated when I hear claims and solutions being made in the abstract, such as “church gets in the way of Jesus” or “would you be willing to shut your doors and pursue your mission?” Christianity has always faced a perpetual struggle against its own idolatrized institutionalization. We will always be creating new ways to be Pharisees whether it’s over our sacraments or good works or doctrine. But I don’t think we can just dissolve all the brick and mortar and disappear into cyberspace “conversation.” To be blunt, I’ve got a family to support and I think there is a legitimate vocation I’m pursuing to help other people find their niche in the body of Christ.

    The disaster of evangelicalism is that we saturated our youth with the idea that Christianity is just about a personal relationship and not incorporation into Christ’s body. After decades of being indoctrinated with personal relationship personal decision-ism, they’re taking that personal relationship out of the “institution” without any concept that the whole point is to become one with Christ and one with each other in mission to the world. So in a sense, evangelicalism has sowed its own poison pill by dichotomizing “relationship” against “religion.”

    • deborah

       Wow, thank you for this response. God has been humbling me these past few years, to the point of asking forgiveness of the pastor of a large, and as i perceived it, legalistic church we attended. I still think that this church fosters an unhealthy inward focus (they take care of their own great but don’t do outreach into the community and foster a judgmental attitude toward the world). We felt very justified in leaving this church after only a few months. However God showed me through these events that i could see them as my own personal experience and stay stuck in judgement, hypocrisy and sin OR I could ask forgiveness for being judgmental and allow the holy spirit to truly humble ME in Christ perfect love, and HIS LOVE OF HIS CHURCH. No matter how broken his church is, its still his and he died for it, so who am i to dismiss it?! Seriously?! I have been really challenged and am growing in a love of the church. I have really grown to believe that if you cannot love your own brothers and sisters in Christ, then their is no way you are going to love your enemy, or do good to those who would harm you….

  • Sean Tucker

    Great post. We are dealing with exactly the same kind of thing here is South Africa. I was a Young Adult Pastor in a number of local churches, and now don’t attend any church… but I’m more motivated than ever to get to know Christ and live in a way that changes the world. I’ve been putting my story online here if you’re interested in yet another: 

    I think it is such a complicated issue; this shift that’s taking place. But I also think we’re beyond the point where we can claim that young people are just ‘backsliding’ out the back doors, and we have to acknowledge that church is morphing. It’s done it many times through history, and will likely continue to do so. I suppose it’s just a question of trying to do this shift well as a group, and working out our individual roles in this tricky in-between time. Thanks for the post.    

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