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Defining the question about the 20-somethings dropout

In a couple weeks I’ll be part of a discussion with some other denominational leaders about the missing 20-something age group from churches in our conference. I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue lately as the meeting approaches. As far as I can tell, it seems that we’re drawing wrong and unsuccessful answers because we’re asking the wrong questions. Typically the questions are phrased something like, “How do we attract 20-somethings to church?” or “How do we retain students in our church after high school?” thus unintentionally equating church involvement with spiritual growth. Any of us could attest that this just isn’t necessarily true (i.e. Pharisees). The question also seems to indicate that we’re trying to win people to our church more than to a relationship with God. Granted, I understand what the question implies, but let’s make the question more pointed and specific so we’re not accidentally going down the wrong rabbit trails.

The question should be, “How can we help lead 20-somethings into a growing personal relationship with Christ?” If we do this, church involvement becomes a natural outcome, not a primary goal.

Theologically speaking, there’s nothing we can do draw people into a relationship with Christ — that is solely a work of the Holy Spirit. But practically speaking, it’s not an excuse to hopelessly throw our hands in the air and say, “It’s all the Holy Spirit and there’s nothing we can do about it.” It does help alleviate some of the pressure from us, though. Our job is not to make people grow because that’s impossible for us to do. Rather, our job is to lead them to Christ where they make that decision between themselves and God. We can’t be held responsible if they choose to reject Him. We can do everything we can to see that it doesn’t happen, but we’re not going to get down on ourselves and start ranting about the failure of youth ministry because of it. Let’s just talk about how we lead them to that decision and leave the results up to God.

Honestly, as both a growing believer and as someone who is very active in church, there are some things about the church that would push even me away from it. That has to be part of the discussion, as well.

I still think the real issue lies somewhere in the fact that many parents have adopted Christianity as a ritualistic religion instead of a relationship and their facade is passed on to the kids. Parents are willing to fake it at “social club” church, but kids aren’t… and neither am I.

Oh, and by the way, I’m a 20-something myself.

Links to my other posts on this topic:
What I dream for a church
Why church is often a student’s last priority
Why students are dropping out of church
Why graduates drop out of church
Youth group reflects its church
What parents’ actions often teach kids about God


Posted on March 25, 2008

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  • Eric Dunn

    Yes, I think the primary cause is spiritual growth that is hampered somewhere in the teen years. A primary influence in the lives of teens and young 20’s is the educational institutions. If youth are raised in a ritualistic religion instead of a relationship with Christ, then the educational institutions are able to pick apart the religion and the youth see the worthlessness of religion.

  • Casey

    Good thoughts – but i am not so sure that we still need to be using the language of “personal relationship with Jesus” which is much more a product of our western mindset than it is of Scripture (the phrase is not to be found in Scripture) – also, that might be part of the problem – 20 somethings are looking to be connected (ie: facebook, etc) and not just “me and Jesus” – just my 2 cents.

  • @ Casey: The word “Trinity” isn’t found anywhere in scripture either, but yet we use it because it helps communicate an concept. “Relationship with Jesus” is the same way. I’m curious: what/how would you call it?

    20-somethings are indeed looking to be connected both with other people (Facebook) and with one other person (dating relationships/marriage). “Me and Jesus” seems to fit that bill pretty well.

  • Eric Dunn

    Thanks for the feedback Casey. Yes, I am a part of the Western culture and always have been. I’m intrigued by stories of Christianity in other parts of the world. It’s very interesting to see how other cultures outside our own view Jesus and the Bible. I would say that even our different generations have their own culture and I would say it is a very difficult job to take the message of Christ from your own culture into another without losing something in the translation. Can it be done? Absolutely yes, with the Lord’s help. Sometimes I think that we try to stretch into other cultures more than we ought. It would be more appropriate to find a few worthy people that can be raised up as ‘native’ evangelists and teachers. You know the old adage of ‘bloom where you are planted’, the theme that Apostle Paul mentions a few times. We are each uniquely qualified for the purpose He has in mind, and sometimes that is being entrenched in a family, workplace, community, school, etc where there are contacts we can influence for the Lord.

  • Ann

    One of the seminars I attended last year was taught by some guys from Fuller Seminary who had worked on the College Transition Project. The CTP had studied Christian youth, particularly college freshman (http://www.cyfm.net/article.php?article=What_Type_of_Students_Are.html), asking the question about what are the factors that help students make it to adult faith. The two factors that I have heard over and over again, not just from them but others, is that students who stay in the faith have a significant mentoring type relationship with a Christian adult (parent, youth worker) AND a ministry of their own outside the walls of the youth group (working in children’s ministry, choir, worship team, feeding the homeless, etc.)

    No student will make it as an active 20 something Christ follower if they have not had to own their own faith. The kids that most quickly drop out are the ones that only went to church because it was something their family just did. The next ones to go are the ones that only are propped up by youth group,he fun, the friends; when they graduate from YM, they graduate from God. Sad!

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