By Jacob Bier
In recent years there have been growing fears within evangelical churches concerning the decline of young adult church attendance. Simply put, churches are continuing to see the younger generations walk away from the faith.
A number of social media movements such as #Exvangelical, #ChurchToo, and #EmptyThePews have drawn further attention to this phenomenon. These trends have given way to the proliferation of so-called deconversion stories on blogs and podcasts. In a deconversion story, people air their grievances with their former Christian tradition before detailing their journey into an alternative, and usually more secular, version. Common reasons given by #Exvangelicals for leaving their church include Biblical literalism, matters of social justice, and anti-LGBTQ stances.
Lest anyone think that these deconversion stories are coming from random people on Twitter, many public Christian figures have spoken of their own deconversions, including Jen Hatmaker (teacher and author of many women’s books), Joshua Harris (former pastor and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye), and Jonathan Steingard (lead singer of the Christian rock band Hawk Nelson). These stories have made an impact beyond evangelical circles, even reaching the pages of prominent news outlets like The New Yorker and Christianity Today.
Church leaders seeking to minister to young adults cannot afford to ignore these larger trends. Teens and young adults who have been raised in the church will no doubt be influenced by these stories, and some will inevitably be led to their own deconversion. Many young adults within evangelical churches are wrestling with their beliefs as forces both inside and outside the church challenge them on some of the most fundamental issues of morality, epistemology, and sexuality. In the face of such a crisis, many church leaders are at a loss of what to do.
Reach Young Adults
In both my experience as a young adult myself and as a minister to teens, I have found that church leaders can reach their young adults in the following three ways:
1. Listen carefully to young adults’ concerns and engage with them on difficult topics.
Young adults who have doubts about their faith should feel that their pastor is someone who will shepherd them and help them with their questions. One recurring pattern in deconversion stories is that many people feel marginalized or ignored by other Christians for having different opinions. Dismissive and arrogant attitudes toward those who are already struggling with their faith can be fatal.
Instead, church leaders should listen carefully to their members, counseling them and studying the Bible together to find the right answers. In this way, a pastor acts like a shepherd, guiding the people to the green pastures of God’s Word. Church leaders do not need to feel like they always have to have the answer. Young adults will appreciate the honesty and authenticity of a pastor who admits his own limitations while genuinely seeking to help.
Another danger is the tendency to avoid speaking about difficult issues. Outside the church, young adults are being confronted at younger and younger ages with a wide range of difficult topics, ranging from racism to sexuality. Kids all across the United States, even those in Christian homes, are influenced in profound ways by what they see on Netflix, YouTube, and social media. Through nearly unlimited access to the internet, kids are exposed to pornography at earlier and earlier ages. Drag queen story hours, celebrity statements on social issues, and controversial social media trends regularly make their way into the lives of Christian teens through the internet and their peer groups. Yet for some reason, many churches tend to keep things very light and nonconfrontational, afraid to address serious topics with youth. If the church won’t teach them how to think about their worldview, someone else will. If churches continue to allow the culture to shape Christian teens more than the Bible, those churches will have no right to complain when their children walk away from the faith.
I learned this lesson this summer when I saw that some middle schoolers from my youth group were posting on social media about #BlackLivesMatter after the death of George Floyd. This was no longer just about what happened in Minneapolis, but about what was happening in my youth group. After seeing the posts, I took the opportunity to stop my current teaching series and have a discussion with the students about the sin of racism and how to interpret this event in the light of the gospel.
If I had ignored those Instagram posts and assumed that my students were too young to have a serious conversation about the news, I would have missed an opportunity to minister to my students. Instead, our group had a fruitful discussion, and the students appreciated that their questions were taken seriously. By listening carefully and engaging with young adults on difficult topics, church leaders can help young adults understand their world Biblically.
2. Don’t make politics a litmus test for true faith.
There is no question that politics have become increasingly more divisive in our country over the past few years. The rise of social media has contributed greatly to this problem as people engage with the political realm in new ways. It seems difficult to scroll very far on Facebook or Twitter without seeing political content of some kind, and such posts often result in contentious online debates between strangers.
Unfortunately, Christians have not been immune to the conflict. Many Christians are quick to line up on one side of the party line, assuming bad motives of anyone who would see things differently. In some places, political views seem to have even taken precedent over theological principles. Many young adults are tired of the grandstanding and gatekeeping of the culture wars, and some leave the church altogether over different approaches to politics.
Church leaders who want to reach young adults need to recognize that faithful Christians can disagree on political issues. Especially as Baptists, we should be the first to uphold the freedom to vote according to one’s own conscience. The United States is not the kingdom of God, and Christian leaders must be very careful never to confuse the two. No political party has a monopoly on morality or truth. Therefore, Christians who are seeking to be faithful to the whole counsel of God can and must challenge the Republicans, Democrats, and all political parties on different aspects of their respective platforms and representatives. The Word of God is meant to teach, rebuke, and instruct all people, regardless of their status or political affiliation (2 Tim. 3:16).
While there are certainly moral issues at stake in the ballot box (such as abortion, civil rights, and immigration), pastors must not make a person’s politics the test of true faith. Ultimately, the bonds that unite Christians are far greater than allegiance to a political party (Eph. 4:5). As church leaders engage young adults on political issues, those leaders should seek to be fair and balanced, carefully distinguishing between God’s Word and opinions. This means being honest about one’s own assumptions and holding them with an open mind. The goal for pastors and church leaders should be to bring up Christians who are mature in the Lord and able to think through issues Biblically, not to turn their congregants into a monolithic voting bloc (Eph. 4:13).
Even as Christians seek to think Biblically about politics and be responsible with the vote they’ve been given, they need to be constantly reminded that this world is not their home. Like Abraham and the saints of old, Christians are pilgrims and sojourners on the earth, seeking a still better country (Heb. 11:13–16). While there are political dimensions to the moral problems of the culture today, the ultimate cause of them all is spiritual. Salvation is not found in any one political party or leader, but in Jesus Christ, Who is Lord of all. His kingdom is an everlasting one, and before Him all the nations of the world are like a drop in the bucket (Isa. 40:15). His purposes are not tied to the outcome of elections or political campaigns. With this in mind, Christians can fix their eyes on Jesus and the hope they have in Him, no matter what happens in the world.
3. Invite young adults into the Christian tradition.
In the two thousand years since the apostles, Christians have thought long and hard about how to apply the Bible’s teaching to every area of life, including politics and society. While each author wrote within his own historical context, Christians today have much to learn from the Christians of the past. It would be foolish to think that there is nothing to learn from the saints who have gone before.
Surely abolitionists and Christian civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Francis James Grimké have much wisdom to contribute to our culture’s conversations on race today. The sermons of John Chrysostom and Basil the Great concerning the dangers of wealth are guaranteed to challenge American materialism. Besides these, the writings of the church fathers and Reformers can enrich and enliven the faith of 21st century Christians with their meditations upon the character and nature of God. These are just some examples of the rich heritage that belongs to all Christians.
Many young adults are eager to learn and engage with their Christian heritage, as they long to feel connected to something greater than themselves. Even better, many of these important works from Christian history are in the public domain and can be accessed online for free. In every age, God has provided faithful men and women whose writings have been left behind, and church leaders today should take full advantage of their wisdom.
An Awesome Task
In many ways, it’s easy to become discouraged when I see the latest trends on youth decline in church participation. As a minister, I often wrestle with God like Paul, wondering, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). Ultimately, all I can do is labor in teaching and with much prayer, knowing that God’s Word will not return void (Isa. 55:11). Church leaders and pastors have an awesome task of teaching and forming the next generation. Regardless of the culture and latest trends, God is in the process of building His church. Confident of this, church leaders can minister to young adults, equipping them to understand their world according to God’s Word.
Reposted with permission from Baptist Bulletin © Regular Baptist Press, all rights reserved.
Jacob Bier is youth director at Haddon Heights (New Jersey) Baptist Church. He is pursuing a master of divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary. Jake writes regularly on his personal blog, Further Up & Further In.