Many studies have been, and are being, done on this issue. As is often the case in Canada, however, much of the research we see is done from the American perspective. This is why “Hemorrhaging Faith: Why & When Canadian Young Adults Are Leaving, Staying & Returning to the Church”, a study commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable, is rather refreshing, giving us a uniquely Canadian perspective on the issue.
According to the report, only 1 in 10 young adults in the Roman Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches who attended church at least weekly as a child still do so today. On the Evangelical side, we too are seeing more people leaving than staying. 4 in 10 young adults who attended church at least weekly as a child still do so today. All in all, about 2 out of every 3 young adults are leaving the church.
The report begins by describing several key factors in the majority culture that Canadian young adults find themselves in. Here are four that I found particularly significant:
- Postmodernism – Postmodernism is marked by deep suspicion of the established institutions. Authority becomes something of an evil concept, and the way to resist it is by the pursuit of radical autonomy.
- Consumerism – Excessive advertising and marketing creates consumeristic tendencies. This, in turn, fuels the mindset in young adults that the church is a product or service that satisfies the needs of the consumer. In this view, utility for the individual becomes more important than truth in assessing a religion.
- Digital Information Age – Young adults of today are exposed to information and ideas from all around the globe at an unprecedented rate. This feeds into the values of pluralism, and their confidence in truth is compromised. One trusted source of information, especially when it comes to religious ideas, is friends.
- Unique Life Circumstances – Young adults are in a position where they are taking their first few steps as independent adults. This sort of life transition demands immense time, energy and money. (And, in the case of many Christian young adults, they are doing this with little help from their parents and church.) As they set out on their own, they are seeking to establish their identity. Since the traditional identity-factors such as nationality, ethnicity, religion, etc. have lost their significance in a deconstructionist culture, young adults do not receive their identity but must form it. One way they do this is by experimenting with different lifestyles. Some lifestyles are harmless, while others are at odds with what their faith community teaches.
Four Factors of Church Faith Participation
So, with this backdrop, what precisely drives our Canadian young adults away from the church? And what causes them to stay? The report commits a significant amount of space to the “Four Factors of Church and Faith Participation”: parents, experience of God, community, and the teachings. Each factor shows where things can go wrong, but, in doing so, it also hints at what can be done to reverse the “exodus” phenomenon:
How parents practice their faith has a huge impact on children. This faith must not only be taught, but modeled. When children can see that their parents’ faith is genuine, they themselves are more likely to stay engaged. The young adults whose parents practiced their faith superficially, described this faith practice in such terms as “ritual”, “routine” and “tradition”—all of them used negatively.
When it comes to the instruction of the faith, the most effective way seems to be organic dialogue and invitation to faith participation in an environment where faith is talked about openly, questions are welcomed, and faith is lived out on a day-to-day basis. The formal sit-down talk is perceived as a “lecture” and has little impact.
2. Experience of God
Many young adults want tangible evidence of the presence of God. They want to be able to see it, hear it, touch it, etc. This is not because they particularly trust in empiricism, but because they trust in themselves. For many, the presence of God is validated when their prayers are answered. When their prayers don’t go answered, young adults unfortunately resort to one of two conclusions either:
- God exists but does not care for them or their loved ones OR
- God does not exist.
The former brings disappointment and pain, whereas the second brings an escape route from disappointment and pain.
Growing up, many young adults were taught that engaging in particular practices will lead them to an encounter with God. When this doesn’t work, they come away discouraged. Rather than putting God in a box and impersonalizing Him as though He is a cosmic vending machine, we need to teach our youth and young children that God’s ways are not our ways (Isa. 55:8) and create an environment where the faith community helps them to recognize the God events in their lives.
Paradoxically, in their pursuit of radical autonomy, young adults long for a community where they feel they have a place. What they want is to be part of a dynamic movement rather than a stagnant institution. They long for an authentic community where they feel that their ideas and talents are appreciated and that there is a place for them. This community:
- facilitates spiritual growth in Christ,
- helps others in times of hardship and provides time and care for emotional healing,
- is inclusive and non-judgmental (which is particularly important for young adults who are experimenting with their lifestyle),
- equips people to function in their talents, and
- makes a difference in the community.
4. Teachings and Beliefs
Contrary to the popular notion of an “immature, superficial generation”, young adults are willing to dig deeper and find the substance of their faith. They are bold. They would rather risk being in over their heads than be comfortable and stagnant. They long for a faith community in which:
- they can freely explore the tough issues: sex, different world views, etc. They want to be prepared to face competing ideas.
- they have room to wrestle with tough questions as they undergo the process of making the faith their own.
- the leadership is authentic and honest. Young adults simply want to know that their questions will be taken seriously. If the leadership does not know the answer, “That’s a great question. Let me take a look into it and get back to you” will do.
As much as the backdrop of the majority culture and the factors of faith participation show us why Canadian young adults are leaving the church, it also implicitly presents some ideas as to how we can help them stay or return to church. Here are a few concluding thoughts:
- Discipleship begins at home. For those who are parents, it is time that we start living our faith and modeling it for our children. Invite open dialogue and be vulnerable and honest about struggles in life. The church must equip and train parents to this end, and help establish spiritual parenthood for young adults that come from broken families without healthy role models
- Young adults are a lonely and tired generation. Individualism is an idea, but longing for community is our nature. Young adults want to belong to an authentic faith community and hear words of wisdom and encouragement from those who have gone before them. The church should facilitate cross-generational support and help build trusted, cross-generational relationships. Any sort of correction or words of rebuke must be offered in the context of a solid, loving relationship. Mentorship is key.
- The church and parents must provide a place where questions are welcomed and tough topics are dealt with in an honest and vulnerable way. Canadian young adults are not interested in the “Jesus loves you, glitter rainbows puppy-dog version of the Gospel”, as one respondent put it in an interview.
The issue of the young adult exodus from the church can easily be disheartening. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. While many young adults are leaving the church today, there is also the minority who have overcome the hardship through discipleship and loving care in an authentic community. When the church lives up to its calling, it provides an unparalleled community in which Canadian young adults can belong and be discipled to live for Christ and make a difference in the world. It’s high time we created such a community.
To purchase the full study and learn more visit: hemorrhagingfaith.com