What the Hemorrhaging Faith research project means for the Canadian Mennonite Brethren church
“What you have to realize about my generation is that we are lost,” 22-year-old Jessi blurted out. The recent college grad continued: “There is so much out there – it’s confusing. We feel alone, and we look for guidance. That’s where we begin to stray.” Over coffee, Jessi and I were talking about her leaving the student role that has defined her since kindergarten, and the stress of finding a job.
Her last line – “we begin to stray” – puzzled me, but then I realized what Jessi was getting at. With the pressure to create a future on your own among a massive number of options with few stable adults on hand to guide, yes, you stray all over the place. This was demonstrated in the Hemorrhaging Faith project: research on the spiritual trajectories of Canadian young adults who attended Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and Evangelical Christian churches as children.* [see sidebar]
Two out of three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child or youth in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s no longer do so today.
Further, despite being raised in a Trinitarian confessing church, one in two of these young adults now would self-identify as “spiritual but not religious,” “no religion,” “atheist” or “agnostic.”
Although defections from evangelical churches such as the Mennonite Brethren are less pronounced than those from the Catholic or mainline Protestant tradition, a significant number stray from our congregations too.
This raises important questions.
⇒What do we have to do to reverse a trend of dwindling connection to Christian community?
⇒What does it take for a young adult raised in a Mennonite Brethren flock to catch a vibrant faith that lasts a lifetime?
I have spent the last four years fixated on these questions. As we studied 72 young adult interviews and pored over the survey data from more than 2,000 young adults, some key insights for the church emerged.
We can’t give what we didn’t first receive
As Jesus states in John 15, if we remain in him, we have God’s supernatural life flowing through our veins. Without this personal reality, we are spiritually dead.
If we are not the real thing, our youth will not be impressed. The most important move we need to make to help others stay rooted in Jesus is to experience the extravagance of God ourselves.
The very life of triune God lives within us – by consent, not effort. Being a follower of Jesus is not just about sin management or doing our very best. It is letting go of our need for security, approval and control, and saying “yes!” to God.
Think back to the garden in Genesis and humankind’s first temptation. It was to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
But here is the greatest news of all. We were not put on the planet primarily to discern right from wrong, but rather to eat from the tree of life, which is Christ himself, and to digest his life into us. The character, the nature and the glory of triune God is thus expressed through human beings. The life in us does the work. And if our youth see this in us personally and in us corporately, they will come.
The person of Christ inside us and our communities will intrigue the younger generation when they see and experience God through us. Unless we have accepted as a gift the uncreated, holy and divine life of God living inside of us, we have little to offer.
They can’t be what they can’t see
We must be visible to our youth. The discipleship modelled by Jesus was apprenticeship. It was organic and long-term, not programmatic with starts and stops that lose people at transitions.
Jesus took an apprentice with him everywhere he went. Try that: take a millennial (born in the 1980s or 90s) along wherever you go.
The primary thing Jesus did in his post-resurrection days on earth was track down his engagers like Mary, his fence sitters like Thomas and his wanderers like Peter. And if rejecter Judas were still alive, Jesus’ character suggests he would have tracked him down too – just as he would later visit murderous Saul who became the apostle Paul!
What are present day implications for us? Church must go beyond Sunday. This means not just sharing the gospel, but giving our very lives because our people are so dear to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8, 19–20).
This is imitation, not just information and inspiration. It is always about being with – the ministry of presence.
“Don’t just be there; be audaciously present,” writes Bill Beausay. Being there requires artistry and stealth, he suggests. It means being present in “powerful, colourful and in-your-face ways.” It means we live such authentic lives that we can urge our young, as Paul urged his flock (1 Corinthians 4:16), to imitate us as we imitate Christ.
It also means the church family views everyone (not only next of kin) as “blood relatives.” It means being visible and vulnerable in all seasons, including the “dark nights of the soul.” And it means letting our youth access our elderly – the most beautiful souls in our midst – who despite life losses are finishing their faith journey well.
We can’t influence if we don’t stay
To do all this well, we have to slow down. “One of the most harmful ideals to grip [our minds] over the past two decades is that of ‘quality time,’” writes George Barna. Youth need quantity time.
We need to be present in the same way Jesus was present to his disciples and Paul was to his converts, as he admonishes in Philippians 2:5–8. To empty oneself means to give without expecting our efforts to be reciprocated or acknowledged.
Giving our very lives means being with our youth and young adults indefinitely. It means we are not meeting in another room or at another time. Not in our own age-comfortable groupings. Not gone for the winter. It means life-long mentoring, not segmented mentoring. It means long-term pastorates.
Youth are uncertain. They have deep and difficult questions. The acceptance of uncertainty in our conversations is crucial and will allow for a truly honest, invitational and participatory experience.
Youth live in a world without borders. They have never known a time when virtual and face-to-face connection were not blurred. Through their smart phones, they literally carry answers in their pockets. Yet there is so much information to wade through that this generation, perhaps like none before, craves and responds to wisdom from an authentic loving and thinking soul who comes alongside.
We can give guidance. And we need to be there, not when it is convenient for us, but all the time, in self-emptying ways.
We cannot give what we have not got.
They cannot be what they cannot see.
We cannot influence if we do not stay.
To stop hemorrhaging faith is that simple…and that hard!
Which brings me back to Jessi. As we sipped decaf coffee and chai tea, I told her she was not the only one with stress in the transition to adulthood. No matter how healthy a little fish is, if you put it into a toxic river, it will not make it.
Sadly, our present individualistic, materialistic, secular society is exactly that – toxic. It expects our young people for the most part to fend for themselves – and the church has drunk the Kool-Aid. No wonder our young people are stressed.
Consumer societies, suggests sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, have turned identity formation into a sentence of life-long hard labour. Youth are expected to turn themselves into their own brand and prostitute themselves. According to Bauman, they are “simultaneously the promoter of commodities and the commodities they promote.” So, Jessi’s feelings of lostness should be expected.
But then we talked about good news. We talked about how one’s twentysomething years are a developmental sweet spot, a strategic time to gain identity capital instead of having an identity crisis.
And I told Jesse the greatest news of all: she is not alone. I will be there for her as she dreams about becoming a researcher who tackles post-traumatic stress disorder in our military’s soldiers. And we talked about the best news of all: God has her back as she plans for the future. She can take her deepest and best dreams about her future seriously. She can know that God had planted them there. (The devil is simply not that creative.)
The three most prominent images of God in the Bible are good Father (and Mother!), good Shepherd and good King. God is there for us as his children, lambs and citizens. And Jessi, this beloved daughter of God, can count on the entire Mennonite Brethren church in Canada to be in her corner too! The faith of the next generation is our collective sacred trust.
Imagine with me, Paul’s language of a “more than all we ask or imagine” church (Ephesians 3:20–21) that brings glory to God down all the generations. We as Canadian MBs are invited into that glorious future: inclusive, intergenerational, countercultural, missional churches and church plants from sea to sea, connected to Jesus and utilizing everyone’s gifts from childhood through the senior years…with not just young adults like Jessi, but all of us joyful and confident because we have rediscovered connection to Trinity and the shelter of each other.
What the church can do
The hemorrhaging of young adults from Christian faith is a multi-generational health problem. This is so sobering an issue it cannot be delegated to a segment of the church such as the youth or young adult program. This dilemma must be taken seriously by all senior leadership and all adults in every congregation. Churches can take action by viewing the report and asking probing questions (see below).
This will begin to give you a window into the key issues your specific church needs to address. It will give you a picture of how serious the hemorrhaging faith issue is in your faith community. What needs to stay the same, and what needs changing, so vibrant faith flourishes?
Explore the issues this analysis raises with key adults of all ages and a diversity of children, youth and young adults. As you discern best courses of action, expect God to bless you with insight and give you more than you could ask or imagine so God’s glory touches all generations (Ephesians 3:20–21).
—James Penner is an adjunct University of Lethbridge professor and a youth and church consultant with James Penner and Associates (www.pennerandassociates.com). James and his wife Claire are long-time members of College Drive Community (MB) Church, Lethbridge, Alta., and proud parents of two young adult children Elya, married to Matt Bergen, and Erick, married to Jelisa Riediger.
Out of their love for the Canadian church, in 2011, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable commissioned ground-breaking research on the spiritual trajectories of young adults who attended Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant and Evangelical Christian churches as children.
My research firm, James Penner and Associates, conducted this project alongside EFC researcher Rick Hiemstra and a team of veteran youth workers, sociologists and church gurus, with the help of Angus Reid, strategic funders and a cadre of on-the-ground contributors from coast to coast to coast. Our efforts culminated in an unprecedented report Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church.
David Guretzki of Briercrest Seminary consulted throughout the project and subsequently hosted ENGAGE conferences on this very topic. Check out ENGAGE 2014 via the Briercrest website (www.briercrest.ca/engage) for insights on curbing hemorrhaging faith. —JP
What might a church do?
Download the report from www.hemorrhagingfaith.com. Marinate yourself in its findings and start a discussion with the adults in your congregation. Then take a count of all those aged 14–34 presently in your church or who have ever attended your church. Track them down wherever they are and ask each one to give you their personal honest response to the four statements below. Ask them to rate the statements strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree.
1. I find God personally loving and tangibly answering my prayers.
2. My parents and/or the significant adults in my life have a faith worth following.
3. The attenders of my local church are inclusive and authentically following Jesus.
4. The biblical teaching I receive is empowering and not restrictive.
Transfusing Life: Practical Responses to the Hemorrhaging Faith Report
an ideas booklet to assist church leadership, including youth and children’s workers, by David Overholt and members of the EFC Youth and Young Adult Roundtable
Before You Say Goodbye
a web interactive book for youth and young adults by David Sawler, author of the Goodbye Generation book series