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Why don’t young adults go to church?


A discussion among us 30-something Mennonites has been heating up online. It’s a discussion that cuts to the heart of nearly everything the church worries about us. The question is the first one you’d guess: Why don’t we go to church?

The discussion, to my knowledge, kicked off when Mennonite World Review reposted an entry from a blog entitled Motley Mama on its website. In it, Kate Baer, a fellow millennial, responds to a question from one of her readers. The reader asks Kate, an articulate, creative Mennonite writer, why she doesn’t go to church.

The question is posed as it often is these days. It’s asked carefully, as if the asker is anxious that the wrong words may chase us even farther away. And it ends by indicating an almost-total devotion to making church work for young Mennonites: “Is there anything the rest of us can do to welcome [you] back?”

Easier to stay home

Kate’s response to this question is deeply honest. It also reflects some of my feelings, and those of many of my peers as well. She begins by admitting that church can feel boring and that it’s easier to stay home, eat blueberry pancakes, and stream online TV shows instead.

She also goes on to specify what she feels we want: “We want a church less about church and more about community. We want a church with reached-out hands instead of clenched fists. We want real. We want relatable. We want compassionate and inclusive. We want to talk about things that matter now.”

I’m glad Kate was so honest. But her honesty, by itself, reflects an aspect of my generation that I’ve grown increasingly nervous about.

Our generation tends to be great with honest reflections. We were brought up to tell the truth and find our voices. Our love of blogging is a testament to that.

Not committed

Unfortunately, though, we haven’t always been so great at allowing our honesty to be evaluated. We haven’t been great at this because we haven’t been sticking around to receive it. We casually inject our honesty from the outside and then move on. So even if we’re right, we’re not committed or vulnerable enough to be a part of actually making those concerns mean anything.

Right now, if I assess my generation’s honesty, I see this: a lot of sincere, valid, prophetic insight. But I also see a generation asking the church to bend over backward for them while lightheartedly hinting that they might still prefer to relax at home every Sunday even if the church does bend over backward. I see a generation saying seriously important things without doing enough to deserve to be taken seriously.

The future depends on us

Yet we are taken seriously. Our parents, our parents’ friends, our grandparents, our grandparents’ friends, and so many Mennonites over age 40 have listened anyway.

They’ve nodded, chosen their words ever more carefully, and time and time again asked us if there was anything, anything at all, they could ever do to keep us. More and more, they’ve acted like people who know that the future of their church depends on us. They’ve acted like people willing to consider just about anything just to keep us.

I’m not saying the church hasn’t been frustratingly rigid sometimes. I’m just saying that much of that church is asking us to help them overcome that. They’re no longer asking us to be just like them. They’re no longer asking us to give up our ideals and our concerns. They’re no longer asking us to sit quietly in the pews in our Sunday best, pretending. They’re just asking us to come out and help them fix the problems we’ve told them about.

Build community with terrible “too”s

Lately, when I’ve been asked why I still go to church, my first answer tends to be this: Where else would I be required to build community with people I otherwise (and usually inaccurately) label too conservative, too sheltered, too naïve, or too closed-minded? Where else would I be required to coexist with and learn from my elders? Where else would I learn the humility that my elders model every time they listen to me?

There may be a lot I want from church that I’m not getting yet. But, thankfully, it’s still providing even more of what I actually need. And the more we all choose what we need, the closer we all get to the inspiring, thriving church we want.

PeterEpp—Peter Epp teaches Mennonite studies in Gretna, Man. This article first appeared in The Mennonite.


Read more on the subject

→I’m sticking to church

→Emerging adulthood: a new stage on the journey?

→Consuming youth

→Peeling back the truth about youth and the church

Updated Feb. 14, 2014: links added.

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RK August 17, 2013 - 11:34

I’ve seen a number of these discussions lately about the millenials disappearing from church etc. but realistically, this set of questions is at least two generations late. Maybe the more conservative churches are just slower to see what has been happening since the 1970’s: people have been leaving the church in droves. Most mainline churches are echo chambers. Perhaps the question should be turned back the other way: it’s not why are millenials leaving, but why has anyone stayed? If we can push through that we might get to the essence of what it means to be church and could reshape the church more radically than just ‘bending over backward’ to try to accommodate this disenfranchised group or that.

Bob Gadd August 27, 2013 - 17:22

Maybe some of the problem is that what we call “church” that meets on Sunday mornings looks absolutely nothing like anything we find in Jesus or the NT. It is highly institutional, lecture based, passive for most attenders, impersonal, and hierarchical. We know that the “lecture” is the LEAST effective way of teaching, yet that is the central item of most meetings. A lot of young adults and middle agers who have “dropped out” have not given up on follow on following Jesus or gathering with other believers – they just can’t connect that with what goes on in the building Sunday mornings. And given the post modern’s general distrust of large institutions (and again, it wasn’t an institution as we know it that Jesus started) I don’t see that any bending over backwards of the christian religious institutions is going to have any real draw but more has the trappings of desperation.

RK August 28, 2013 - 11:32

Agreed, Bob. In his book _Flickering Pixels_ Shane Hipps makes the point that the form of the church with pews in a row was a relatively late contrivance, in which the seating mimicked the printed text after Gutenburg. I’m not sure if that’s true at all, but it makes a good point for the relatively recent innovation of sitting and listening as being the substance of church. Chartres Cathedral has a labyrinth in the nave, so the idea of walking in meditative prayer was a part of worship.


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