Newsflash…Young adults are leaving the church. Ok, it’s not really news to anyone familiar with church attendance trends. For generations we have seen young people raised within the church depart during their later teens and twenties. But most returned once they married and had children. It’s sometimes called the “driver’s license to marriage license hiatus.”
What is new is the mountain of recent research by respected groups like Barna, Lifeway, and Pew indicating young people who leave are no longer returning. The hiatus has become an exodus. Why? David Kinnaman at Barna outlines six reasons in his research. And others have pointed out that young people are waiting much longer to get married than in the past, thereby delaying the felt-need to return to church. (Al Mohler’s solution to declining church attendance is to convince young people to get married sooner despite the much higher rate of divorce among young marriages. Kinda like motivating people to get a physical by breaking their legs.)
Books and blogs are filled with recommendations about how to reverse the exodus of young adults, and I have no silver bullet solution to offer here. But I do want to explore one area I believe many churches have overlooked- vocation.
Our religious lives, our communion with God and formation as his people, primarily plays out in two spheres of our lives–family and work. Our closest relationships (marriage, children, parents) are where we experience the joys and pains of life most acutely. They are where we practice, or fail to practice, love, patience, forgiveness, kindness, etc. So it would make sense that we utilize family relationships as a key context for discipleship–learning and applying the teachings of Christ.
For the last few decades the church has readily accepted the centrality of marriage and family. In fact, most churches have organized their entire philosophy of ministry around the nuclear family with age-segmented learning, marriage enrichment courses and retreats, and biblical instruction geared toward healthy household relationships. The evangelical church has learned to indeed “focus on the family.” And while there are problems with the way this is sometimes executed, which I will not address in this post, for the most part it makes sense if you are married with children.
And that is the problem.
With more young adults delaying marriage longer, and with most churches implicitly or explicitly designed to serve families, there is little reason for a single 28 year old to engage. Realizing they cannot rely upon family felt-needs, but still wanting to reach young adults, some churches reach for the only other tool in their box- mission.
We’ve been told that Millennials are the “activist generation.” They want to make a difference in the world by wearing (red) products, singing U2 songs, and going to banana republics as short-term pigeonaries. So we try to engage them in our churches with missional rhetoric and projects. And at times this can be effective, until compassion fatigue sets in and securing social justice proves to require more than a text donation.
But the missional approach relies on a young adult’s spare time, extra resources, and expendable energy. It doesn’t capture a core identity issue the way family-based ministries do. When a church helps a 40-year-old mother with her struggling marriage and anxiety-driven parenting, it is applying Christian faith to the center of her life and identity. Missional ministries that try to engage a single 30-year-old don’t accomplish this because they ignore what’s at the center of his life to nibble at the margins. And what is at the center for most young adults? Vocation.
It is the second significant venue (after family) in which our lives and beliefs are exhibited, and for those without spouse or child it is usually the venue. Despite being a significant focus of Reformation theology for centuries within the Protestant tradition, contemporary churches are largely silent on the issue. How does Christian faith impact my relationship with my wife? How can Scripture inform my parenting? What does Christianity say about sex, managing in-laws, or household finances? Most churches could probably answer these questions relatively quickly and comfortably. But what about these:
What does it mean to be in business to glorify God and bless others?
How does Christ want me to engage the health care sector?
Does being an artist matter to God?
How do I serve in the public school system as a follower of Christ?
Apart from not being dishonest, does it matter how I run my business?
I’ve been offered two jobs, how do I discern which one to take? Does it matter?
Can I be a soldier and
be a Christian?
Does my work have any meaning apart from the money I earn and give to the church?
My guess is most church leaders would have to think a lot longer to answer any of these questions. We have not been trained or conditioned to consider a person’s vocation as a central part of their lives or spiritual formation. It is not a venue most churches value or equip their members for. But work is where most adults (young and old) spend most of their time and what occupies most of their identity. Without the ability to connect faith to either family or work, there is little remaining to engage young adults other than entertaining gatherings or a celebrity in the pulpit.
My friend and former colleague at Leadership Journal, Brandon O’Brien, recently wrote a series of posts on Out of Ur about his experience teaching a religion class at a local community college. The diverse religious backgrounds of the students allowed Brandon to explore how they felt about their faith. He writes:
In one assignment, I asked the students to reflect on how religion might hinder or help them attain their personal and career goals. This is where I found the biggest surprises. Predictably, students who weren’t sure about their spiritual convictions found the question hard to answer…. But those students who do consider themselves religious—most of them Christians—saw their religious beliefs having very little impact on their personal or professional goals…. Students were stymied to come up with a way religion could play any role at all in the parts of their lives that really matter.
We shouldn’t be surprised that most of these young adults drop out of church. Earlier in his posts, Brandon notes that none of his students reported having negative experiences in the church as kids. In fact, most recalled generally positive memories. But the church simply had nothing to say about their vocations. Faith, even for the faithful, didn’t impact their work.
No, developing a theology of work and vocation-based-discipleship is not a silver bullet to slow the exodus of young adults from the church. But I am increasingly convinced that it is a significant blind spot for much of the Western church that must be remedied.