As a youth pastors wife for the last ten years, I have seen many teens leave the church as young adults. There are many reasons for this, and one amazing article on this phenomenon is by Rachel Held Evans, "Why Millenials are Leaving the Church." While I agree with her points, I would like to add more to it.
When we bring our children to church when they are young, babies even, we separate them. We put them in another room with a nursery attendant where they cannot be heard so they do not disrupt the service. This is quite helpful for most parents, since it is difficult to keep children quiet at all, let alone for an hour and a half all in one chunk.
Once they move up, out of the nursery, they come in for a small portion of the service, then leave and go to children’s church where they sing, dance, and generally do “children’s” things.
There is always a difficult transition between 5th and 7th grades, since they do not quite fit in with the little kids, but do not fit in with the teenagers either. They do not quite know where they belong, so these kids are often left to awkwardly wander the church getting in trouble just because they are bored. And we do not really know what to do with them, since they do not fit into the molds we have formed.
After that weird time of transition, comes youth group. We have the teens all sit in the same row on Sunday mornings so mom and dad can keep an eye on them, while the youth pastor is expected to be sure they remain in service. But they all congregate together and the parents and youth pastors push this. We want them to connect and like one another.
Once they graduate high school, they again enter this weird area of transition. But the expectations are completely different! We then expect them to jump right into the “adult” role of the church; attending multi-generational events, services, and classes. For small churches, we often do not have enough resources to have a young adult Sunday school class, so these adults have to go into classes that many of their mothers and fathers are in. And we wonder why they do not connect with these older adults. And we wonder why they leave the church.
One of the main reasons young adults are leaving the church is because we have not created a church environment for them to grow up in that reflects the environment they will be a part of as adults. We segregate, separate, and contain children into their various age ranges, being sure that they are only with other kids their age at all times. Christians are generally afraid that big kids will taint, corrupt, and cause the little kids to sin in ways they would not sin if they were around them. We place each age group in its own little bubble, but once they become adults we expect that bubble to pop.
And we wonder why young adults do not want to mix with a congregation of adults ranging in age from 30-death. Really? It seems like common sense that if we put our children in specific environments for their entire lives that is what they are going to seek as adults. Humans like to be comfortable, and it’s not always comfortable talking to an older adult that has differing cultural and generational experiences and opinions than you. This is one reason why I see “church starts” popping up that are made up almost entirely of young adults. These adults are creating their own environments, because it is what we have programmed them to do.
It may seem to be an idealized notion, but it seems to me that we must create multi-generational ministries. The Church can cultivate learning environments that have the old and young take part in discipleship that benefits everyone. The older generations may feel as if there is nothing to learn from the young, and the young may feel like the older generations ideas are outdated and extinct, but it does not really matter. What matters is that they learn to listen, speak, and live with one another, regardless of their age. If we want to see a Church that is made up of every generation, we have to teach our children from a young age how to be a part of every generation.