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Why are young adults leaving their churches?

Question:  Why are all the young adults leaving the churches that their families have been part of for generations?  If we change our worship style to be more like the churches they are now attending, will they come back?

There are lots of issues behind this question, and many of them involve understanding the culture of the congregation.  The immediate cultural question raised has to do with worship style and music, but what happens during the worship service is just one part of the culture.  People who share a community also share ways of talking to each other and common topics of conversation, as well as ideas about what is important and what kind of behavior is permitted.  They know how to make decisions and get things done without ever having to ask about rules and procedures. They can laugh together about a joke and understand the particular heartaches and difficulties they face.  The more of their lives they have shared, the more stories there are to bind them together.

When families have been part of a community for generations, the stories they share are deep and significant.  The places they have lived and worshiped and buried their dead take on a sacred character that goes beyond any doctrine.  When a younger generation breaks that chain of memory, it is really painful. For immigrant congregations, it may be the grown-up children who no longer need the bonds and life experiences that have been so important to their parents.  In either case, acknowledging — and perhaps ritualizing and blessing — the pain and the mystery involved in sending forth is important for the wellbeing of the families and congregations.

Why are they leaving?  That may have much more to do with the economy than with theology.  That’s where a good look at the ecology of the congregation is important.  It may be that they are simply moving away to get the only jobs there are available.  They may feel the estrangement and loneliness of their departure no less than do the people left behind.

But even if they haven’t moved, there may be a changing religious ecology that has presented them with new choices.  The church of their parents may no longer be the only place to worship. That’s where some good old-fashioned theological discernment may come into play.  Are these choices good for the overall wellbeing of the larger community of faith?  Are the young adults thriving and growing in their faith?  Should every congregation worship the same way or is the variety a good thing?

Thinking about a practical question about generational changes can be an important window on the essential contours of the culture that a congregation may simply take for granted.  A regular “culture check up” may help members spot the ways their routine habits are standing in the way of being the community they want to be.

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of StudyingCongregations.org