"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
September 12, 2006

How Faith Reconfigures In Young Adulthood

Barna Group has just released some research that confirms what most of us already know – many people make faith commitments (and also church involvements) in their teens, that then dissolve in young adulthood (news of this report came various soruces, including planet telex). Interestingly, 61% of young adults in the US, according to the […]

Barna Group has just released some research that confirms what most of us already know – many people make faith commitments (and also church involvements) in their teens, that then dissolve in young adulthood (news of this report came various soruces, including planet telex).

Interestingly, 61% of young adults in the US, according to the survey, had been churched in their teens. That is quite an impressive figure and says a lot of the ability of churches to attract youth to their programmes. However, come mid-twenties, many are disengaging from church at least, if not from the faith as a whole.

Commenting on the report, Cynthia Ware (link via Jason Clark) draws attention to the ways young adults still maintain an interest in spirituality, non-church based faith events and relational networks connected to faith. Also, faith-focuessed websites are growing in popularity.

This hints at something commonly discussed back in the early 90s. Youth ministry tends to be highly relational. As people move out of it they find fewer relational links within the church and more pressure to maintain the links they need within workplaces, family and third places (clubs, social sites, etc). The report may well be confirming some aspects of that hypothesis.

Along a different line of thought, Stephanie Anagnoson at Surviving the Workday suggests that the problem may be related to do the lack of intelligence and sophistication in church presentations and discussions. She quotes Dan Kimball,

‚ÄúPutting this rather bluntly, I have experienced that most of the younger people I know who have left their church are generally quite intelligent. Many churches also don’t intellectually challenge them, and that is another interesting thing I have heard. I think that many church attendees are somewhat passive and like to just sit and listen and basically be told what to think and what to do by their pastor. So, if you are a thinking person, it makes it difficult because most churches don’t leave room or have opportunity for dialogue.‚Äù

I’m inclined to not only agree with this, but to want to link it to a lack of opportunites for creativity and expression. Youth ministry tends to be very creative in terms of communication and structure, with lots of opportunities for people to express themselves freely, get involved and try new things. However, as people move into the ‚Äúadult‚Äù church, things are far less creative, often doggedly so. This can easily breed a lot of disillusionment and frustration.

Check out the Exodus papers over at IAmJoshBrown (found via Joshua Case). Reading these accounts (of people who were actively involved in church ministry) vividly brought back a lot of memories. It really shouldn’t surprise us that given with the levels of conflict and resistance to change on non-essential factors of church life, many are simply seeking to develop their faith outside the church.

But I think there is also something else, something I’ve been trying (and failing) to nail down for years now.

My hypothesis is that a fair bit of youth ministry (OK, the bits I have seen, experienced and read about) assumes the rightness of being countercultural. In fact, it seems like a lot of otherwise sharp and insightful thinkers uncritically buy into the countercultural viewpoint. That makes some sense when one is dealing with juvenille alienation and with the struggle to come to grips with social rules and norms.

But, the countercultural approach gives very few examples of how to be an adult (remember the film American Beauty?). It’s either cool, hip everyday rebellion or square, repressed conformism. The reality of adulthood is not like that, it is more subtle, as we negotiate the social rules and conventions we will choose to support or distance ourselves from. However, from the counter-cultural viewpoint, this subtle negotiation will look like supporting the status quo, like “selling-out.”

[As an aside, I find myself wondering a lot about this in terms of the big either/or distinctions in the emerging church debate – either missional or attractional, either missional or programmatic.]

Creative youth ministries don’t just give young people the opportunity to express themselves, they can give them the chance to be cool and rebellious (within acceptable limits in socially conservative contexts). It’s not unusual for somone who might have been a little vanilla outside the church context, to be really hip and popular within it. Going to church might actually confer social standing, or distinction for youth. But in adulthood, whilst people might respect your decision to go to church, they are hardly likely to find it cool or hip.

There’s also another point; the distinction that countercultural rebellion seems to confer actually fuels a lot of contemporary marketing, fashion and patterns of consumption for people well into mid-life now. In fact, as boomers enter the retirement age, counterculture could well be a cradle-to-grave marketing strategy.

As we get into adulthood, one of two things happens. We either learn that this distinction through rebellion is less than substantial, in which case we might well look with suspicion upon a message of faith that depends on a counter-cultural outlook. It might be difficult to reconfigure church or faith, stripped of the countercultural baggage.

Or we continue to buy into the myth and uncritically aquire greater means to give ourselves the distinction of rebellion (apple mac, clever t-Shirt, cool jeans, enviromentally sensitive holiday destination, etc). In this view, we need the distinction that church confers much less than we might have in our youth, since we have so many other ways to be hip and cool. Also, in this view there is no incentive to compromise or make peace with the establisment and status quo within the church?

[tags] Counterculture, Church, Youth Ministry [/tags]

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hamo 18 years ago

I like your insights here.

The youth drop off rate has been a question on my mind for quite some time. And the allusion to the emerging church question has somre real currency too i reckon.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Thanks! Welcome to the blog and thanks for both your comments and picking up the post on the your blog. It’s my hope more people blog and write about this, because it has to be one of the biggest practical problems we face.

brodie 18 years ago

Fernando – I’ve been thinking about a lot of the issues you rais here, so thanks for helping by what you’ve written. Your point about youth who are not cool in the larger soicial setting finding themselves the cool ones at church is particuarly insightful.

josh 18 years ago

been following your blog for a while. thanks for linking to our stories. much appreciated.

Tim Abbott 18 years ago


Many churches struggle with the transition of young people from youth group into… whatever. A few yp find their way into ‘adult’ cell groups or house groups, but I suspect those that manage this generally feel culturally at home there. Many (most?) don’t. In a way the church is often saved from the issue by young people going away to University. Here they either fall away from the faith, lacking the external support that the youth group offered, or continue to thrive in churches with high student attendance or the Christian Union – a kind of grown up youth group but with peer leadership.
I suspect that part of the problem you identify is that the entirely appropriate investment of opportunities and creativity in youth work is unmatched in the church experience of most 20-somethings, many of whom are working out the same lifetime sized choices as their non-church friends in terms of career, relationships and faith.
By strange co-incidence I’m away this weekend with about 35 twenty-somethings where I’ll be helping them think about what it means to be community. I’ll raise some of the issues covered here and report back if anything helpful comes from it.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Brodie, thanks for your comment and it’s good to hear the post is helpful. I’m hoping other people can pick up on this and develop the ideas further.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Josh thanks for your comments and for making available those stories and accounts. I found myself on both sides of them, remembering the struggles I’ve been through.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Tim, thanks for your observations and I look forward to hearing/reading about the weekend discussions.

Certainly CUs tend to perpetuate the youth ministry stage. The real crush always seems to come when entering the workforce, then early parenthood. Home groups can meet some the relational needs and fit into a working schedule, but they can’t really match the drama and creativity. I agree.

jay upp 18 years ago

hey fernmeister, its been awhile but since the school district i work for shut down the HC forums on me, i needed something, so i turn to you, i like your conversations much better anyway. You have to be one of the great theological insightists i’ve read. the horrible thing about the lack of creativity after youth groups is that the church will simply not overhaul its approach to ministry. cell groups are great but meeting once a month or once a week and sharing, its just not enough (as mentioned so eliquently by yourself). there has to be a creative platform funnel that feeds into “former youth groupie” counterculture people (aka 20 and 30 somethings). it should be relational in value but should also have a fullness such as most youthgroups do. when i ponder what youthgroup was to me, it wasn’t merely a social faction of my pubescent life, it was soul searching, finding out who God was, and service to others. americans have trouble with the last one. we do a christmas handout once a year or a missions trip, but do we go to the store and buy diapers and frekin soap and take it to someone who we know desperately needs it? Jesus said in fact that Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends, should this mean that if a friend who i am trying to reach for Christ has a need that far exceeds my own, that i should give to him what he needs, i think that is the point Jesus wanted to make i mean he gave the ultimate sacrafice. and i can honestly tell you that if i wasn’t serving Jesus and someone who was helped my out of a rough spot, i would be moved. this is just a small part of things, but creativity can be found in servantry, thinking and keeping an open ear for needs. as experienced in my own life and mentioned before, 20’s and 30’s something, do have it rough, paying off college debt, home buying, child rearing, it can be overwhelming. alot of people want relaxation when not involved with everyday duties, i.e. movies, music, sports whatever. does the current church provide these things on a sunday morning? is sunday morning even a convient time? recently i’ve heard of churches being on saturday nights. that is what i’m talking about, sign me up. simple moves can move the church into a relevant thing that is outside and beyond the normal perception of church beyond the youth group. it should be a place that holds the fire burning from times of good memories from youth events, something that can interestingly capture that atmosphere but create new ones. wow i’ve rambled on to long and probab;y none of it makes sense. ta ta for now! dzupp

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Hey Jay – thanks for your comments! I appreciate your thinking about how simple moves can make a big difference!

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