Throughout churches in America, the divide between the younger and older generations is becoming increasingly apparent. Research reveals that more and more young people are leaving the Church—and the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. While pre-pandemic church culture still forced young people to physically wake up Sunday mornings to attend worship with their parents, the sudden transition to online church has loosened parental accountability to guide their children into a steady and growing relationship with Jesus.
As easy as it would be to blame a child’s lack of passion and zeal for Jesus and His Church on his or her parents, it is equally important to understand ways that the Church has failed in encouraging children to launch their own faith journeys. In my experience as a pastor’s kid who grew up in the Church, a former Sunday School teacher, and a current youth pastor, I witness firsthand the varied motivations of young people’s church attendance, as well as the trends that drive those motivations.
Because I grew up in church my entire life, I have always taken the good news that Jesus Christ died for me as a matter of fact—and not much else. After discussion with some of the youth at my church, we all agreed that we took the gospel of Jesus Christ for granted. We believed that we had heard it so often that it had somehow lost its value—which, of course, reveals that our hearts were the problem, not the gospel itself. In Sunday School, many youth recall learning the Ten Commandments before any other biblical reality. Though the Ten Commandments are invaluable and necessary as the core of God’s moral law, many—including myself—fall into misinterpreting the Ten Commandments as a goal to achieve rather than a mirror that uncovers our need for the gospel.
Many young people who grew up in the Church end up participating in religious activities with no thought to the greater power behind them. When the gospel is not in its rightful position of centrality in the Church, it is no wonder that people raise their hands, sing lyrics, speak in tongues, and even go to church merely because everyone else is doing so. Without the Gospel as the focus of church, it can become a concert, a reality TV show, a formality, a cultural event, or a self-help book.
It is sad to see that some people who have been attending church for years have noticeably less passion and zeal for Jesus than other people who did not grow up in the Church, but came to their own conclusions and realizations through the help of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is Lord. Now, this does not mean that we should simply kick out all the youth from our church and hope they come to the right conclusions about Jesus after a foray in the secular world. It means that if we have young people in our churches, we should be more responsible and equipped to shepherd the sheep that God has given us. Every member of the church—especially the parents, and not solely the youth pastors—has the biblical responsibility of raising children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.
As a minister of a church that has neither the financial nor human resources of a Hillsong or Elevation Church, it is so easy to look at young people as no more than means to move our ministries forward. The results are twofold: we create a culture that lowers the standard of serving God, and we subconsciously make ministry a box to check off on a Christian resume. Instead of young people understanding church as a community of believers coming together in the name of Jesus, some see church simply as a place where they “work.” Although it is true that the church could always use a set of extra hands, we must constantly examine ourselves: in the eyes of our young people, are we more worried about pushing forward the names of our pastors and churches than we are about pushing forward the transformative nature of Jesus?
Use the ministry to build the people, not the other way around. More than what ministers can give to the Church, the Church needs to focus on what it can give to its ministers. It is such a dangerous proposition that once a young person ministers, they are “more stable” Christians than people who do not. The pandemic has shown this now more than ever. Before quarantine, many young people went to church only to serve in various ministries. After the onset of the pandemic, they were not on schedule to serve and were—in some people’s eyes—no longer needed in a place of responsibility. Many have therefore left and never came back.
If the Church is to treat ministry as the honor that it deserves to be, we have to treat people with an even greater honor. Serving in the church is often perceived as a burden, but it should not feel like one! Ministry is not a cage that is supposed to keep young people in church; instead, it must be a door to an opportunity for young people to be different from their non-Christian counterparts.
In many churches, it seems like there are always misunderstandings in establishing common ground between the youth and the older congregants. The disconnect between the younger generation and the older generation is not a new phenomenon. It has been a cancerous cell that has slowly made its way through every layer of the Church. Instead of the Church becoming united against the works of the enemy, we let the enemy divide and conquer us. Instead of taking responsibility, we like to play with it, like a game of hot potato. Teachers blame parents for not raising their children well. Parents blame churches for not teaching their kids well. The Church blames the youth ministry on not guiding the youth, and the youth ministry blames the Sunday School ministries on not training children well enough. What a circle of blame we create! It is time to stop focusing on who started the problem, but on who will solve it: all of us.
This generational divide is bigger than which ministry you are a part of, what friend group you identify with, what church you pledge allegiance to, or even who your family is. This issue that the Church faces could very well determine the next twenty-five years of how Christianity will grow throughout America. You may be reading this and believe that I am overreacting. However, I truly believe that if the Church continues to understate its responsibility to faithfully guide the younger generation toward a healthy relationship with Jesus, there will be more and more young people who will feel used and exploited by the Church.
As I recently studied the original Christian communities that were created and rapidly expanded in the third century, one scholar by the name of Peter Brown had this to say of the early Church: “The appeal of Christianity still lay in its radical sense of community.” As much as we want to blame it on the social media era, one of the more prevalent reasons that young people are walking away from the Church is that, to some extent, the Church in America has lost its sense of community. At the end of the day, the Church is not experiencing just a “young person problem” but an “everyone” problem. Paul urges the Corinthians to remember that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26).
Although you may not be a young person, one member’s suffering should be the suffering of all members. Just because it is “not your problem” does not mean you should not aid in the solution. The first evidence of any Spirit-filled church is unity. This is not a smear campaign towards churches or a way to guilt-trip anyone, but is a wake-up call and encouragement for all of us to start with who God has given you. Do not be busy worrying about how to get the next hundred young people in the church if it means you are disregarding the current hundred young people in the church.
If you are a young person who is thinking of walking away or has grown distant from your local church, I would like to invite you to pray over your past wounds and scars. There are cases where people in the church who believe in Jesus fail to be like Jesus in your life and instead, cause you pain, making you want to leave. There are those who fall into heretical communities who call themselves Christian but pervert the true gospel of Jesus Christ in exchange for things like relative moralism or a works-based gospel. Whatever the case may be, I humbly ask you to consider and surrender all of your past pains and trauma to the merciful and understanding character of Jesus above all else.
With compassion and love for the entire Body of Christ, let us pay special care to the youth in our churches and work to better our understanding of the gospel, including its applications to shepherding young people and the rest of the community, to light the flame for Jesus in our youth.