“Only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child still does so today,” says James Penner, lead author of Hemorrhaging Faith: Why and When Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church.
Hemorrhaging Faith is a study commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable and carried out by James Penner and Associates, based in Lethbridge, Alberta. It is partly based on a survey of 2,049 Canadian young adults (18-34) who had indicated that they were raised in the church, conducted in the summer of 2011 by Angus Reid Forum. The study also included a comprehensive survey of literature on the subject and in-depth one-on-one interviews with 72 young adults.
Almost all of those surveyed attended church as children, 69% of them regularly (weekly) and 30% sporadically. As adults, only 27% attend regularly, and 35% never attend at all. Further, three-quarters of the non-attenders do not even identify with their Christian tradition; mostly, they have not converted to other religions but describe themselves as being spiritual, agnostic or atheist or as having no religion.
Only one-fifth of Roman Catholics and only one-third of mainline Protestants who attended church regularly still does so as an adult. The news is slightly better for evangelicals; for every three evangelical regular attenders in childhood, only two still regularly attend in young adulthood.
Facing the Problem
Those responsible for the study say that the purpose of the study is to get people talking about the issues.
“We hope this provokes a discussion,” says Rick Hiemstra of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC). “We’d like the church to realize the magnitude of the problem.”
The report is available for $15 on the website hemorrhagingfaith.com. Readers can comment there, but Hiemstra says he hopes leaders of local churches will read the report and discuss it among themselves, including what they can do about the problem.
Barriers and Drivers
Penner and Hiemstra also hope that churches will not just discuss the problem but do something about it. Heimstra says the study shows “some practical things” churches can do. In part, this is because the study analyzes why young adults leave church and why they stay,
There study found four key factors which either create barriers to faith or which “drive” young people to faith.
The first is whether they have experienced God directly. Penner says, “If young adults say they have experienced God, they are far more likely to be in church.” The study asks, “Why does God seem to reveal himself to some and not to others? We won’t pretend to know.” However, the authors point out that if this first factor is beyond a church’s control, the other factors are not.
The second factor is whether young people consider their church community to be vibrant or contaminated by hypocrisy and judgmentalism.
The third factor has to do with theology and morality. The study shows that some young people reject Christianity because of rigid positions on morality and theology. On the other hand, the study also shows that evangelical churches, which tend to be more rigid on these issues, also do the best job of keeping their young people.
The fourth key factor is the spiritual fervor of parents. The study states, “If parents model a vibrant faith, their children are likely to also engage in a vibrant faith that is likely to extend into their adult years.”
These factors are spelled out in considerably more detail in the study.
A Cross-Cultural Mission
One of the things that came out of the study is the realization that the younger generation is different.
Hiemstra says the study is “a signal to the church that this generation will hear the gospel in a different place.” Therefore, churches need to approach ministry to the younger generation “as cross-cultural missions.” “We think that if we preach the same way, in English, the kids will understand,” Hiemstra says, but they won’t. The culture has changed and is continuing to change.
Hiemstra stresses that church doctrine does not have to change, but that how people accept that doctrine has changed. Young people will no longer accept rational presentations of doctrine on the basis of institutional authority. They are willing to study the Bible, but “you have to explore Scripture with them, not just present pat answers” – and church leaders need to “answer the tough questions.”
Hiemstra explains. “This generation doesn’t trust what you say” but “discerns truth through experience.” Therefore, sending young people to summer camps and on short-term missions trips and giving them an opportunity to take leadership roles are crucial.
Penner notes that young people are idealistic: “They are looking for a faith that will change them and transform the world.” This means that a lukewarm faith will not cut it. Penner noted that only 12 percent of those surveyed had a mother or father who regularly attended church, prayed and read the Bible. Penner stated that those young adults who had a consistent, fervent role model and mentor often became fervent Christians themselves. Conversely, those who had an inconsistent Christian upbringing did no better than those who had no Christian input at all.
In this sense, Penner says, young adults are “canaries in the coal mine” or “indicator species,” warning signs that all is not well in the ecology of the church. They are a “prophetic call” for a “self-emptying church” to follow the example of the “self-emptying Christ” in Philippians 2. Churches that are vibrant usually keep their young people while churches that are not vibrant do not. “Faith is sticky,” the study says.
This is why spiritually vibrant parents are key to young people having a vibrant faith. But it is not just parents who need to have a vibrant faith. Hiemstra says it is important for young people to see “consistent mature Christians” living out a vibrant faith and mentoring young people. This includes youth leaders, he says, but it is also important to have such people “outside the program” such as the “elderly woman who prays regularly for young people, someone who knows them and will walk with them.”
This is the reason that, in an age of individualism and consumerism, it is important to remain part of a church. Penner says the idea that individuals can be spiritually healthy on their own doesn’t usually work. “If you leave the community, you leave the conversation, and worldview hangs on the thread of conversation. Young people start to doubt there is a God if they are no longer part of a community where that view is reinforced.”
The need for consistent mentoring is related to another key finding of the study. Churches must pay attention to transitions, Hiemstra says, because young people are often lost at transition points. And, surprisingly, more are lost at the transition from elementary school to high school than at the transition from high school to college. Young people are also lost in the transition when one youth pastor replaces another and even when one senior pastor replaces another. Penner suggests churches are often too quick to start and stop programs and change staff; he says they should consider whether there is some merit in Eugene Peterson’s call for “30-year pastorates.”
In sum, this study highlights not so much a problem with young adults as a problem with Canadian churches. On the other hand, Hiemstra and Penner say the changes that are needed are “in the control of churches.” Like Joshua and Caleb looking at the Promised Land in Joshua 1, Penner says that church leaders should not see the current situation to be characterized by problems and difficulties but by opportunities and invitations. They should see that “This land is ours for the taking.”