If you are a church goer, how would you describe the state of faith of young people in your church. For the purpose of this exercise think about people aged 12-25. How many are there in your fellowship? Over the past 5-10 years has the number of young people actively involved in your church declined? For those who remain how would you rate the vibrancy of their faith, 1 being alive, active, relevant; 10 being almost dead, going through the motions?
One of the metaphors to the describe the church is that of a boat, for many young people it seems the boat no longer provides safe navigation or is not heading where they want to go.
Rowan Lewis in his recent article in Equip, The State of Faith in Australian Youth: Haemorrhaging, Exodus or Exile, again sounds a warning gong that has been struck on and off for the last 40 years. Starting in the 70’s, research by Bodycomb commissioned by the Joint Council of South Australia showed marked decline in church involvement started from age 19. In many cases the report showed that the decline was due to a subconscious drift rather than conscious choice. Without seeing the report I’m presuming this means as work and family pressures increased keeping up attendance at church became a lower priority. In the 80’s and 90’s similar results were seen and analysed. In the 90’s there was a presumption that this was again due to life stage however the data showed this to be a mistake and in fact young people were leaving the church and not returning. It has become clear that over the decades there has been a progressive increase in the decline of young people from the church.
Cited in Lewis, researchers (Hughes and Mason, in separate works) in 2007 noted that there were dramatic losses of young members from various churches, at the same time there was an increase in ‘no-religious identification.’ They concluded that there was little doubt about the main destination of this exodus from the church. The bad news continues with Hughes noting that young Australians who in 2001 connected with a church, 500,000 of them decided that in the 2011 census they had no religion. For many the 2011 census was the first time they could assert their independence and show where their sense of connection lied or where it didn’t as the case may be. Goodwin in 2013 demonstrated that it was not only young adults who were leaving the church but in fact younger teens were leaving as they transitioned from childhood to youth.
Lewis concedes that young people are leaving the church in droves but they may not be leaving the faith, at least not in the first instance. He believes they are in an exile state caused by a church that is not engaged in the current cultural landscapes and portrays a black and white faith that doesn’t allow room for mystery, lament and doubt. Added to this I see a church that largely doesn’t know how to constructively raise its voice in the public debate around inequality, justice, poverty, public space and a plethora of other nuanced issues. Related to this inability and connected to an impoverished spirituality is an inadequate discipleship model that in many cases disciples people to an institution rather than the person of Christ.
I grew up in traditional Baptist churches and it was only as I moved from Sydney to Adelaide did I begin to see the inadequacy of our discipleship. I couldn’t have articulated it then, however there seemed to be a massive dichotomy between ‘Sunday’and ‘Monday.’ It seemed to me that we didn’t look any different to those outside the church. Young adults of my vintage were concerned with the cultural norms of education, earning money, buying a car, a house etc. For the most part I didn’t witness a grappling with faith, an asking the serious questions of what does my faith say to my everyday? How am I to be salt and light in the places and spaces that I occupy? Sure there were bible studies, but quite often serious questions would be skirted around and not addressed. The question of formation was one left to the colleges, which only a fraction of people attended.
So then as the research shows many people of my vintage left the church, now I haven’t tracked with them, but I suspect they have never returned and are perhaps now inoculated against faith. For the most part I suspect they don’t enjoy the benefits of an intimate walk with Jesus and receive his peace in the most surprising ways, despite the complexity of the situations faced. Perhaps they don’t get to experience the sense of walking into who they were created to be and seeing the joy in our Father’s eyes as he welcomes them home. I’m not going to speculate on whether they are saved or where they will spend eternity, that is up to God, however in the here and now the church of my generation has not served them well. They and the Church are the poorer for it.
At times as hard as I’ve tried, I’ve not been able to walk away from the Church. I believe God is at work in the world outside of His own people, however the Scriptures tell us that God is especially present with His people and that there is a grace conveyed in that presence and so our faith is a unified and sacramental one. Lets be clear though, walking away from any particular local expression of Church is not necessarily kissing all of that goodbye, however if people have not been equipped for a faith journey outside of a local church, then I fear they are in real trouble.
Lewis points to the need for this type of equipping, but localises it to youth ministry. I would go further and say that the basic orientation of how we equip people needs to shift. The Church once again needs to fix its gaze universally and recognise that God is so much bigger than any local expression or denomination. With this as a framework we can begin to walk the unity we have as the body and then we can recommit to our purpose for existence, being salt and light in the places and spaces where we are called to be. Letting the mystery of our faith, our doubts and laments as well as our joys and celebrations be the flavour and the light which permeates the world. If we can swallow our fear, trust in a big God and be big hearted enough to embrace ourselves and others, we may just find that those looking to jump overboard might reconsider.