After the age of 15, around 59% of Christians youth leave church either temporarily or permanently. After 5 years of research, David Kinnamon of the Barna Group has concluded that there are 6 factors that are primarily responsible for driving youth out of church.
1) Churches are overprotective and often demonize everything outside of church.
2) Church is boring or irrelevant. Nearly 1/3 find church boring, 1/4 say it’s not relevant to their lives, and about 1/4 say the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough. (The last finding really resonates with me, since it wasn’t until a college class in Biblical History and Ideas that I really saw how much the Bible has to offer.)
3) Christians come across as antagonistic to science and are too sure they know all the answers.
4) Church teachings and experience around sexuality are simplistic and judgmental.
5) They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
6) The Church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
I actually think teaching the Bible from a historical-critical perspective would do a lot to ease all of these problems. Any detailed study of the Bible is humbling and reminds us that we don’t have all the answers. If reading the Bible doesn’t frequently leave you confused and perplexed, then you’re not thinking hard enough about what you’re reading. By creating a place and time for youth to come together, study the bible, and wrestle with doubts, exclusivity, sexuality, etc. a lot could be done to keep youth from leaving.
I know Bible study is hardly a revolutionary idea, but all too often it’s not done past middle school and doesn’t progress past memorizing some verses and learning a few stories. Catechism is frequently taught as a matter of doctrine, learning the answers that the Church already has. I realize not everyone shares my academic enthusiasm, but this study suggests that youth need a chance to doubt, and to wrestle with exclusivity, sexuality, and life outside of church. I found a lot of that from a very academically oriented study of theology and biblical history. Other people might find it in more casual conversation and discussion groups, but these are the kinds of discussions the church needs to have if they want youth to stick around.
Above all, the Church has to allow youth to question, because what’s happening now is that youth are coming up with questions based on their lived experience, and the church is effectively ignoring that experience in favor of answers that it already has. Yes, in many cases those answers are the product of 3,000 years of collective wisdom. But no 15 year old wants to hear that the issues they are struggling with are the same as those of everyone else throughout history. Sometimes teenagers who claim no one understands them are just being petulant, but all too often when it comes to the church, it turns out they are right.