An article from the August 7, 2007 USA today tells us that “Young adults aren’t sticking with church.” Now this is probably not news to many of us who have been hanging out in churches. What is very interesting in this article is the research which is cited and the resultant findings.
LifeWay did the survey in April and surveyed 1,023 Protestants ages 18 to 30 in the USA. It is alarming to see that 7 out of 10 of the people in this age range drop out. While this report is American I would suggest that the numbers would not be terribly different if we did the same research on this side of the border. If anything we might find that number to be higher as we do not attend church in Canada as much as our God-fearing American neighbours. This is a big problem for the church and it is magnified when we realize that 34% of those 7 in 10 never return, even after they hit 30. That means that 1 in 4 have leave the church all together – never to return.
Now I have to be blunt and honest here – if you examine for a moment what is happening in most churches across this country I would fin it surprising that it is only one in four that leave the church. Now please do not simply assume that I am cynical. Truthfully, I think people, particularly young people are searching more today than they have. The church is less becoming a place where they are prepared to search. Respondents indicated a lot of reasons for dropping out of the church, all of which in my mind suggest that we have work to do as mainline churches to help stem this trend. If the research, which is said to be accurate within a margin of three percent, is at all correct we ‘church people’ are not always the nicest people. More than half of the drop-outs felt that churches were un-welcoming. Less than half of them saw the church as authentic.
The same report showed that communities with engaging leadership, that were what many now call missional, and where the membership was serious about spiritual development, are not just retianing members but are growing. The authors of the study stated that "Too many youth groups are holding tanks with pizza. There’s no life transformation taking place." Ed Stetzer, director of Nashville-based LifeWay Research stated, “People are looking for a faith that can change them and to be a part of changing the world." The church communites that are doing this are indeed growing i membership.
All of this is consistent with the findings of people like Diana Butler-Bass who has researched congregations across America and has found that churches that are actually embracing the message of social justice proclaimed in the Gospels are vital and are growing. Some of you who attend St. Mark’s by-the-Lake will remember an article written by Ms. Butler-Bass that I sent out in our Vestry report at the beginning of 2006 as we began on our Markus Project to examine who we are as a congregation and who we might need to become. Many more like Loren Mead and Peter Steinke and Alice Mann have made similar claims. Where the church is doing the work of transforming lives, there is growth and there is strength. The findings of Mr. Stetzer are a reminder that church needs to be revamped and rethought. Many young people are very honest about the fact that they do not feel absolute about faith and their practice of that uncertain faith is something that is lived out in very diverse ways. Church Leadership has to take seriously the mandate to be the community of God for even those who do not feel confidence in faith. I think that the 18-30 year olds have many of the same doubts and uncertainties about God that the 30+ folks have. So what is the difference?
I believe the difference lies is an absolute honesty and integrity. That is to say some of us who have been around the church forever so it seems will never voice our disillusionment or our doubts. We have been taught to be strong in faith. The other differences lie in the lack of change, especially in the past 50 years. We have not managed to move ahead and to keep the faith while taking the leadings of the Spirit to change and be changed.
I am pleased that we are often experimenting with change at St. Mark’s by-the-Lake. It excites me to see transformation in peoples lives when we allow others to be who God created them to be. It is life-giving to watch the community embrace new expressions of Spirit walking and talking in our church community. I pray that we might continue to find new and diverse ways to be present with the creator and make even more room for the diverse community around us to come and be a part of living church!