When Grown-up Kids Don’t Come Back to Church

As a youth leader, it hurts when one of our young adults grows up and stops going to church.  As a parent, it’s heart-breaking**.

Recently, my grown church-going daughter visited with a friend of hers (and mine) from our former church. Call him “Chris.”  He was no longer going to that church or any church. As a youth “Chris” had been super-active in that congregation, and his parents and grandparents are still active in the congregation. What went wrong?  Here are several things we know went wrong for him.

Four things that went wrong for “Chris”

(1) Nothing that seemed familiar.
When he returned to his congregation after college, there was no ‘youth group’ for him. He was thrown in with the adults. The ‘church experience’ he had grown to love was not there for him.

(2) College. 
Left on his own, he did what many college students did…partied too much, hung out with non-church kids, and slept in on Sunday. There was no campus ministry or chapel that attracted him. When he came back out of that desert, his congregation ignored him.

(3) Lack of spiritual depth going in.
I knew Chris and his family in that congregation. Going to church was “what they did.” Never hear any of them express a personal faith in Jesus Christ. His youth group was ‘active’ but not particularly well-led or spiritual. His parents had a hard authoritarian edge.

(4) Problems in the congregation.
When he left for college, the church was experiencing problems with the senior pastor. Two other staff people left, as did many families (including ours). And while adults fare better at finding a new church, young people are less likely to land elsewhere. They are particularly impressionable regarding the hypocrisy of problem leaders. Worse, they use it as an easy excuse to find the exit not just from ‘their’ congregation, but from ‘organized religion’ itself. (So also says Barna Research.)

(5) Chris went wrong for Chris !
Chris made a choice to stop going to church.  Even the best experiences do not guarantee young adults will keep going to church. (Even the Apostle Peter went into denial.)  

What to do:

(1) No more “church lite.”
Turn kids into believers before they leave you. Nourish their personal faith in Jesus Christ, and not merely their participation in your congregation.  There is a difference.

(2) Don’t be one of those parents who thinks college is a time to party. You’re paying the bill, so insist on a code of conduct, including, participation in a faith-based organization if they are going away on your dime. (Sound overbearing? You’d insist they’d attend classes you’re paying for, wouldn’t you? You’d insist they kept taking needed medication while away, wouldn’t you? You’d insist they not take drugs?  So why not put other conditions on your tuition support?)

(3) Develop Young Adult Ministry that Gets Them Involved
Actively reach out to post-college students and give them things to DO in your congregation.  Engage them in service and mission (which is a major deal to them). Recognize that many young parents have been out of the church for quite some time, and need to learn how to become part of a congregation that doesn’t look like the youth group of their distant memory.  And don’t forget to give them some youth group-style programming for young adults!

(4) Help adults deal with their P.C.B  (“previous church baggage”)
The Church, various pastors, and some volunteer leaders have let a lot of people down. And we tend to carry that baggage with us from church to church. Problem is: that baggage can become a self-fulfilling prophecy about their next church experience too. You may be surprised how cathartic it is just to give people time to tell P.C.B. stories.  You may also be surprised how their experiences can guide your church from making the same mistakes.

(5) Help adults take back responsibility for their spiritual lives.
Stress personal devotion, prayer, and transformation.
Never equate attendance with spiritual health.

Even if your young adults aren’t coming, stay connected to them. Show you care. Be non-judgmental. Don’t be yet another person in the church who stopped caring and communication to Chris. Meet Chris where he’s at. Walk through HIS door, and be there when he walks through yours at the church.

There are some great young adult ministry websites and resources on the web.
Here’s one: http://thebridgesministry.org/ to get you started.

It comes from Lifeway Research and is very interesting.


**RE: “As a parent it is heart-breaking”
In a recent sermon, I spoke about why some kids grow in faith and others don’t. Afterwards, many parents approached me thanking me for “speaking to their guilt.” Having one daughter myself who doesn’t now go to church, I can relate.  Faith is not a formula.

The bottom line is that we are to do the best we can, and leave the rest up to God. Jesus is the shepherd who saves the lost, not us.  Keep the light on, and the door open.

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