Why 20- and 30-year-olds are leaving the Baptist church

Many 20- and 30-year-olds share a distaste toward Baptist churches. As a young minister, I believe my peers need the community and nurturing of a church. I hope the church will hear the cries of these young Christ-followers and see the value, the vision and the deep compassion they possess.  

Young adults decide not to attend church for a number of reasons, but there is a particular trend among 20- and 30-year-olds that pertains to local Baptist churches.

The split of the Southern Baptist Convention caused many young Christ-followers to be very disillusioned with the church at an early age, but that isn’t solely to blame. There are more compelling reasons keeping 20- and 30-year-olds at an arm’s distance from the church.

There are two types of Baptist churches which young Christ-followers are familiar with — and disinterested in — the “harsh church” and the “watered-down church.”

The harsh church isolates itself from other denominations. Its voice is brash, critical and cold to the changing culture. This church has leaders who speak with loud voices, not just in decibels, but to the media and government in protest against issues regarding school curriculum, the health-care system, marriage or churches with female pastors.

Young Christ-followers hesitate to be associated with a group of Baptists labeled as “crazy” by society for making outrageous statements such as declaring that the cause of Haiti’s earthquake was the result of a pact they made with the devil or that the Sept. 11 attacks were brought on by feminists, abortionists and homosexuals. Why would anyone want to join a community of “believers” that seems hateful and compassionless?

In contrast, the watered-down church is unappealing because of its prophetic muteness. More concerned with institutional preservation, this church avoids stepping on theological or ideological toes.

Young Christ-followers want to hear the church discuss and dialogue about homosexuality, social justice issues, women in ministry, poverty, environmental concerns, human rights issues, health-care issues, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, orphans in China, monks in Burma, etc. They are eager to have open, honest, almost jaw-dropping, conversations balancing current issues with their faith.

Instead of church politics, they want churches to become missional. They understand the institutional church but desire the simplicity of the early church. They grow weary of time and money spent maintaining the large church grounds, renovating empty Sunday school rooms, installing the latest technology and managing growing numbers of committees. When the church becomes too distracted to be a church on mission, young Christ-followers focus on serving through a para-church or nonprofit organization that is directly meeting the needs of others.

So, what can our churches do to reach out to young Christ-followers?

First, churches have to be willing to open their doors to a new generation of Christ-followers and understand they do things differently. This new generation thinks, communicates, tithes and serves differently. It is guarded when it comes to trusting authority, so it is crucial that leadership within the church be transparent with them. This group is searching for authentic faith, authentic leadership and authentic ministry.

Churches must also practice what we preach. If we tell these 20- and 30-year-olds we are open to dialogue about social issues, the environment, etc., then we must actually talk about these issues in our Sunday school classes, Bible studies and sermons. Watering down the gospel or avoiding issues altogether only causes bigger rifts in the relationship between the church and young Christ-followers.

Third, our churches must begin to reflect our changing communities. The ministerial staff must diversify to include people of all ages, races and genders as leaders. With a diverse staff, the church will begin to experience things through others’ eyes and more voices will be represented from the pulpit. Young Christ-followers will feel accepted as part of the congregation if they see faces just like their own doing things like preaching, teaching, leading, reading and serving.

Finally, all preconceived notions of these young Christ-followers must be thrown out. Not all of them expect loud, Christian rock music, want to wear torn jeans and a T-shirt to church, seek a coffee bar in the worship space or the biggest and brightest LCD screens. Many of the stereotypes our churches have concocted of young Christ-followers are false or at least skewed. 

There is a lot at stake. For older generations, it can be painful to recognize that the institution they worked so hard to establish, buildings they worked diligently and gave sacrificially to pay for, and familiar traditions are of waning importance to young Christ-followers. Instead, the mission and service of the church ranks as highest priority.

For younger generations, what’s at stake is our ability to find ways to relate, engage and work side-by-side with older generations finding common ground on issues of social justice, faith development, worship experiences, etc.

Contrary to what some Baptist churches believe, young Christ-followers are not pagans running from God into the arms of another religion. They simply desire to be heard and understood for who they really are and for their vision of the future of Baptist churches.

Published in Associated Baptist Press in February 2010.