Why is there a Missing Generation

Looking forward to speaking tonight on the challenge of the missing generation at New Horizon tonight, exploring why so many 20-30s are walking away from church. A little while back Os Guinness argued that the reason that 20 somethings are leaving the church in droves in the USA is because of the [quote_simple]”ugliness of the Christian right”[/quote_simple]. You can see him arguing that here: ( around 11 mins in). My work with The Evangelical Alliance has focussed a lot on this area. So I would really love your wisdom on what you perceive the challenges to be.

What do you think? Does he have a point?

Is it different where you are?

If it is true what can we do about it?

Os’s book the case for civility is excellent I recommend it wholeheartedly.


16 thoughts on “Why is there a Missing Generation

  1. Hi Krish, I don’t think we would have the same evidence base (unless you have the stats?) for 20’s leaving the church in droves in the UK . . . mostly because they have already left! However, as a reflection on why we don’t have many in this age group (and don’t have many younger than me at 44 . . . ) here are 6 contributory factors: 1. Celebrity Christian Culture / Christian Media – I remember about 15 years ago Mike Pilavachi suggesting this was on the way out . . . er, nope, that hope hasn’t come to pass! Whether it is Christianity Magazine or others in their stable, we “must” (apparently) here from the latest, biggest, most successful, most controversial church leaders and we continue to create a cult like adherence to anything that a few of these great people utter. This doesn’t create a church environment for discussion, rather – because Christian media needs to label and “know” where people are coming from, polarization of views is almost encouraged – if we all just got along, (apart from the fact we might then be expressing something of unity in the Spirit) what would we write about? But, seriously, this kind of culture within the church and Christian media is SO counter-gospel it beggars belief – in this environment it is hard to question, challenge, give voice to the next generation when the “platform” is held by a particular generation . . . . 2. We are not great at discipleship, Kenda Creasy Dean unpacks this in “Almost Christian”, but we have basically reaped what we have sown over the years in relation to a faith that doesn’t require much of us – be good to thrust a copy of “The Vision and the Vow” (Pete Grieg) – which is a contemporary “Cost of Discipleship” and see what happens . . . but, this has to be coupled with actually making disciples in our churches . . . we don’t talk about this much, but it is a bit bad that we are so bad at doing something that it one of the main things we are supposed to be doing (making disciples not being quite the same as putting people through “alpha” or getting them converted at big events . . . ). 3. The focus in many churches on ministry being done by people who are married (if you are single and full of energy we might let you loose on the children and or the young people because you are about the same age, rather than it is your calling or gifting – this does both the children and young people a disservice, but also the young adults . . . when you are married, you get to lead a housegroup or lead a church – never mind that by your mid 20s you might be running your own business (employing more people than roll up at church on a Sunday), if you are lucky you might get to do the coffee after the service. 4. The continued fixation with church being what happens in a geographical location at a particular time on a Sunday morning – outside of cities (where a lot of people do actually live) evening services on a Sunday evening are rare, never mind that Sunday might not be the best day to gather people anyway . . . and so many young adults are networked rather than fixed geographically, we don’t like transient stuff in the church – it implies (wrongly) a lack of “stick ability” or commitment – but there is a difference between a commitment to a service at a particular time of day – and a commitment to Jesus – the two are not the same thing! 5. For 20 years we have had an increased professionalization of children’s and youth work in the church with salaried workers (of which I have been one) leading to an even greater abdication by parents of the responsibility for faith nurture of their own children. We need to rediscover the “household of faith”, children and young people not growing up in homes where faith is shared, celebrated and part of the fabric of daily living are less likely to remain in the church as adults – what is formed in them is critical, and we have been failing in this area – Marcia Bunge has written some great stuff on faith in the home and so has the Fuller Youth Institute (Kara Powell) with their “sticky faith” stuff – this is ESSENTIAL if we are to find some balance . . .

    We also need to find those who have left, say sorry – and try to build faith communities with them, right where they are – not get them to come to “our” services – and also, we must not run “seeker friendly” things aimed at 20s that are focused on trying to “get them” to come to what we would call REAL church, and is really just a bridge that we hope they will walk back over and remember that they need to worship like the rest of us. Whatever the majority is in a church in terms of age or world view, this is what we seem to do. With so many having left (or never having been with us as adults in their 20s) we should be helping create worshiping communities right where they are that make sense to them. Maybe some of us who have failed them might have the humility to go and join in with that they are doing than expect it to be the other way around . . .

  2. Nick says:

    I keep coming back to this in my head, but I think it’s roots. I think our generation and the one following us need to be intentionally rooted in church if we’re to stay. I think the spiritual disciplines (and challenges like #God52) can help with this.

  3. RJS says:

    Why not ask those who are in their 20-30s why they have left? They will know far better than I.

    1. Steve Wilkinson says:

      There is actually quite a bit of sociological data that has been collected on the subject. Unfortunately many of the more mainstream sociologists seem to think this is a trend that while maybe increasing a bit, isn’t really anything new. (i.e.: no big reason for alarm… they will come back one day when they have families, as they have in the past.) However, I don’t think that will be the case, as the culture they are surrounded by is now much different, and their foundation in Christianity is much more shallow.

      BTW, here’s an article on a fairly recent survey targeting young atheists: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2013/yet-another-student-survey-confirming-the-need-for-case-making/

  4. Beth says:

    I feel as someone in my 20s-30s that it is also about judgement. I walked away for a large part of my early 20s for a few reasons, but essentially part of that was because I wanted to go away an ‘experience’ life, and I do accept that is an immature thought, but that is where I was. But I also struggled with who I was treated and people expectations of me. It therefore made life a lot easier by not going to church.

    Here are the 3 main reasons why in my 20-30s I stopped going to church. And, now that I have returned in my late 20s its something I still struggle with

    1. I was brought up in the faith, I felt as though I had always been taught the world was round, but I just wanted to go out and check it wasn’t flat. I felt it was parents belief. Not mine. It was almost of feeling of never being given a choice but to believe in a God.

    2. I was in a 5 year relationship with a non christian. I was fed up of people feeling as though it was their right to comment on whether its right to date this person or not. I was constantly judged which pushed me to seek refuge in the relationship. Therefore confirming to my boyfriend that the church wasnt’ a good place. I wanted to be supported by the church, I wanted advice and a place where I could bring my boyfriend. I didnt feel like I had that option

    3. I was very invovled in the church until I went to Uni. I helped with Youth, was a member, did some preaching even. Despite the difficulty I still wanted cto make the effort with church . However, after 3 months at Uni my church had forgotten me. I was like a stranger. I came back and only a ouple of people would say hello, one of them being the welcome on the door!

    4. Several years after the relationship ended, after uni, and following several years since I had regularly attended church I tried to integrate myself back in as I still had/have a strong faith in God outside of the church building. However, church then became a dating game. People felt the need to try sit me next to nice christian men. To pair me up. I am sure they were trying to help, but what they actually did was send me a message that a young sinlge woman in her late 20s is a failure, and not good enough. I came to the church to help grow my faith not change my relationship status. Once again I felt judged, possibly by the same type of people who would have taken issue with me marrying my long term non christian boyfriend!!

    I do also think there is a large emphasis on the church being on a certain day and at a certain time which suits some but not all. If you are in shift work or are simply very busy so struggle to go every sunday then integrating becomes even harder. But that is when house groups come into their element. They are church to many people that struggle with attendance. I know someont that does church on a thursday night in a pub. He and his housegroup get together and have a message and then talk, and pray. That work for him. Though I do accept that wouldn’t work for all.

    1. SM says:

      Hi Beth,
      I hear what you are saying, I have had a similar experience in “church” and I can relate to your experience of being on your own with some significant social pressure to become paired up. It too has been a great source of pain in my life and only now well past my 30’s am I convinced I have a life that is designed to be single. The truth I learned is that this is the life of each of us whether we marry or not if we choose to follow Jesus. Another insight I have gained is that those who Jesus set apart as Apostles and Disciples were all single except one pair who each had their own direction to go when they ministered and followed Christ.
      Here is the key for me: I do not attend church for any other reason than to attend to my soul which I choose, as best I can, to keep focused on one thing: my pursuit of God. When something is said from the pulpit that is confusing, hurtful, tantalizing or in any other way detours me in that pursuit I turn from it – not from church but from the offense. If I feel in the center of my being that I can not stop it from interfering in my life I share it with an elder in the faith (not just someone older than me but someone working out their life in Christ longer than me) this is a secondary reason I attend church. If I still can not let the offense go then I address it directly to the offender whether in person or by way of a letter that requires some kind of response. This is a tertiary (third) reason I attend church (and as a side note a significant reason to attend a smaller church). In working out my faith I need to grow and the only way to grow is to be engaged with people who challenge me or whom I can challenge to live a Christlike life. This is not really appreciated by most people today and so it too is a great challenge in terms a being set apart or alone.
      My focus has been to follow Jesus, now for more years than not and in looking back over my life the most pain has come from those within the walls of church. But, I can also see that were I to have been out of church there would have been a different kind of pain of a much deeper and lasting significance. That is a severe pain involving an emptiness and loss that I may never have overcome – the loss of the constant struggle to find God in the midst of my life and to be overwhelmingly satisfied when I turned around and saw He was there! This would be my 4th reason to keep at it in a church. The fifth reason is that “iron sharpens iron” as is said, and I am certainly a piece of iron from all that God has brought me through especially around those that isolate, categorize and minimize me at church and elsewhere.
      It took a long time for me to realize I could speak up and speak out as long as I am in sync with the Holy Spirit. And, it has been a painful, disappointing, and often discouraging experience when I look at it from only a human point if view. Fortunately, Christ is in me and my point of view is through Him another truth that has taken time to learn.
      This sounded like mumbo-jumbo until I really started to grow through the pain of “admonishing one another in love” and “building each other up in the faith”. I realized that I could not follow most of the people around me, I had instead to “take up my cross and follow Jesus.” I have to live and by default lead by way of example not by way of words which is a singular pursuit. Even if no one follows or even if others follow because each of us stumbles in ways that cause us to grow in just the way God would have us grow.
      It has taken many years for the stumbling to cause me to grow and again as I look back very few people have been on the road with me. It is a singular pursuit to pursue the heart of God and it is not without sacrifice… Many even at church have been sacrificed along the way.
      The 6th reason I attend church is lost on most of us who attend church today… In times of persecution we need each other to remind us of the life we’ve chosen to live. To stand against the onslaught of persecution of others as well as evil which comes as a “thief in the night to steal us away” from God. Abundance and entertainment are insidious evils that often times ease us away from God without hardly the recognition that we are gone – I would like to say this is the 7th reason to attend church but too often it is at church we are eased away by entertainment, abundance and as you said from the “judging” of others upon us. People mess up all the time and our insistence that we follow one person from the pulpit often encourages us to look outside of ourselves to others when it is inside of ourselves that we need to look for “Christ in you, Christ in me” is the goal over all else. This too has taken me years to learn to stand upon.
      It isn’t the time or number of services I attend but it is the focus on my pursuit of God in Christ that is essential as you suggested your friend does on Thursdays. Our organized church leaders don’t really like this because they are concerned that we receive the correct teaching but the early Church thrived on it. And, they followed James where he says, “not to seek to be called teacher (Rabbi) or leader for Christ is our leader and teacher.” And, rather than embrace in either a fundamentalist or liberalist way the gospel I have embraced a gospel of grace in my pursuit of Christ who thought it fitting to die humbly in disgrace as far as people are concerned but in great glory for all time as far as God is concerned.
      This is powerful if I can sit quietly and rest in it. I can only sit by myself, no one can sit for me or even with me, it is a conversation between me and God since Jesus made the way and only God through the Spirit of God can help me see Him.
      Your story spoke to me. Thank you.

  5. I hate to disagree with Os, but if the young people in our churches were well trained and took their faith seriously, ‘the ugliness of the Christian Right’ wouldn’t be seen as a very good excuse. In that sense, I don’t think it’s really a solid reason at all, and certainly not the primary one.

    The primary reason they are walking away, is because they are largely uneducated in the Christian faith, due to a failure on the part of their church and parents to take Christian discipleship seriously. Without that depth and seriousness, there are simple too many things drawing them away which easily beat out Christianity for their time and attention.

    The ‘ugliness of the Christian Right’ is just one thing on a laundry list of excuses they then cite to justify their break from family tradition. If they did take Christianity seriously, they would recognize that the ‘ugliness of the Christian Right’ is inconsequential to their faith.

  6. SM says:

    Udo Middleman’s “The Market Driven Church” might be a helpful addition to this conversation.
    True and/or real conversion brings about true/real change of heart and commitment. I think the comment Steve has made about discipleship is accurate but is remiss of the genuine acknowledgement of the need for younger, newer Christians (followers of the way) to model and learn by extension from older and longer lived believers in the faith. Paul encourages us to “admonish one another in love” whilst simultaneously Jesus, in love, admonishes us to guard and care for the weaker brethren (believers, sisters and brothers) among us. Today in church we are pulled by both the “politically correct” left and the “religious right” as if at a sporting event or TV show wherein we are being readied to vote for the best performance. We are tantalized and titilated, frankly, having are very sin nature energized in a way that allows us to generalize into the culture at large. In other words, there is very little difference between watching a TV event, a sports event, a concert or other entertainment venue than “watching” church. Our emotions are ignited in very much the same manner and the weaker and/or younger among us are drawn (enticed) away from within our own walls.
    Manipulation has consequences and we are seeing those consequences in our children’s refusal and/or inability to follow the spoken path shown to them. The words from the previous sentence are purposely chosen as I believe what is lacking is a genuine on fire example of just what it is to make a choice to climb out of the tree (Nicodemis) and “come follow Me.” Our words speak of a path but quite often our feet are not treading a path that others can follow.
    There is a cost to pay when one lays down the life one has (repent) in order to follow Jesus into a life that is far different from the choices other people have made and I think we are remiss in teaching this truth about what it is and what it means to: “come follow Me.” Compared to the flashy, abundant life of fashion, popularity, wealth, and plenty that entices us to individualism and Atheism, the austere, singular, fashion-less yet abundant life of the soul in love and “after God’s own heart” itself causes us to stumble. Add in the entertainment factor and we are up for grabs wholesale to the highest bidder. The Christian life is not easy to live albeit mostly taught easy to attain. It takes courage, commitment and faith and it takes the example of Christ which Paul demonstrated then some of the men and women of faith after him – today we lack current examples of people who are challenging the brethren to “follow me as I follow Christ” as well as a deep personal yearning exemplified in the Psalmist (David), who sought God so intently he caused God to remark, “a man after My own heart.”
    The focus in our churches, at least in the larger churches, seems to be: as Whoopi Goldberg acting as the Carmelite nun in Sister Act said, “to get butts in the seats” – the complete antithesis of what Jesus taught (He left the 99 to go after the 1).
    If indeed Jesus knows who His own are and if indeed the Holy Spirit draws all men unto Himself then shouldn’t our example be that of Paul’s which was that of Jesus Himself a pursuit of the one…
    There is nothing out there challenging our young people in a way that demonstrates to them the need they have within them to pursue God and God alone. This is the failure of our churches when the young people we are speaking of are those who have grown up among us. We are known and the lives we live are not demonstrative af brotherly love and concern for the weaker among us in our pursuit of God’s heart. Our have/have not mentality reigns and our young people are walking away in favor of a lie. All the while we sit in our focus groups and strategize yet another campaign to “reach them”.

    1. @ SM – Oh, absolutely, the prior few (maybe more) generations to the GenY crowd weren’t very good examples of anything but stubborn stick-to-it-ness when it comes to church. (Again, painting with a broad brush… there are many of exceptions.) And, where Bell and others are correct is that they settled for simple answers and didn’t go deep either. It’s a fair critique, but the answer isn’t to throw up your hands and go postmodern…. and then decide morality must be, conveniently, grey!

      I certainly agree with Os that America is a mess of sharp divide between the left and right, at least politically. And, I think many prior to GenY find it too easy to just take sides and not develop a Christian world-view. I just don’t think that is a good excuse. You don’t judge a system by its hypocrites.

      BTW, Os is spot-on on what is wrong with the church and what to do about it. I caught him recently on the White Horse Inn, and have it on my to-do list to transcribe a section it. The show title was, “The Case for Civility” and it’s well worth a listen (I’m sure his book is too).

      I do agree on the manipulation aspect. Laziness (or, maybe better, misplaced efforts) in our churches, lead to not really discipling, which includes interacting deeply enough to ask and answer the hard questions. Apologetics has been lacking (heck, absent!) from our churches, and we’re reaping the reward.

      re: ‘get butts in the seats’ – AMEN! Yes, most churches are focused on quantity rather than quality. Sure, it’s a practical thing, as churches need money to operate. But, just like any business, if the quality suffers too much, the company goes under. Just remember that the mind usually follows the will, and actions typically follow. If the will isn’t being reformed and the mind hasn’t been disciplined, you just won’t have people living a better Christian life. So, it starts with discipling, IMO, and then the walk follows.

      On another note, yes, you are absolutely correct that most of these youth grew up ‘among’ us, in the sense that they usually grew up in the church (the sociological data, even among young atheists, bears this out). But, I often wonder what that really means if we stop to think about it. They were often put into the nursery, then really bad ‘Sunday school,’ then really bad youth groups… then they ‘graduated’ from church. What should we expect? And, the parents, while well-meaning, usually didn’t take much of an active part in learning themselves, so they could teach the kids. They didn’t worship with them that much either, really. Were the kids ever truly part of the church? Try to find a church where the kids stay in worship, and are meaningfully integrated into the body. It’s pretty rare. (Of course, then if ‘Sunday school’ happens during worship, when do the adults go to their education sessions? They usually don’t!) Try to point this out sometime though, and see what happens… it’s one of the sacred cows!

      1. SM says:

        Sacred cow! There are a number of those… Steve, I think our current model of doing church is void of a number of things that the church of the past did much better. But, we would have to heard a lot of cows out of the way to address them and I’d be among the first to be dismissed in that pursuit – hm, perhaps a lot of X ers feel that way. So, times are better and we are an affluent people, even the poorest among us are more affluent than perhaps half of the world’s poor and we just don’t get it. Of course, Jesus said we’d always have the poor among us so what is the point? The point is that Jesus gave a message to the affluent and satisfied and was rejected. Then He branched out to the disenfranchised… But I don’t see where He concerned Himself with the “Quality message or program.” He was the message, He is the message! Why has this become tedious or limited and unworthy of reflection? Church is not a business in my opinion and this is perhaps the one over-riding error of our time to make it be as such whether liberal or conservative. The balance sheet is returning void.
        Many of the Church elders worked for a living and of course we read how all of the early church participants worked in some type of trade to support themselves. Could it be that our insistence to “professionalize” church is part of the problem. Our great need to grasp for more and more of an audience so that we can pay for more and more thereby gaining more and more. Does more ever end? It does and we are reaping I fear what we have sewn. This “new stuff” is the same only in reverse as far as I can tell – pandering to the masses.
        While I am not sure I agree with everything Os has said I agree with civility. but, by whose definition are we understanding the term civil?
        As far as the steps many of these children went through prior to their Atheism I think there are multiple influencing factors we could discuss but the effects are the same: “butts in the seats” without a true or significant understanding of what it means to choose to follow Christ. And, this has resulted in agnosticicism and atheism for the vast numbers who have gone away. Our language has become obscured in the business of entertainment whether it is conservative in nature or liberal and we are failing to lead. I wonder why that is.

  7. RJS says:


    Perhaps it is the other way around; the questions Christianity provide are not those which answer the questions GenY have.

  8. RJS says:

    Oops, what I meant was:

    Perhaps the answers Christianity provide are not those which answer the questions GenY have.

    1. @ RJS – It would be interesting (genuinely) to hear some examples.

      I suppose there are always a few new or unique questions in each generation, but my experience so far, working in apologetics, is that often GenY folks seem to not like the answers (if they ask or dig in at all). There is a difference between an unsatisfying answer, and one that isn’t liked. (I know I’m painting with a broad brush here… but come on, when the popular figures are folks like Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, or Bart Ehrman, and the info seems to come from the History Channel or Zeitgeist, things aren’t looking great on the intellectual engagement side.)

      1. RJS says:

        Sure Steve, I am not so much saying that the questions themselves are brand new, but that the way of asking them is, moreover that they find the traditional answers unsatisfying…that they are unable to find cognitive rest upon them because they see that life is more complex than the simple answers suggest and, I believe, they are more capable of living in the grey than are GenX.

        We can of course mock Bell for lack of intellectual weight, but actually there seems to be a great deal of weight under the surface, take his latest What we talk about when we talk about God, underneath his project lies the work of Tillich and serves to allow us to pause and reflect upon whether GenY find the ‘God’ of GenX plausible.

        1. RJS, then how about an example? Certainly answering a question too simplistically can be problematic. (Kind of a, duh!) This doesn’t necessarily mean grey is needed. Most questions have good answers. Sure, application, in a fallen world, might need to be grey, at times; two different things. But again, I doubt that often the ‘capable of living in the grey’ that I’ve seen has a lot to do with anything cognitive (certainly not any kind of deep thought).

          This bears out in that when they are pushed, they often resort to slogans and sound-bites that aren’t well thought through and are sometimes contradictory.

          Which brings us to Bell (and the others). The sad thing is that I’m guessing he DID have to study at one time. That just makes his – coy, fire a dozen questions out, and act all superior when in a typical radio-interview format, they all can’t be answered – approach so insulting. One of his recent interviews on “Unbelievable?” was truly unbelievable… unbelievably stupefying, that is. I’ll admit I haven’t read his books, but when all his presentations of the material are so horrendous, why bother? Essentially, people like Bell and Ehrman certainly know better. That the GenY’ers can’t spot the fake is troubling.

          Evans, I can’t quite figure out. I thought she might be sincere at one point (and doesn’t have the education behind her), but then she started writing books and can’t seem to interact with critique of her work… so I’m beginning to see her as disingenuous as well. Again, troubling, as one of claims to fame of the GenY crowd is supposedly being able to spot this. It seems more they are taken in by rhetoric and easily blown about…

          1. SM says:

            Thank you, Steve. Your comments are so well thought out. I also appreciate the dialogue with RJS. My earlier comment is an attempt to demonstrate that there are consequences to the choices the previous generations have made such as with marketing the message and which you, Steve, have described so well in this latest comment.
            If one wants to add in and provide guidance or give answers as has been alluded to in your conversation with RJS then they most likely will be labelled traditional or fundamentalist or what has now become a different type of slur: Christian Right. The sad thing here is that the Religious Right is itself a marketed concept that was meant to address liberalisation in our government.
            Our society has creeped into our churches as opposed to past generations wherein society tried to keep up with our churches. Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson, Nancy Pearcy , and CS Lewis among others have addressed these concerns and even warned of their coming. They all have attempted to address the very issues Gen X and Gen Y are presented with. And, Udo Middleman gives some indirect insight as to the ever increasing larger societal norms that frankly are plaguing our churches today.
            Rather than use a Biblical standard to weigh out and reason something outside of the church people are increasingly using standards outside of the church to make choices about church and their own beliefs. Some of the people you have mentioned have made significant strides in this avenue and their thoughts are not new.Nietzsche’s works come to mind.
            If I say there is a solid foundation upon which my faith is built, I will be criticized not by Gen X but by the very people who haved carved for themselves a niche audience with lucrative outcomes. The wholesale message is: just believe” as in “just do it” and this type of message is not new nor original but the unsuspecting youth who are recipients of the “feel good” message that validates an independent self directed “love” as long as it feels good to me are just that -unsuspecting. This message is also not new and can be found in the writings of the gnostic’s. conservatism is not new either for that matter. it seems to me that it is very advantages to decry a “new thought for a new time” but it is counterintuitive and has severe consequences in the long run.
            Gen X, Y for that matter, have grown up in an overmarketed world and many in the church have gotten on board with the marketing for their own profit without concern for the consequences. The unsuspecting among us are likewise unaware and even seem to be entirely uninterested in anything outside of what matters to them in the moment. And, so we continue strategizing how to reach them or more accurately, how to reach them again – next week.
            I am not certain what the answer is except for the gospel message. Although, this too, we seem to have watered down to the simplest form of ” once saved always saved.” Anyway, throughout history abundance has led to apathy and apathy to self destruction. We are a people with great abundance and this is prevalent in the mainstream of our churches. The interesting thing is that much of the conversation only refers to the industrialized world. Third world or less inundated societies are still reached with a fairly traditional message. Perhaps a focus on giving rather than receiving might help Gen X that is if you can entertain them long enough for them to receive the message.

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