In a brief moments reading I’m going to get to why those statistics about young people dropping out of the church are much oft misleading and unhelpful, but before we get to the crux of it, some background.
I like doing youth work, because I like young people. And one of the many reasons I like young people is because they are much more open. And not just in a “they’ll answer honestly when I ask why they punched someone in the face” but in a “they’ll punch someone in the face instead of hiding up all their anger and pretending it’s not there”. Not to say that it’s better to punch someone in the face than to hold in your anger—I’m fairly certain it’s not—just that I’d rather spend time talking to someone about why they punched someone in the face, than spend time talking to someone trying to find out if they were alright, and was there anything they needed to talk about, and you know, if they were having problems with their work colleague it would probably be better to talk about it now than seethe for nine months, get wastingly drunk at the office Christmas party, and then urinate in their desk drawer.
Anyway. Part of this specific joy of working with young people is that you get to know fairly quickly whether Jesus is someone they’re taking seriously. If a young person doesn’t like Jesus they’ll tell you. Or if they think this Jesus sounds pretty cool, but you know what, so does doing whatever the hell I want to do, they’ll tell you. Or if they think Jesus is awesome, they’ll tell you.
Because you know those stats you see about legions of young people dropping out of church every week? Those are all teenagers who haven’t ever been taken up with Jesus, who haven’t ever seen God as uniquely satisfying, who haven’t ever come to trust in the goodness of God and rejoice in what the gospel is for them. And because young people are open like they are (and because they go through massive transition periods like moving to university that make it that much easier) they’ll just drop out. You can try and put scaffolding up around there unbelief that’ll make them stay for a bit, like fun games, cool leaders, and copious trips to Starbucks for Frappacinos, but it won’t last. They’ll drop out and you’ll lose them.
But adults, adults don’t drop-out of stuff so much. They’re not so open (and they don’t have the same natural major transition periods) and they can make self-reinforcing scaffolding. Adults will find reasons for church attendance to be useful outside of the gospel. Things like “giving the children some good moral guidance”, “support structures”, “common ground” can become the same sort of scaffolding as games can be with young people.
Which brings us to the aforementioned crux of it. With those stats and figures and explanations and stuff you can see the stuff about young people and panic about them, but they’re just the most obvious sign of a much wider issue. What you need to know about those figures of drop out of young people is that they are the same for adults, just the adults keep attending. The adults they’ll carry on turning up and they’ll stay involved, but they are no more excited about Jesus or taken up by the gospel than any of the young people who’ve dropped out. Because the problem of the church is rooted much deeper than not engaging young people. The problem with the church isn’t that it doesn’t engage young people with it’s activities, the problem with the church is that it doesn’t engage people with it’s God.