Wandering from worship: What churches are doing to hold on to the next generation

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

TAMPA — Will Mitchell remembers childhood Sunday mornings as dramatic. Hunched over a bowl of cereal he would whine about how he didn't want to go to church. Mom's response: "You're coming, so hurry up and get ready."

He would grumble up the stairs and put on a wrinkled shirt and tie, arguing with his dad the whole time. By the time the family was in the car, the tension was thick and everyone was angry.

"The opposite thing that religion is supposed to do," Mitchell says wryly.

The Sunday battles got worse as he grew older, and his confirmation at age 16 was the last time he went to church.

Now, as a 21-year-old Catholic-turned-atheist-turned-agnostic who has a complex spiritual relationship with God, Mitchell said he left because he felt the church discouraged new ideas and critical thinking.

Yet it was critical thinking that brought him to a new place of spirituality.

"Over time, I leaned from 'probably not a God,' to 'there has to be a God,'" he says. "As I learn more and more it becomes apparent in everything that there is more to the story."

Mitchell's faith journey is personal, but not unusual.

Nearly 59 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background disconnect, either permanently or for an extended time, from church life after age 15, according to a recent study by the Barna Group, a nonpartisan group in Ventura, Calif., that studies the intersection of faith and culture.

Religious leaders are desperately trying to reverse such statistics through a variety of approaches, but before they can gather the lost sheep, they need to understand them, says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church ... and Rethinking Faith."

Today's youth are awash in technology that promotes global connectedness and the sharing of ideas but deepens individual alienation. Young adults are increasingly skeptical of authority and institutions yet eager to make a difference and find meaning in their lives.

When asked about religion, young adults expressed concerns across six broad categories, ranging from what they see as their church's overprotective, exclusive and anti-scientific nature, to their own shallow experience with Christianity.

It's crucial that religious leaders understand these concerns, Kinnaman says, so they can adjust their ministries to "cultivate lasting faith in every generation." Their efforts won't be perfect, but leaders should "take comfort in the fact that God is at work in the spiritual journeys of teens and young adults even as we are trying to figure out what to say and how to say it," Kinnaman writes in his book. "Faith, ultimately, comes from God. And we can be confident that he cares more than even we do for today's young people."

Delivering doctrine

After the first few sermons at Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Ill., Scott Gnuse suddenly realized the book he was holding — the one he'd read since childhood — was a mystery to him.

The then-18-year-old had grown up attending a nondenominational Christian church with a casual preaching style and an entertainment-driven youth ministry. He could "spit out Bible passages like it was nothing," but when it came to explaining and applying God's word, he was at a loss.

"When I finally... had the Bible explained to me, more than just using little bits and pieces of it here and there to reinforce points the pastors were making, it was very eye opening," said Gnuse, now 22. "I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. I still can't get enough of it."

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