Why Are Young Adults Leaving the Church?

a chinese girl looking disappointed and leaving the church

Is the traditional church model failing our younger generations? The growing trend of Millennial and Gen Z Christians leaving the church is a significant concern.

The Generations Project delves into the experiences of these young adults, revealing a disconnect between their values, expectations, and the traditional structures they encounter within the Church. This project draws upon 131 in-depth interviews from 63 different churches across 10 denominations, along with approximately 1700 survey respondents across five generations of Christians.

While the current research was based within the Singaporean context, anecdotal indications suggest the insights, particularly those regarding Millennials and Gen Zs, are transferable to other Asian cities with similar demographics, such as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Diving deeper into the factors driving this shift, this article invites reflection and a deeper understanding of the challenges facing the modern church.

Throughout the article, Pastor Yu Yong of PJEFC, an urban church in Greater Kuala Lumpur, offers insights into these challenges from a Malaysian perspective, drawing on his years of ministry experience.

So, why are young adults leaving our churches?

They Feel Like a Cog in the Church Machinery

Many of our younger interviewees expressed their struggle with the often transactional relationships they have with their leaders in church. Their experience in the existing system in many churches was likened to being a mere “cog in the machinery”, with their worth determined by the function they fulfill.

For many of them, serving in ministry looks like being involved in one event after another, and they simply end up as “resources” to achieve a certain goal. This, in their opinion, results in relationships between clergy and laity that tend to be very transactional.

Many feel that they have become “service providers” for their churches and their worth is solely determined by the roles of service that they play in church.

The experience of one interviewee, while not normative, illustrates the struggles faced by both Millennial and Gen Z church members often near the “bottom” of the hierarchy in the church.

In her own words, she lamented: “I felt like a tool being discarded because it was no longer useful.”

Sarah (not her real name) had recently graduated from medical school and was serving her first year in a hospital. The shift work requirements meant she had almost no control over her time on the weekends.

When Sarah approached her worship ministry leader to indicate her need to step back from ministry during this season of life, the only response she got was for her to ensure that someone would take over her duties.

In her own words, she lamented: “I felt like a tool being discarded because it was no longer useful.”

They Began Exploring Their Own Faith

Pastor Yu Yong: A key turning point in regards to leaving the church is the transition when one goes to university or begins work in a foreign country.

Most of our young adults have been in church through their childhood, teens, and early college years because of the wishes of their parents.

Our young people however do grow up, and many will be making a decision on their faith for the first time in their lives. Some have left to explore other churches, while some naturally drift away from Christianity over time. This happens especially in a foreign land where parents are unable to nag or force their children into joining them for Sunday Service.

They Feel That They’re Not Taken Seriously in Church

Many Millennials and Gen Z Christians tend to be second-generation Christians attending churches their parents brought them to.

Older church leaders had literally watched them grow up and this familiarity coupled with the influence of Confucian values in our society, had caused many young adults to express doubt they would ever be taken seriously by the leadership.

Like the generations before them, their experience in the marketplace has a profound influence on how they navigate church life. Older Millennials (now in their late 30s and early 40s) are starting to take on greater responsibilities in middle management roles, but they are often still made to feel that they are still too “green” to influence important decisions in church.

Even for younger Millennials and older Gen Zs, who may still be in the early stages of working life, the predominant worldview is that competency and results are more important than experience (which is often perceived as outdated). This often makes it difficult for them to “submit” to their leaders in church when there are differing opinions and hierarchy is the main deciding factor.

They Face Competing Priorities

Pastor Yu Yong: One reason young people often leave the church is because of their busy lives. Being based in Kuala Lumpur, the rising cost of living, the weakened economy, and also of the ringgit have resulted in a career-driven focus for young adults.

Once committed young adults, especially during their university days experience a realignment of priorities.

While some still make it a point to come to church, it is not uncommon to see them withdrawing from small group meetings and serving for a season. Sadly in some cases, the pursuit of material wealth and making a living resulted in some young adults leaving the church entirely.

They Feel That the Church Has Become Irrelevant

In October 2010, over 4,000 Christian leaders from 198 countries gathered in Cape Town, South Africa, to discuss critical issues of the time relating to the Church and evangelization. This was the Third Lausanne Congress, convening nearly 35 years after the original Lausanne Congress in 1974, called by Billy Graham.

Written as a roadmap for the Lausanne Movement, The Cape Town Commitment presents a statement of shared Biblical convictions and calls Christians all over the world to action. Within this document, there is an interesting statement: “The falsehood of a ‘sacred-secular divide’ has permeated the Church’s thinking and action. This divide tells us that religious activity belongs to God, whereas other activity does not.”

While it may not be fully representative, our research has shown that the older generations, due to very valid formative experiences, tend to perceive church activities as having greater importance than what happens outside the church.

For Millennials and Gen Zs, the sacred-secular divide has become increasingly non-existent. The viewpoint that pastoral or ministry work is “holier” or higher on a hierarchy in the kingdom of God is outdated and even arrogant. With this worldview, many struggle with the perceived myopia of what is spoken about and done in our churches.

Since all work is equally “holy” in theory, the lop-sided emphasis of the church on certain activities (usually church-based) and the lack of engagement with important issues in the world have caused some to see the church as becoming increasingly irrelevant. Thus, the drive and motivation to serve exclusively within the context of the perceived inward-looking church have been dampened for them.

They Seek Community Beyond Formal Settings

Pastor Yu Yong: My church, a congregation of 500 members, holds Sunday services that are often seen as formal, large gatherings.

Some young people tend to shy away from the service as they see it as an intimidating and formal event. Reasons for this include feeling they don’t gain much value from attending, or simply that their friends don’t go to church often either.

However, it is interesting to note that some of these young people still attend Cell Groups (once or twice a month) and join the other young adults for sports. They also attend special services such as Easter and Christmas.

They Are Uncomfortable With the Perceived “Performance System” in Churches

Millennials and Gen Zs especially value people who are willing to have deep authentic relationships and are ready to journey with them without trying to run their lives. This is certainly influenced by the postmodern culture of these generations which reacts with great skepticism towards those who appear to “know it all” or “have it all together.”

As a result, many feel stifled by what they perceive as attempts from the older generations to preach to them without any effort to understand the context of their lives.

To them, having a culture where key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to determine if Christians are “worthy” will ultimately result in a spirituality that is content only with external behavioral modification and no real internal change.

Furthermore, the behaviors that are “rewarded” and those that are criticized seem to be motivated more by societal norms and expectations rather than Biblical wisdom.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Every generation takes for granted the good that went before it, reacts against the bad, and responds within its own historical context.” In our research into the five different generations, we have found this statement to be quite true.

Whichever generation we belong to, we are often guilty of reading the other generations through the lens of our own and using the concept of the “generational gap” as an excuse for ignoring the need for understanding and empathy.

Due to the constraints of length in this article, it may appear that I (Wei Hao) am siding with the younger generations. However, this is merely an attempt to present the concerns that were heard without any assessment of their validity.

While there is a need for older generations to understand the younger generations, it is equally important for younger generations to understand what the older generations went through and why they are wired to approach certain issues in particular ways.

In our findings, there is no doubt that all generations are genuinely concerned about the church and have equally valid considerations.

However, with the unprecedented pace at which the world is changing now, it is possible that our churches now comprise different generations of Christians with vastly divergent views and approaches to the practice of the faith who may not even be aware of these differences.

Instead of trying to “solve” a “problem” that we have observed, maybe we need to take a pause and seek to increase our understanding and empathy for one another first.

Pastor Yu Yong: Growing up in church and being in ministry for many years have shown many friends or acquaintances who were once strong in their faith and committed to ministry either slowed down or left the church entirely.

Nevertheless, I believe that it is my role to continue being friends with them not just to see them return to the church, but also that love, and grace applied in an organic process are key ingredients in restoring prodigal sons or daughters who have left the faith.

A personal joy for me is still to see them occasionally outside the walls of the church, or when they come on Easter or Good Friday.

It is always interesting that these young people still consider faith as something that is important to them as my meetings with them occasionally contain discourses about the church, faith, and also clarification about misunderstandings that they have had with Christianity in the past.

My encouragement and exhortation is for us who still have relationships with some of these young people to continue to do so. In my church, we have ministries such as pre-marital counseling, sports, and community services where we can still engage some of these young people to come.

At the end of the day, all we can do is to play our role, and pray and hope that the Great Shepherd will draw back the lost to His fold.

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