For the most part I try to be encouraging in this blog. I am passionate about the value of small churches and I want to encourage you who are leaders in those churches. So I tend to focus on things that are encouraging.
But some times I come across some bad news that I feel like I have to share and today is one of those days.
I have been reading a book by Sam Reimer and Michael Wilkinson entitled A Culture of Faith: Evangelical Congregations in Canada. If you are a leader in an evangelical church you need to read this book. It was published last year and provides as an up-to-date statistical record of the evangelical church in Canada as you are likely to find.
Out of all the stats provided one caught my attention and it is that stat that I want to talk about.
The bad news
Reimer and Wilkinson report that 39.1 per cent of young people, who regularly attended an evangelical church when they were children and teenagers, do not attend church today. (p. 174)
That is sobering news. Four out of every ten children now regularly attending an evangelical church will not attend as an adult unless that statistic improves. The sad fact is that if the present trends continue it is more likely to get worse.
As Reimer and Wilkinson point out, this is sobering news for anyone in a leadership position in an evangelical church.
What makes this really sad news is that the children involved are almost entirely the children of families who attended church regularly. These are not the children who come occasionally to a children’s club or to special events. These are not the families who attend at Christmas and Easter and maybe want to get married in the church.
These are children who attended regularly with their families, who sat in Sunday school each week and who attended youth group in their teens.
It is sobering news indeed.
A meaningless comparison
Reimer and Wilkinson point out that evangelical churches fare better in this regard than other church groups. Catholic and mainline churches have far lower retention rates but the “we are doing better than them” argument fails to bring much comfort when one considers that evangelical churches with the best rate are still losing four out of every ten of their young people.
As many of you know none of the Canadian teams in the NHL made it to the playoffs this year. Ottawa had the most points but it still wasn’t enough to make the playoffs. I doubt if there is a single member of the Ottawa team who is feeling good about being the best Canadian team as they watch the playoffs rather than participate in them. Being the best of a bad lot isn’t much consolation. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup not be the best team to miss the playoffs.
Evangelical churches need to avoid the comparison trap. Being better at retaining their children than other groups isn’t much of a comfort when four out of ten are still leaving.
Where are they going
You might have heard of a young adult who left the evangelical tradition and is now attending another church group or even another religion. This does happen but it is not very common.
In their studies Reimer and Wilkinson discovered that 1.7% of adults who left the evangelical tradition became Catholic; 2.3% joined a mainline church; 0.6% joined another religion.
The vast majority of those who no longer associate themselves with an evangelical church just stopped going anywhere. They are most likely to identify themselves as no religion, atheist, agnostic or spiritual. (p. 171)
They join a large segment of the population today who no longer see the church as having any relevance in their lives. Their time is taken up with a hundred other things that they deem as more important and they have no time or interest in church.
Some times it is hard to face reality but reality is always your friend.
This is one of those time when I would sooner just stop reading the book and pretend that there isn’t a problem.
But there is!
I know too many parents who are struggling with the reality that they have children who have turned their backs on their faith. They have children who see no reason to get up on a Sunday morning and attend church. They grew up regularly attending an evangelical church and now they aren’t attending any church at all.
In any given evangelical church there are parents who are struggling. In any evangelical church there are young adults who are questioning their faith and trying to determine its relevance for their lives. What makes this so urgent is that those parents and those young adults aren’t just statistics. They are real people and the tears that parents shed are real tears.
Churches need to face this fact if they are ever going to retain more of their young people. Reality is our friend because it is what is really happening.
The place of the small church
I want to close with two quotes from young people who were interviewed as part of the research that went into this book. They certainly don’t provide the total answer but they are a good starting point. What is exciting to me is that they fit so well into the context of the small church.
The first young adult commented:
“It’s hard to trust leadership that doesn’t even really know that you exist. It’s hard to be a part of a congregation whose members can’t hold a five-minute conversation about my day or even show interest in it. Somehow an environment has to be created where people know that their voice matters.” (p. 176)
The second young adult said:
“Even though I said, look, this is what I am good at, this is my experience, this is what I can help you with. And I became familiar with their ministries, and, and put myself out there, and I had new ideas and shared them. But nothing was being received or accepted. It wasn’t that they said, ‘No you can’t do that,’ it was just that nothing ever really happened with my ideas. Nobody gave me a job.” (p. 176)
Young people who are listened to and who serve while they are still young are far less likely to leave church when they leave home. Small churches should be those kind of places.
A final comment
Four out of every ten children and young people currently attending our churches will drift away and stop attending any church as a young adult.
That should bring tears to your eyes and a sense of urgency to your heart. That statistic is simply unacceptable.
I don’t have an easy answer, certainly not one that I can share in the few paragraphs of this blog.
Actually, reality is that there probably is no single answer. It is one of those aspects of church life that requires constant study but I do know that before we can start to find answers, we need a clear understanding of the problem and I thank Sam Reiner and Michael Wilkinson for giving us that.
May God bless you as you search for answers in your local church context.