Young People, Church Membership Isn’t Optional

by Jared C. Wilson May 1, 2023

One of the most concerning developments in church life over the last twenty-five years or so has been the virtual disappearance of young adults. Even kids who grow up in church, attending weekly with their families, participating in youth group and other programs, tend to drop out of church when they leave home at a rate of nearly 70 percent. That’s a lot of church kids suddenly deciding church isn’t for them!

There are probably a few reasons why this happens. First, for kids who move away from home to go to college, it can difficult to find a local church that feels comfortable or that resembles the church they grew up in. And some college environments, of course, aren’t exactly conducive to a flourishing spiritual life. If you have a new set of peers in a new environment, the value of church may just not be present, and there’s no expectation or encouragement to continue a commitment to church.

For others, it’s not the new environment of a college campus or new town that makes it difficult but simply the freedom of being a young adult, whether “leaving the nest” or not, making your own decisions apart from parental requirement and family tradition. You’re in the season of life now where you get to determine if your faith is really yours or just a custom handed down by your family. A lot of young people decide that church, at least at this time, just doesn’t fit into their own plans for their life.

Whether you’re in college or out, reject the idea that committing to a local church is something only to be done when you’re older, more “established,” or in the life stage of having a family.

There are a few reasons for this, but the primary reason is because discipleship isn’t designed to be done on your own. The New Testament knows of no Christian faith apart from commitment to the “one another” context of a local church. To grow in one’s relationship with Jesus, in fact, is to grow in one’s relationship with other Christians. And while you can make lots of friends in a campus ministry or other parachurch organization, and even learn a lot in those places that can benefit you spiritually, God’s design for optimum growth according to His Word is a local church.

But “God says so” isn’t the only reason to commit to a local church even if you only plan to be away from home for four years or less. A healthy local church provides a multigenerational family that is a much healthier environment for growing in wisdom than simply attending a regular program with people your own age. As I said, such programs can certainly be beneficial, but treating them like your church robs you of being around people who have lived longer, experienced more, and have insights and guidance from mileage in their Christian journeys that you don’t have.

Certainly, a new church environment, particularly one that has older people in it, may not always suit our stylistic preferences or comfort levels, but consider how even that experience can serve to build patience, empathy, and endurance in you. It does not serve anybody very well spiritually to always have their faith custom-tailored to their own self-interested tastes. But we become more like Jesus when we put ourselves in a position to consider and honor people who aren’t like us.

There can be a tension point, also, in suddenly finding yourself considering a commitment to a church that feels so different than the weekly attendance of a youth program or a worship service customized to youthful tastes. But remember that you can’t do youth group forever! Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:11 that he put away the things of childhood when he grew up.

Part of this for Christians today is not expecting our adult experience of church to carry on the same way as our experience of student ministry, especially if our student ministry programming was conducted in ways pretty different from the “big church” we grew up in. This is in fact one of the biggest mistakes churches and youth pastors make—creating an entirely different experience for young people that is pretty much insulated from the life of their larger church. Kids raised in youth ministry silos like this usually do not stay in church long after their youth group days are over. The contrast is too jarring. They haven’t been prepared to see value in and love the local church, only to enjoy the youth ministry portion of it.

One way you can overcome issues of stylistic preferences and the like in a new church is to commit yourself to serving in some way. How can you help? Maybe you can’t change their music or architecture or overall “vibe,” but you can selflessly love people and pitch in to help them be the church God has called them to be. There may not be many college students or other young adults there, and there never will be unless someone like you selflessly decides to pioneer that growth!

When I was pastoring a church of mostly older folks in a little New England town several years ago, we were all praying that God would grow our church and grow it younger too. It took a while, but eventually we had one or two twentysomethings decide that it didn’t matter to them there weren’t a whole lot of others their age in our church. They’d be the first. And then when the next young people visited, they saw people like them. And their number began to increase.

I thank God that one young lady and her brother decided to be the firsts. They took a selfless risk to commit to a church not for its immediate benefits to them but in order to love and bless others. They were the impetus God used to grow our church. So don’t turn your nose up at churches that don’t have a lot of young people in them. If the gospel is preached there, people believe the Bible there, and people are serious about loving others there, be a pioneer for your demographic. Don’t be afraid, as the saying goes, to “be the change you want to see.”

In the end, we commit to a local church, regardless of our age, because church membership is how God has designed Christian growth to take place. We are individually members of a body (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27). Our faith may be personal, but it’s not meant to be private.

The community of believers is the ecosystem prescribed by God for healthy maturing in the faith. Don’t use whatever newfound freedom in this stage of life to free yourself from this important facet of maturity. Find a local healthy local church, overlook its flaws, work against your own selfishness and resistance, and become a contributing member. The church needs you, and you need the church.

This is an excerpt from a brand new book I’ve written with my wife Becky — Go Outside . . . and 19 Other Keys to Thriving in Your 20’s, now available from Moody Publishers. You can order today from wherever good books are sold.

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