How to Smartly Engage with the Young Doubters in Your Midst
by Andrea Palpant Dilley
In high school, I entered a skeptic phase that eventually led me out of the doors of the church. My parents saw it coming. My dad started taking me out to breakfast at a local diner, the kind of spot cops go to after the night shift. We ordered omelets in a corner booth and, in between bites of egg and onion, started talking about God, faith, and philosophy. I wanted to know: Why does God wage war in the Old Testament? Why does God seem distant and inaccessible? And why would a good God allow suffering?
“How can I be certain of anything?” I asked him one Saturday morning. “How can I be sure that what I believe is true?”
My dad listened. He affirmed my questions and challenged me. But nothing he said kept me from leaving the church a few years later. While I was home from college visiting my parents, I overheard my mother say to my father, “Why are we spending so much money to watch our daughter lose her faith?” I could hear the panic. Her child was walking out of the sanctuary and losing her way in the world.
My mother didn’t know it at the time, but I had become a statistic. Barna Group recently released the results of a five-year study on why young people are leaving the church. The “Faith That Lasts” research project comprised eight national studies and included interviews with 18- to 29-year-olds (both current and former churchgoers) who were active in church at some point as teenagers.
The study focused on reasons for “disconnection from church life” after age 15 and identified three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals (those who lose their faith), nomads (those who wander from church but still maintain faith), and exiles (those who feel caught between church culture and the larger society). While 30 percent of U.S. Christians ages 18 to 29 stay faithful to church and faith, roughly 60 percent leave the church either permanently or for an extended period of time and typically fall into the prodigal, nomad, or exile category.
What’s going wrong? What can we do to keep young people inside the sanctuary? Should we be concerned, or is this church-fleeing trend just faith refining itself in a new era?
One of the concerns young people commonly voiced in the study is that church feels unfriendly to doubters. This particular critique has less to do with a polemical topic—be it sex or science—and more to do with whether the church welcomes dialogue in the first place. It encompasses all other concerns by asking the question, is there even a safe context for us to talk about doubts?
Thirty-six percent of young people surveyed said they didn’t feel free “to ask [their] most pressing life questions in church.” That’s a problem…
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