You have probably read the headlines heralding startling statistics of teens and young adults leaving the church. 36% of young Millennials (18-26) and 34% of older Millennials (27-34) self-define as religiously unaffiliated, a number up significantly and which appears to be growing.[i] Nearly six in ten (59%) young people who grew up in the church will leave the church or their faith for at least a significant amount of time, if not for good, in their 20s.[ii] On average, LCMS pastors say that 46% of youth are still active in their congregation four years after confirmation. Perhaps you, like me, have even heard this generation described as “lost” to the church.
It is difficult to face the reality of these statistics. The statistics become even more sad and stark when we attach the faces and names of young people in our congregations and communities; people you have watched grow up and now leave. We know there are many reasons that young people leave the church, and many paths that may or may not bring them back. If we consider young people who have disconnected from the life of the church as lost, then perhaps God’s Word has something profound to say to us about what the church’s response should be.
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” – Luke 15:4-5
I have heard the loss of young adults from our churches described as a foregone conclusion. The attitude of some is, “Sure they leave, but they always come back.” That does not seem to be the attitude reflected in Jesus’ parable. Our Good Shepherd is willing to risk all in search of the lost. It should not be considered a natural part of a young person’s faith life to leave the church for any amount of time. Unlike generations past, young people are dropping out of church earlier, staying away longer, and if they return, they see the church as less important than before.[iii] If young people leave the church, the church should be actively looking for them. God hasn’t given up on bringing them back, and neither should we.
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” – Luke 15:8-9
Our human nature says that one coin or one sheep isn’t worth the search, but Jesus is reminding us that each individual is of infinite worth to God. When the woman loses a coin, she doesn’t give it up for lost and go about her day. She lights a lamp, sweeps the house. Let’s believe young people are worth being found. Perhaps every young person should have someone in the congregation who is making regular contact with them, keeping up to date on them and their faith life. Perhaps we better incorporate young people into the leadership of the church. Perhaps we can leverage social media and other technology to keep young people connected to what is happening in their church, even if they are transient or unable to be active in the congregation. God calls His church to be actively looking for those who are lost and rejoicing upon their return.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20
Many young adults fear how the church will respond when and if they return. What kind of judgment will I receive for sinful decisions made? I have been gone too long. Does the church want me back after years of being away? Will I be welcomed back even if I have doubts or struggles? There should always be appropriate Law and Gospel spoken. The church would do well to mimic the Father at his son’s return home. When young people return, let’s treat them like sons and daughters of God. Feel compassion; run and embrace them.
“For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.” – Luke 19:10
Jesus gives us the ultimate example. He came not just for those who are active in church, but to seek and save the lost. The church cannot sit back and abide a generation of lost young people. Christ has died for them and God believes they are of great value. Take up the search through the power of the Holy Spirit. Reflect the love God has so graciously poured out onto us to those young people who are struggling with their faith more than ever. They need the Gospel, the good news that they are sinners who have been redeemed by Christ, just like you and me. May our prayer be that heaven will rejoice as the lost are found.