Why Young People Don't Go to Church and What to Do About It

Many young people don’t go to church. About this there is no disagreement. People also agree that getting young people to come to church would be a good thing. Opinions vary and approaches diverge when church leaders discuss what to do about the problem. As with many things in life a few simple questions can bring great clarity. Here are a two such questions and some answers.

Question 1- Why don’t young people go to church?

The answer is pretty straightforward- They don’t want to. They don’t want to attend church in the same way they don’t want to remain celibate, don’t want to limit their alcohol intake and don’t want to work hard to get ahead in a career. The current young generation was raised in a child-centric culture that has been obsessed with their bliss since the day they were born. They have been praised for ordinary achievements, taught that their opinions mattered just as much as the opinions of those older and more experienced, and told that anything difficult or unpleasant was to be avoided.

To a young person with this worldview the gospel is extremely unattractive. The message that we are all wretched sinners who need to repent makes no sense to someone who has been taught from infancy that they were valuable and wonderful “just as they are” and  that there is no greater virtue than being “true to yourself.” The self-centered youth of our day will turn away from anything that does not make them feel good about themselves.

Jesus addressed this in his discussion with Nicodemus in John 3.

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” John 3:19-21 NIV

Any church that fails to recognize this truth about young people will be tempted to pursue a dangerous and unbiblical path in order to attract millennials. I have seen many churches look at the multitudes of young people outside of the church and think that they need to “do something” to draw young people in. “Do something” usually means make the music more contemporary, dress more casually, use more “hip” speech, and to talk less about sin and more about love and peace.

This leads us to the second question.

Question 2- How do we get young unbelievers to come to church?

The answer is a simple as well- “We” don’t! It is not our job now, nor has it ever been in the history of the church, for Christians to get people to come to Christ. It is the job of the Holy Spirit, and He is quite capable! Once they know Christ, He will lead them to church. The Apostle Paul made this clear in his letter to the church at Corinth-

“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor 1:22-24 NIV

According to Paul the culture in which we live will demand certain things from us. What they want doesn't matter. Our response is not to modify the message to meet their demands, it is to more clearly proclaim the gospel message. We do this because we understand that it is not by our efforts that people respond! 

In case the people at Corinth were unclear on this, Paul went on to clarify-

“When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power.” 1 Cor 2:1-5 NIV

When we say that “we” need to attract young people we are also saying that the Holy Spirit needs our help, that He cannot draw people without us. I addressed this years ago when I was being interviewed by a church for a pastoral position. When asked what we could do to attract people my response was, “Preach the gospel. My God is big enough to draw people to himself even if the music stinks!”

This is not to say that we should make the church environment unnecessarily hostile to those on the outside. We do not want to, nor should we ever, create an atmosphere that reeks of exclusivity or is unwelcome to any class of people. The good news is that the Good News is neither exclusive nor unwelcoming!

Finally, a brief note on what the church should absolutely be doing for the younger among us. Young people need to see more mature Christians living their lives, all of their lives, for Christ in a manner consistent with His word. The best way to get young people in church is for parents to raise their children in the Lord. Moses addressed this in Deuteronomy 6-

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Deut 6:5-7 NIV

For the young who have not been raised in the faith the response is similar. We need to provide spiritual "parents" who will invest their lives and their time in young people doing the hard work of discipleship. Young believers need "parents" in the faith who will focus not on making them happy, but on making them godly.

Here is praying for Christ-centered, Gospel-proclaiming churches that remember that as we exalt Christ, He will do what He promised to do-

“But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32 NIV

-          Bart