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Haemorrhaging Faith: why young people are leaving the Church

The Haemorrhaging Faith Conference has been running in Melbourne this week, hosted by Baptist Union Victoria. It was held with the mission of “revealing important research into why youth and young adults are leaving the church and what we can do to arrest that trend”.

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Haemorrhaging Faith started as a sociological study in Canada which investigated why young people raised in the church decide to either continue in their faith, or leave the church.

Dave Overholt, one of the lead minds behind the study, presented the research alongside Rowan Lewis from Whitley College and Dave Miers from City on a Hill in Melbourne, placing it in an Australian context.

In comparison to other nations, such as America, where up to 35 per cent of the population attends church two or more times per month, Canada and Australia are far more statistically compatible. In both nations, only 12 per cent of the population attend church two or more times per month, according to the conference presenters.

Whilst these statistics are fairly constant, faith in teenagers is slowly fading away across both nations, with statisticians recording “under representation” of teenagers and young adults in comparison to the general population.

The Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable in Canada commissioned a report into why teenagers and young adults were leaving the church in Canada and some of the data that came out of the report is alarming.

The Haemorrhaging Faith research interviewed 2,049 young people and identified four kinds of spiritual orientations in students and young adults. They are summarised below:

  1. Engagers (23%)

Engagers are those who are active in the church and open to God. They had overwhelmingly experienced answered prayers, the love of God and emotional healing in the church.

  1. Fence Sitters (36%)

The statistically largest group, tend to have religious affiliation but have not claimed it as their own. Many had experienced God, but for some reason have not committed to Christianity.

  1. Wanderers (26%)

Wanderers are those who have Christian heritage through being involved with the church as a child, but would not describe themselves as Christian. They generally have a positive view of Christianity.

  1. Rejecters (15%)

Where Wanderers have a positive view of Christianity despite not being Christians, Rejecters have a strongly negative view of the church and have completely rejected the church.

In response to the research outlined above, Rowan Lewis asked the question: Is Australia haemorrhaging faith as well?

Lewis thinks that we are.

Although there are significant gaps in the research in Australia, there have been two major Australian research projects that point to similar finding: the Australian Youth Spirituality Survey undertaken by Phillip Hughes and Here Today, Gone Tomorrow by John Bodycomb.

Throughout this research, there were statistics that pointed to haemorrhaging faith in the Australian church. For instance:

  • Statistical under representation of individuals aged 15-39 in the Australian church is increasing.
  • There are 50,000 youth and young adults who drift away from the Christian faith annually.
  • Over the course of 10 years, that rounds up to a missing 500,000 students who were Christians or had Christian heritage.

How do we move forward in a landscape where teenagers and young adults are leaving the church in landmark numbers? The Haemorrhaging Faith research discovered four common barriers to church attendance and the factors that motivated engagers to grow in their faith.

PARENTS: ENGAGED OR DISENGAGED?

The faith commitment of parents has an enormous impact on the faith and church participation of their children.

If parents prayed more than just at meals, talked freely about their faith and the bible, served together at church, worshipped openly and could wrestle with tough questions, the children were more likely to live their faith out and attend church in their adult years.

GOD: EXPERIENCED OR UNEXPERIENCED?

Dave Overholt put forward that this generation recognises truth from their experiences. If they don’t experience God, then for them, he does not exist. For many, God did not exist because he did not answer their prayers as expected. This was particularly true when the young adult had experienced relatives dying or friends who had committed suicide.

COMMUNITY: ALIVE OR DEAD?

For many teenagers, God is not the problem; it’s the church. They have grown up valuing friendship and intimacy and if the Church falls short in these areas, they leave.

Young adults see hypocrisy and being inauthentic as a sign of a dead or dying community. They know we are not perfect, but if we make a mistake, we need to admit it and apologise.

TEACHING: EMPOWERING OR RESTRICTIVE?

Many young adults leave the church because they believe that what the church preaches behind the times. There are several topics that young adults feel the church is being left behind on.

These include topics such as:

  • Sex
  • Porn
  • Marriage
  • Homosexuality
  • Gender Roles

Unfortunately, the church has shied away from confronting these topics head on.  Young adults want the church to say what it means, and mean what it says.

Jimmy Young is a writer and youth pastor from Melbourne who loves the church and youth ministry. You can see his in-depth report and reflections on day one and day two of the Haemorrhaging Faith at his blog, the Radical Change.

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