Engaging young adults in faith: possible or not?

Is Christianity becoming irrelevant to Canadian youth?

That’s a big question, and one that I have been interested in for a long time, particularly in the past 10 years, as I’ve worked for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, an organization dedicated to helping young people think about faith.

If I were to answer the question, based on the conversations I’ve been privileged to have with hundreds of high school, college and university students, the best I could offer is that I wonder.

In my experience, young people are still quite interested in engaging in conversations about faith in God and whether it’s relevant to life on this earth. But are they interested in Christianity, spelled with a capital letter and attached to that other big C word, Church?

The church’s future may well look quite different than its past.

Not so much, according to the findings of a new report released this month in Canada called Hemorrhaging Faith: Why Canadian Young Adults are Leaving, Staying and Returning to Church.

The report reflects on the responses of more than 2,000 young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who were surveyed by the Angus Reid Forum. All of these young adults were raised in the church – either Roman Catholic, mainline or evangelical traditions.

A further 72 young people participated in face-to-face interviews about their faith experience, revealing why they are still committed to church or why they’ve left it behind.

The resulting statistics are not all that surprising, given other Canadian realities about church life these days (for most denominations, it’s in a steady decline).

According to the study, only one in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child, still do so today. And of those young adults who have left the church, about 50 per cent no longer identify with the Christian tradition they were raised in.

With statistics like those, it’s not surprising that the report’s authors, including Canadian sociologist James Penner, gave it the visceral title, Hemorrhaging Faith. Young people are leaving the traditional church. Are those of us still heading inside noticing the bloody trail of footprints?

If we’re interested, if we think those footprints are worth following, Hemorrhaging Faith is valuable reading. It provides insight not just into what is happening among Canadian youth, but into their opinions and perceptions. It tells us what parts of spiritual faith they are interested in considering and what parts drive them even further away.

Let’s listen to the young adults around us.

For example, a majority of the respondents said they weren’t looking for church leaders to answer all their questions. What they want instead is a tough engagement of the questions.

A majority also said that they’d be more likely to remain in church if they were given clear opportunities to exercise leadership and to serve. They want the freedom to bring creativity into the church, but they are also willing to listen to guidance – if those doing the guidance prove themselves trustworthy.

Young adults are a perceptive lot, and it doesn’t take them long to figure out if an adult is trustworthy or not.  In fact, according to the study, young people frequently left the church because they experienced the people in it as judgmental, superficial, and exclusive.

Young adults also said they’d chosen to walk away from the church because they were tired of feeling like failures. Living up to the expectations of others – a demand not exclusive to the church – became too tiring in a place where they expected forgiveness and redemption.

But these same young adults are still looking for those things. They do want acceptance, forgiveness, even redemption.  They are not opposed to looking for answers to life’s questions in traditional tools of the church.

More than 50 per cent of the young adults who’ve left the church said they’d still be open to studying the Bible – if a friend invited them.  Note the word friend  — authentic relationship is important to these young Canadians.

When they do go to church, they’re looking for challenging sermons that engage the hardest questions of faith and life.  They want, as one interviewee put it: “to argue…to be able to argue with someone, ‘does God really exist?’”


Hemorrhaging Faith offers both bad news and good news. In this respect, its findings ring true to me. Young adults are leaving Capital C Christianity and the Church.  But they are still spiritual beings. They still have questions. They are still seeking answers.

Will the Christian Church engage these young adults, welcome them with open arms, regardless of their skepticism, stubbornness and annoying sense of entitlement?

I certainly hope so. Not so much for the sake of the church, but for the sake of young adults.

Lynda MacGibbon’s column appears each Friday in the Moncton Times & Transcript. Contact her at lmacgibbon@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @lyndmacgibbon. Visit www.hemorrhagingfaith.com to obtain a copy of the report.



9 thoughts on “Engaging young adults in faith: possible or not?

  1. Can you send this to me as an email attachment so I can forward to some people as a follow up to some recent relevant discussions about declining youth in our church.

  2. Reblogged this on The Wet Canoeist and commented:
    Lynda has worked with young people, and cared for young people, and has great things to offer. The reality of first year university student leaving the Church is a SERIOUS reality, and NEEDS to be talked more about.

  3. Thanks for this, Lynda–I received your article by way of Lindi Lewis’ f/b entry & find that it echoes what I am discovering as I re-engage young people in the church and outside of it–i.e., beyond the committed corps of Regent College students. I find even those young people who maintain churchgoing out of conviction or habit struggle to find meaning in it for themselves. Best regards–Maxine Hancock

  4. Reblogged this on At least we made it this far… and commented:
    As a young adult who happens to still go to church and such, I feel that being connected to a faith community offers the accountability, teaching and challenges that I need to really grapple with my faith. For me, personally, church is not an option, but a part of life because God is a part of my life.
    Often, I am asked by people of all ages and backgrounds why I still choose to go to church in the midst of people leaving. I have watched friends leave, I have been in churches where I am one of the few under 50. Honestly, I don’t know. I have left the faith practices in which I was fundamentally raised. I am sure some of my relatives think I am bat crazy for attending an evangelical church and being so in to God. But, that made it real to me, it made Him real to me. Plus, I had a community of people who supported those choices.
    People my age aren’t anti-God or anti-faith. But, they are cynical. We live in an evidence based society. Many have had a lot of hurt. They don’t trust the church as an organization.
    Lynda MacGibbon, a lovely writer, wrote this post on young adults and the church. She works for the organization, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and was one of the staff that helped guide me and many of my friends through our undergraduate years by both challenging and encouraging us.
    She concludes the piece by saying she hopes the Church can welcome and engage young adults, not for the sake of the church, but for the sake of the young adults. And that point rings true to me. We need to be concerned about those people out there, not just the numbers game at the church.
    I think people need to admit there is an issue, as the paper she referenced does, in order to find a solution. Young adults are people too and they want to be engaged. Just maybe not in the same traditional Sunday Service ways.

  5. Hi Lynda, enjoyed reading your article on engaging young adults. I do a lot of that through hockey chapels and I do meet many older teens who are actually interested in exploring. The authenticity of our faith is also critical in gaining an audience. Blessings on your ministry.

    1. Hi Bruce,
      Great to hear from you! I think you are correct. Authentic is the key word, isn’t. I think young adults can smell insincerity a mile away. Lois and I were discussing how fortunate we were to have grown up in a church that gave us such a free rein in leadership back in the day when we were teenagers and young adults. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m still ‘in the church’.

      blessings to you and your ministry. And a big hello to Vicki!

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