Why Young People Leave The Salvation Army – Part 1

**Update 6/5/13 – Things are getting real y’all. Dave Mantel wrote a response to this two part series here. Anyone else have a thought?

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This blog post has been circling around the Youth Department lately, sent to us from the field. The discussed topic in the article is why young people are leaving the Church–a well documented, but little reckoned or understood phenomenon. Though the Church is declining in the West across many demographics, it is particularly shocking to look into the swaths of young people who leave and never look back (the article uses an un-cited statistic stating that 70% of youth drop any connection with the Church after high school). I’ve mentioned before the book The Great Evangelical Recession by journalist/pastor John S. Dickerson, in which he points to the American Church’s loss of 2.6 million people from one generation alone. And the sad fact is that the trend is growing. In light of the Central Territory’s fast approaching Youth & Family Congress, this is an appropriate conversation to have.

I recommend reading the original post, but I’d also like to copy the author’s list here, and consider how each item may apply to us in The SA.

The Top 10 Reasons Our Kids Leave Church

1) The Church is “Relevant”

“Relevant” is in quotations to signify the cheap-knock-off-ness of churchy attempts to emulate worldly or cultural things in order to appeal to worldly, culturally influenced people. I don’t know if The SA can be accused too much of this, at least on the surface. From the outside it might seem like we are a wacky bunch of counter-culturalists who bid “relevance” farewell a few turns of centuries ago. But are we really? I think we all see a strong tendency to hold onto symbols from the past without a discussion as to their efficacy, or even their meaning, in our modern setting–and this is mostly rooted in pride or fear (or both), not necessarily a pure devotion to the things of God. And aren’t we often just as guilty of chasing the “next big thing” in youth ministry, or church marketing, or what have you? We’re just even worse at pulling it off than the rest of the Church…

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“I know–more pictures of people with their hands in the air! That’s the ticket!”

2) They Never Attended Church to Begin With

This point is also probably less relevant to us Salvos in terms of weekly worship gatherings in our Corps–on the surface. Most of our communities don’t have the space, staff, or resources to pull off the siloed ministries seen at mega churches or large congregations in our country. It’s actually one of the things I appreciate most about The SA–we’re messy and real in our approach to community worship in most Corps. Young people need to learn to worship, fellowship, and live alongside adults and older peers in order to truly experience what it means to be the Body of Christ.

But are we really committed to creating a place for our young people to grow in the community of believers, including putting up with their crying and fidgeting, their attempts at musical worship, choice of hair/clothing styles we don’t get, etc… or do we telegraph our desire for them to make themselves scarce in our attitudes and unwillingness to accommodate? We can’t expect them to “show up and shut up” until they start to like what we like. They’ll just keep doing what they’ve been doing: leaving. Perry Noble says that just as parents rearrange their lives when their children are born, the Church needs elders and adults who are willing to “man up and put the needs of the youth in front of their own.” Call it food for thought.

3) They Get “Smart”

Spiritually shallow, and biblically illiterate young people crumble in the face of very real doubts, and clever-sounding arguments against their faith. They get wise to the fact that there are plenty of other schools of thought out there that sound equally as plausible as Christianity. The Church makes light of the “sunday school” answer to every question, but it’s not funny when you consider “Jesus!” doesn’t answer why an all powerful, fully loving God would allow pain and suffering. As this article points out, the big questions and doubts that our young people are faced with have already been addressed over the centuries, we’ve just spent too much time trying to keep them happy and entertained instead of discipling them. Junior Soldiers, Corps Cadets, and the like provide a great foundation to build on in the lives of our youth, but many of us don’t take the time or effort to really engage with our kids, learn who they are, and disciple them for more than the length of a Wednesday night youth program.

4) We Sent Them Out Unarmed

I’ve got to give props to us on this one. Not only is our theology good, but when properly taught and modeled, our young people have no excuse to think that God just wants them to be happy, and rich, and spend an hour and fifteen minutes keeping a seat warm on Sunday. There’s the rub though: they need to see us throwing our lives away for the sake of the Gospel, not just singing songs about fighting the devil.

5) We Gave Them Hand-Me-Downs

I don’t think we’re too often overly guilty of promoting a subjective, feelings based faith. Our theology teaches a good balance between faith and deeds (perhaps falling too hard on the side of works at times), but again, if it’s not modeled than it’s pretty useless. The misguided, subjectively defined gospel described in the article really comes from leadership that lacks spiritual depth. We need to be devoted to continually growing in our own faith, and in turning our faith into action on behalf of those God has placed around us. I’ve been given a lot of reminders recently that God’s faithfulness is revealed at the intersection of our faith and obedience. Our youth need to see adults in their Corps who love and worship God passionately in both their outward acts of service, and their inward acts of devotion and dedication to the Lord.

Check back next week for part 2, and we’ll look at the second half of the list.

Respond:

  • What do you think of these first 5 points? How do you see this playing out in The Salvation Army context?
  • What do you think are some first steps toward addressing why young people are abandoning the Church and The SA?
  • Gwyneth

    Not sure how “credible” my comments will be since I left the SA not as a young person but as a 20 something adult. I would have to say that since leaving I would reflect that number three is perhaps the root of all churches issues. If we are teaching true, and full theology then I think a lot of the other issues are dealt with forthwith. Although the main concern here is why the church is losing “youth” I would put forth that perhaps number three is the issue across the board. In looking at the number of people who have left, it might be interesting to cross examine that with the number who have “left to attend a different church”. It seems that they are not leaving their roots, they’re just seeking deeper ones. Something to think about. It might then be saying that in training children you are doing great….but then somewhere the ball gets dropped.

    • Jonathan Taube

      Unfortunately, the numbers show that the majority of young people who leave do not leave to attend another church or denomination. They actually leave Christianity, and most often organized religion entirely. I agree with you however, that the fault is on us. Christianity isn’t a foolish thing to believe in, but it sure seems that way when you’re approaching it from a surface understanding and knowledge. And even more importantly, the disconnect young people see in leadership between what they say they believe, and how they live, doesn’t lend itself to a desire to dig deeper. Americanized Christianity looks so much like the lifestyle of any ordinary American, that it’s understandable that young people are turned off. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the next half of this post coming out later in the week.

  • Peter Lublink

    James Pedlar did a good deal of research on this phenomenon in Canada and most of his research can be viewed online here: http://jamespedlar.wordpress.com/sa-young-adult-research/. There are lots of graphs and statistics that can be overwhelming in the report, but to my knowledge this is the most exhaustive study of its kind for the army out there.

  • Jonathan Taube

    Hey, sorry Peter, I just saw today that this had gotten thrown in a spam folder accidentally. Thanks for sharing that, I’m looking forward to digging in to it. Anything stand out immediately to your eye when you read through it?

    • Peter Lublink

      I think what caught my eye was that the report affirms young adults don’t leave by and large because of youth councils, uniforms or any of the items that receive significant airtime in Army dialogue. In fact people who leave often do so because they feel that there is a lack of solid Christian community and Biblical teaching in the Army.

      As I say the report is dense and has a lot more items than these two points that are addressed. Enjoy it, reports such as these are a waste of time if they are need intelligently read by people willing to be change agents.

      Peace from the Middle East :)

      Peter

      • Jonathan Taube

        Amen.

        That touches on the larger truth found in the Western Church; people don’t leave over our lack of relevance, but our lack of authenticity. In The SA, our weirdness has a lot of charm, but that only carries you so far. Waving a flag doesn’t create authentic Christian community–only the Holy Spirit does that! We, like much of the North American Church, lose sight of the Kingdom in our prideful zeal to build our earthly kingdom. That’s why young people are walking away, they can build a house on the sand anywhere, and without all the baggage that mere religion forces on the earnest.

        Blessings in your work as a peacemaker!

  • KT Welch

    As a Salvationist living in Utah I am always impressed by the LDS church’s ability to get their young people to go on a “Mission” at the most criticle stage of their lives. The young people who go are so enthusiastic about it and return claiming a satisfaction with their service. I wish we could find out their secret to this program.

    • Jonathan Taube

      Thanks for sharing KT. I agree that the idea of a mission or gap year program is something that can play an awesomely significant role in helping young people develop into adults of spiritual depth and commitment. I myself was heavily influenced by both short term missions and a gap year thing I did after high school. Not only did those experiences help me grow in my faith and commitment to Jesus, but they also showed me the much greater Salvo world that I am a part of.

      It reminds me of a Tim Keller quote I love about how young people have plenty of knowledge of God, but have not often much experience of him. One of our real goals as youth leaders and disciplers should be to encourage young people to places where they must rely on, and therefore experience, the presence of God, amen?

      Do you have any Salvo gap year programs in your territory? What about summer mission teams (or service corps)?