The Church’s Lost Tribe


Had a conversation with a friend from church yesterday regarding a lost tribe. No, not one in the Amazon basin of South America, but in our own church. Truthfully, many churches suffer for the loss of this people group. Maybe yours does too.

The lost tribe? Adults 18-28.

Sure, some of these youth group graduates go on to college or leave the area to pursue jobs elsewhere. But, in general, churches don’t seem to retain this group.Young adults These young adults aren’t sticking around.

My experience has been that young people from churches with denominational or theological ties to the Azusa Street revival fare the worst. Pentecostal and Assemblies of God churches seem hardest hit.

My friend suggested that perhaps those young people never really grasped the reality of Christ. If true, what does that say about our youth groups and all these conversions and “changed lives” we keep hearing about?

It’s especially troubling when the youth group grads DON’T go away to college or move out of the area. What are we to think of their sudden disappearing act once they get their high school diploma?

True, some young adults do drift back once they marry or have children, but as many do not. What about them?

What thoughts do you have as to why this group goes missing so easily? What do you think might be the solution?

13 thoughts on “The Church’s Lost Tribe

  1. Mr. Poet

    Church is boring and, although the word is hackneyed, seems irrelevant. This goes even for kids who aren’t “bad”: ones who don’t drink, do drugs, or sleep around.

  2. Bob Aarhus

    You’ll forgive me if I use the term, “It’s a phase”, but that is what I primarily believe it to be. Out from under your parents’ roof (frequently), or even living there but with a newfound sense of independence, I suspect the missing fall into two categories: the willfully missing, and the confused missing.

    The willfully missing have been chafing against the restraints introduced by parents — most kids, including myself, had no choice but to attend church, youth group, CCD (raised Catholic, yo), pot luck dinners, Christmas caroling, etc etc — and now want to spread their wings and say, “On my own terms, thank you”.

    The confused missing have been introduced — at college, perhaps — to new ideas, a less restrictive attitude, and in the interest of open-mindedness are willing to wander away for a time. My ‘new idea’ was Protestantism, so I didn’t wander as much, but my friends certainly did (B’Hai, New Age, agnosticism/atheism, etc).

    I’m not familiar with the trend in the Pentecostal realm, but my knee-jerk reaction would be to say that the steretypical assessment of ‘all heart no head’ has some truth, and what is said in a moment of emotion can be just as easily retracted. I’m certain the dynamic is much more complex than that (or at least I hope it is).

    I’m much more concerned about those who wander away and never return. I think there’s a certain maturity in being free to stay away for a time to ensure you are doing this on your own volition — after all, we aren’t to rotely babble to God in prayer, why should we rotely attend church if we aren’t sure why we’re doing it? It’s here that the proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” and, what? “…and when he is OLD he will not depart from it” seems applicable.

    So, then, that is the solution — training them up with a respect for the Church and gathering and fellowship — and not to flip out if they decide to look elsewhere for a bit. Of course, churches have done an excellent job at shooting themselves in the foot recently, and if older adults are feeling disenfranchised, discarded, disrespected, or disappointed, why are we expecting the young people to wander back in to the fold? If churches take on the responsibility to be relevant, rather than just saying, “We’re right, we have all the answers, you are obligated to be here” (former Catholic, yo), this might go a long way as well.

  3. Jenny L

    I confess that I have angry and unsettled feelings toward the young people in whom we as a church invested so much love and time and–yes–money, though that’s hardly the root of the matter, who have disappeared to an affluent part of town but not to another church. Some of them are the offspring of higher-up staff members. It wasn’t what happened to me or my husband, and it isn’t necessarily happening to our children, so what makes it different for those others?

    I tend to think that, at least in the concrete examples before me, their relationships with Christ have indeed been shallow, that they lacked commitment in their faith, but I also think that parents and other church leaders failed to express a clear expectation: you need to be part of a body. It doesn’t have to be this one, but it has to be a group of Christ-followers. (I also think that there was a failure on the part of parents and leaders to prepare those kids for life outside the home, and I’m betting that’s probably because the parents and leaders didn’t have any clue about the things that would draw our grown children away from the church home.)

    Perhaps I point fingers in this direction because I seriously believe Proverbs 22:6: “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it.” (NLT) I believe in telling my children clearly what is expected, in having honest discussions about right and wrong according to Scripture instead of what the world thinks is okay. And I do not believe in letting them figure out stuff for themselves when they have no information and no experience. We’ve made it very clear to our kids that they don’t have to go to our church forever, but they do have to go to church, that Scripture says not to neglect meeting with other believers, and that because they have each made a personal commitment to Christ, they are now in a relationship with a living person who needs to have their attention. I can see where one of our kids could disappear because of an introverted personality and a general passivity toward things that are not socially easy, and I hope that our parenting and guidance will see that child through transitions in the future. I know that the bulk of time we spend as a family in church and church activities are not to the tastes of my young adult children, and I am willing to release them from obligation to it, as long as the things that take those places are about that living, breathing relationship with Christ, and are nurturing to it.

  4. I wasn’t aware the problem was particularly acute amongst the Pentecostals, I knew it existed in Evangelicalism in general. Got any statistics on this?

    The problem, as I see it, is that commitments made to Christ among the young are generally not “real” until tempered by the autonomy of adulthood. I don’t know that anything or anyone is responsible or blameworthy for that phenomenon–it’s just the nature of the beast.

    The fact that we live in a society distracted by prosperity, and hedonism certainly doesn’t help. Do many adults in our society exhibit any consistent skill in saying “no” to their baser instincts?

  5. Peter

    The issue is that as college age kids we (my age group through todays)get freedom and opt out. Some for a year or three and others ofr the long term. The question is not why they/we left but how do we reach this group of once-churched now unchurched tribe? When I figure it out I can write book and make millions. Although I do know that it hass to do with loving them as well as talking to them in a nonjudgemental way. Maybe even asking the question “I wonder what would get people yourageback into the church?” Asking the question in this way, just might open the conversation to why that person is not there and it also makes the question less pesonal.

  6. Diane R

    Where I lice (gather Los Qngeles area) it’s refused. Most of the Pentecostal churches are filled with younger people. In fact, mine is run mostly by them and my pastor is 39. But in the Baptist-type churches you mostly find people over 50 or even 60. However to answer your question: It’s definitely postmodernism. Most pastors, unless they are younger, don’t understand postmodern philosophy that these young adults have been steeped in. To accept the challenge of bringing the generations together I knew I had to study postmodern philosophy to understand this group. There are some very good books written on the lay level that teaches this to Christians. One is “Postmodernism” by Gene Veith. Another is “Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck and the third recommendation I would make is “Deep Church” by Jim Belcher.

  7. merry

    As a stressed-out senior in college who has had major ups and downs in attending church since I graduated high school, I’m wondering if it’s not so much church or that individuals don’t grasp the reality of Christ, but just the way society demands us to function during our college years and early adulthood. Myself and most of the students at my (Christian) college are required to be so, so insanely busy all the time. When you add up class time, homework, jobs, and required volunteer work, we’re working 80-90 hours a week. I’m really frustrated with this lifestyle right now. I love going to church, and I usually do, but it’s so easy to just not have TIME for it. If our culture could not be so focused on having to be so busy all the time, that would be incredible. If the Christian college culture could just stop being so American, that would also be great. I hate to think of the struggle Christians have at secular universities. That’s just my perspective. I think more young Christians may have a bigger heart for the Lord that it appears.

    • Mr. Poet

      At a church I attended for a long time, there was a high school girl who, as far as I knew, loved Jesus, her parents, etc., always smiled when I went by. But most services, she would be sitting alone in the foyer, doing her homework.

      As for jobs, after high school (and sometimes in high school) and before a professional career has set in, the kinds of jobs most college students get don’t allow for regular church participation. One has to work Sundays and Wednesdays. Even trying to take off a regular day each week to go to a Bible study might not be allowed. When confronted with this reality, most churches either pray for the student to get a job that allows church attendance and/or just tells the student to get a job that allows church attendance.

      • merry

        I can sympathize with that high school girl! I understand the feeling of wanting to be there but just needing to get stuff done.

        The job thing is a really messy situation, too. The job I worked over the summer required me to always work Sunday mornings. I searched EVERYWHERE for an evening church service in the area, but couldn’t find anything. It just seems like church and the system we have for living clash so much.

        As far as Dan’s question of a solution, I’ve always been intrigued by the Catholic churches that hold mass everyday. Now THAT might work well if more protestant churches did that.

        • Mr. Poet

          Yeah, I personally wish churches would hold several services a day, every day, and no one would be made to feel like a second-class member (or refused membership) if he or she could not attend on Sunday mornings.

  8. Mr Nobody

    Ever go to a restaurant with a need to be fed and are not?
    Oh the dining area is all set up and looks great, but you never got fed. Wonderful smelling food, all kinda of people serving all around.
    How many times would you go back?

  9. Matt

    As a twenty-two year old college student I see this a lot. There are people I grew up with in the church that are no longer involved in church at all. I can sympathize. I still attend the church I grew up in from time to time (a nondenominational evangelical), but I don’t really consider that group my real church family for a couple reasons.

    I never could develop my own identity. Most people considered me “John and Jane’s” son. They were surprised when I actually tried to get involved in church ministries beyond Sunday morning, but without my initiative they didn’t really know what to do with me. Nobody asked me to be a part of something or looked for any giftings I had that could be applied. To be honesty, I felt rather useless. I grew up with the mindset that I could accomplish great things and I could change the world, but my experience in church just served to perpetuate the American dream, placed little emphasis on prayer and the importance of intercession, and tried to create comfortable places for new people by saying I didn’t have to reveal all your deep dark secrets (and actually, they would almost prefer I didn’t so they wouldn’t have to either).

    I now regularly attend a charismatic Anglican church. There’s a culture of transparency where we are open and real about our struggles. We actually believe God will move and do great things at the state university in the area. I’m encouraged and expected to receive ministry training and jump into roles as I grow.

    We need to be fed, absolutely. But we also need to feel like valued brothers and sisters. We need the encouragement and mentoring of people that are committed to our maturity, and we need to know that the church actually believes the things we get excited about when we read the word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *