8 Reasons Some Young People Are Walking away from Their Faith

It’s alarming to me, actually. As a pastor and as a professor, I’ve had to deal with young people who were raised in seemingly strong Christian homes, yet who’ve now turned away from their Christian upbringing. Frankly, I’m grateful that some of these young people still trust me enough to talk to me—and in those conversations, I’ve learned some of the reasons they’ve walked in a new direction. 

    1. Their faith was never really theirs in the first place. They did what they knew others wanted them to do. They followed in the steps of their parents and grandparents. What they never really did, though, was make that faith their own. 
    2. They’ve seen too much hypocrisy among believers. Sometimes, to be honest, they’ve seen the hypocrisy in their own homes; their parents weren’t the same people at home that they were at church. In other cases, these young people have seen the moral failure of far too many church leaders. 
    3. They have never really been discipled themselves. Even though they grew up in a Christian home, no one walked arm-in-arm with these believers to help them get grounded in their faith, to stand against the devil, and to walk in victory. They’ve had to “figure it all out” largely on their own—and that’s made them vulnerable. 
    4. They live in an ever-changing culture that gives them permission to live differently than their Christian upbringing demands. When I was younger, you may have wrestled with lifestyle issues, but you did it quietly and alone. That’s not the case anymore. Culture now invites and welcomes deconstruction of faith. 
    5. They have never had anyone legitimately hear their questions, much less try to answer them. Too many older believers have simply criticized their doubt and called them to “just believe.” It’s accurate that we must believe, but belief that cannot answer opposing questions is surely lacking. 
    6. They have had no real grounding in the Word. This issue, of course, is connected to #3 above. Others have told them, “This is the Word of God,” but no one’s helped them know why we believe that about the Word. These young people now approach the Bible with skepticism—if they approach it at all. 
    7. They’re dealing with sin in their lives. I don’t remember who made this statement, but I’ve never forgotten the statement about believers who turn from their faith: “Immorality often precedes unbelief.” Sometimes, young people walk in another direction in their beliefs because they’ve already walked that way in their actions. 
    8. They’ve found a stronger community outside the church than within. They’ve found friends, fun, and fellowship with others—things they for some reason did not get in the church. We know their community with others might be fleeting, but their eyes are on the immediate rather than the long-term. They like what they’re getting now. 

What reasons would you add to this list? What’s been your experience?

Posted on January 10, 2024


Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
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23 Comments

  • Adults scratch their heads and wring their hands about the youth exodus from church instead of ASKING **THEM**. There are two good reasons I’ll give you right now.

    First – church can be a cruel, ugly plave. Pastors love to stress what horrible, awful, worthless people they are and how eager God is to punish and inflict eternal torment on them. They aren’t visualizing a loving creator who can’t wait to welcome them to heaven. They see a mean old man on a throne with a big book in his hands, making little tick marks beside everybody’s name, who just can’t wait to sentence them to eternal torment and watch them suffer with vindictive delight. Who wants to serve that? Remember how much you resented being told “because I said so, and I’m going to hurt you (spank) you if you don’t” when you were a kid??!! Lots of these kids are already depressed, bullied or being abused at home. You give them more of the same at church on Sunday.

    Second – church is, all too often, boring. “Church is not supposed to be fun!” Pastors thunder (and are probably sneering as they read my post). But you’ve got to face a harsh truth: people are all too often already talked out by the time Sunday arrives. Kids have spent 30 (or more) hours being lectured at school, adults have had 40 hours of meetings at work. Yet they’re expected to not only listen attentively to more talking but get excited about it.

    Make the message less divisive and mean-spirited and make it relevant to them, or you will continue to lose young people. Find better ways to engage your congregation.

    Third – have you actually looked around to see if there is anything for 20- and 30-somethings to do??! Too often church is geared toward families with young children.You have youth group for teens, and family-oriented activities, but NOTHING for singles and young adults. My church doesn’t allow women who aren’t married or parents to teach classes or work in the nursery. Young, unmarried men are often viewed as potential perverts or something! My 22-year-old brother says parents often look at him and move away just because he sat in their pew! You notice that people seem to quit church at 18 but return after marriage and children. WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR THOSE IN-BETWEENS?? There is little – or no – incentive for them to come to church. Ditto for anyone who is older but childless, widowed or divorced. They don’t fit in and fall through the cracks.

    Find a better way to engage EVERYONE, and not just some members. Change up your message, or church will just disillusion instead of welcome.

  • This article exposes a common problem in the modern church, the lack of focus in making disciples. We are good to make new converts but we are not nourishing them and going step by step with them to build them up into mature disciples. As churches we seriously need to reconsider them way we do church activites and services, making them more individualised to give more room to personal growth in the faith. Thank you for this interesting, thought provoking article.

    • Chuck Lawless says on

      I agree that churches are often misfocused.

    • ^^THIS^^!!!! Pastors notice that kids leave their church at 18 but return when they’re 30-something marrieds with kids. They shake their heads and wonder why instead of looking around to see what they’re offering unmarried, college-aged twenty-somethings. THERE IS NOTHING FOR THEM TO DO! Youth group is over at 18, you aren’t married yet, so why bother getting up early on Sunday morning?

      If you aren’t married, are childless, divorced or widowed, you don’t fit in, and quite often the congregation lets you know it. Ask any young, single guy.! My brother says people look at him, get up and move just because he sat down in a pew! My church doesn’t allow females who aren’t married, or don’t have children, to teach Sunday School, work in the nursery or mentor youth group.

      Young adults quit attending because there is no reason for them to.

  • I know the word of God doesn’t change but sometimes the local church fails to cater for young children and young adults. programs dedicated to their spiritual growth and much needed answers to questions are often an afterthought whilst the church serves more “powerful” groups within the church. Thus the lack of quality and resource put towards this means young people leave because there are plenty more places out there where young people are “looked after” with the right resource, time and money put behind.

  • My only add to this conversation… It’s not just young people!

    The reasons are the same. We made converts (sorta), not Disciples. . We only told them, “Be Good. Go to Church. It’s good for you.”

    We didn’t teach (by modeling) “Listen to Jesus”.

    Sadly, one can only teach something one has experienced– oh, wait…. we did!

  • Being in my late sixties, I have experienced young adults are hungry for authentic Christianity and godly wisdom from older Christians. They are opened for relationship but they can sniff out hypocrisy.

  • Check out the book “Resilient: Child Discipleship and the Fearless Future of the Church.” it looks at the opposite side, why do kids stay?

  • Mark Chapman says on

    Thanks Chuck – so for something different. I grew up in the church always aware of this ‘other’. In the sixties I became part of a small town Bible Class group for teens that met before ‘church’. There was about 50 of us. From a dysfunctional family and looking for love my girlfriend and I entered into a sexual relationship and yes of course it was destructive. Interesting that out of that whole group, only about 6 of us went on into ‘adult’ church, and she and I went on to, in her case the mission field, and mine becoming a minister in the Presbyterian Church after an apprenticeship in Radio engineering, and 5 years of theological study. I served in one congregation for 40 years during which time there developed a youth group of around 80 teens under the leadership of a competent couple who put their life and soul into this group. Recently looking back on that group again only about 10 are still active in the church. I realized that it was not a new thing. Maybe however, in both cases the church provided the salvation we all needed at the time – salvation being a place of belonging and love, a shadow of the great salvation of God’s grace. If I have learned anything it is this. In our unfaithfulness God is ever faithful. Thank you for the work you are doing. Love and Blessings, Mark

  • Pastor Mike says on

    Along with the above is the doctrine of Original Sin; we are bent toward sinning – whether we’re raised in church or not. So many young people (and adults) have simply followed their sin nature – right out of the church.

    And – living the Christian faith/following Jesus is hard; today’s culture makes it harder. Sadly, many young people (and adults, as mentioned above) find it easier to take the wide gate with the crowds, rather than the harder narrow gate with the few (Matthew 7:13-14).

  • In addition to #5, too many Christians dismiss doubts/arguments from non-theists and assume they leave because of emotional/sinful reasons. However, many leave do to rigourous arguments that they find persuasive against Christianity. To deny or belittle this only exhasberates the problem and highlights #5 all the more.

  • Katherine Amann says on

    I would add that faithful, well-meaning parents are also very afraid of challenging the ever-encroaching culture of extra-curricular activities that interfere with Sunday morning services and weekday evening faith formation classes. If we don’t stand for anything, we accidentally send our children a very strong message about what is important.
    Others make the mistake of never asking their children what they think or bringing up religion at all. We don’t have to be afraid of being “judge-y” if we say to our children, “this is why that logic doesn’t make sense to me. What do you think?”

  • Bob Myers says on

    Chuck,

    Thanks for this. It is alarming and heartbreaking. As you have hinted in a few of your points, some or most of the blame needs to be laid at the feet of evangelical churches themselves. Part of the problem, in my view, is that we have impoverished the faith by our accommodation to modern culture. No, I’m not a Fundamentalist. I don’t have a problem with dancing, movies, or cards. For an interesting take on this slide into immaturity, read Tom Bergler’s “The Juvenilization of American Christianity.” It’s a reworking of his PhD dissertation at Notre Dame regarding the history of American para-church youth ministries and its impact on generations of young people and evangelicals as a whole. It’s not a screed against those ministries – indeed, he is a professor of youth ministry and somewhat of a fan – but rather an intelligent analysis of what has happened to much of evangelical praxis since the mid-twentieth century.

    Thanks for your work and ministry.