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Reclaiming a Generation of DropoutsIn 2001, with my first year of Romanian mission work behind me, I returned home for the summer to discover that my youth group friends had disappeared from the church. Only a small handful of the group was now in the college class. The more I tried to connect with old friends, the more I realized that though many were still in town, most of them were no longer in church anywhere.

Apparently, the problem I noticed in 2001 has only grown. Many churches today are waking up to the fact that a generation of young people is missing from the church. The twenty-something crowd has largely disappeared, and most churches know neither why they have left nor what they can do to get them back.

The statistics show that two-thirds of churchgoing young adults drop out between the ages of 18 and 22.  These numbers serve as an indictment against the methods and training common to most children and youth ministries. The numbers also indicate an abdication of responsibility on the part of parents to raise their children to value the church.

This sad phenomenon is described in detail in Essential Church?: Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts(Broadman & Holman, 2008) by Thom and Sam Rainer. In Essential Church, the Rainers (father and son) tell us the reasons young people give for leaving church and what the church must do to win them back.

In the first part of the book, the authors show why young people leave what they call the “nonessential church.” In the second part, they show four qualities present in churches that retain their young people through the college years.

I appreciate the way in which Thom and Sam Rainer can share stastics and give advice without emphasizing formulas over substance. Again and again, they say that theirs is not a formula for “success.” Instead, they are seeking to steer churches back to orthodox practice and teaching.

Here is what they’ve discovered: churches that retain young people tend to have simple structures, deep and challenging biblical teaching, an attitude that expects commitment from young people, and an outward focus that leads to evangelism and missions. In other words, churches that function biblically do better at keeping their members. (Surprise!)

Essential Church will encourage healthy conversation about what it means for the church to be the church. It represents a call for the church to return to Scripture rather than outdated methods and formulas for success. And maybe a book like this can help churches stop the mass exodus of young people from their congregation.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2008 Kingdom People blog

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3 thoughts on “Essential Churches and the Recapturing of a Lost Generation”

  1. pastor jim sharp says:

    so…it turns out that an Acts 2:42 church is still the most effective and attractive to TRUE believers in every culture and age group.

    the Holy Spirit is still the best church consultant.

  2. Trevor says:

    As a youth pastor these are statistics that I need to be aware of and concerned about, but what I’m frustrated by is that these numbers are not being looked at in a greater context.
    First, I think we have to consider these numbers in light adolescent development. Now that this development process extends into the mid-20s (newer studies suggest even later, or a second adolescent extending into one’s 30s) we have to accept that students and young adults will have a season of rebellion and exploration. The church should not necessarily look at this as evil. Rather, if we are to respond to this it isn’t at the 20s stage, but rather in the teenage years when students can fall back on those who love them most. This might mean that youth ministry needs to “program” or encourage this development, as scary as that might sound.
    Second, we should begin to see these “departure” numbers balanced with the numbers of those who return to their faith heritage, often in the later 20s or early 30s, as they begin to build a family and look for the grounding values they once held.
    And finally, this might seem difficult, but possibly the church needs to be joyfully weeping at these statistics. Weeping, because it does mean that the branches are being pruned and people are making choices outside of Christ. But joyful in that our ministries might actually be reflecting the ministry of Jesus, who could not hold a crowd. And when the disciples were able to do so, early in the book of Acts, it was the Spirit that scattered them.
    Thanks for your blog and these book reviews.

  3. Eric Peterson says:

    The University World is a tough place to keep a faith that is less personal and more paternal. Ministries abound on college campuses and are often effective in evangelism and in developing leaders. Too bad more churches are not partners with para-church ministries that stand in the gap described in this post.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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