A conversation I hear repeatedly in many congregations is the lament over the loss of younger adults. Even many of the younger adults who do remain within the congregation seem to be less than fully engaged in the life of the church. The question I’m often asked is, “Why?”
I don’t know that I have a full or complete answer but some recent work on this question by two author/researchers sheds some light. William Sachs and Michael Bos, in a recent book entitled A Church Beyond Belief: The Search for Belonging and the Religious Future, offer some cogent concepts for church leaders to consider. 
Here are some values (slightly edited) that Sachs and Bos note are present in churches that tend to distance themselves from younger adults:
- These churches (knowingly and unknowingly) make beliefs more important than the spiritual journey. What you believe becomes more important than how you live.
- These churches make faith a binary choice. Everything is black and white. Interestingly, Sachs and Bos suggest that this happens in both conservative churches and liberal churches. Young adults are quite comfortable with a variety of possibilities and are more engaged when they are invited to discover truth as opposed to being given ultimatums.
- These churches connect faith with politics. Again, on both the left and the right, when churches align faith with political conviction, younger adults grow suspicious.
- These churches ignore pluralism. We live in a diverse world with many different competing realities and with persons with many different perspectives. Churches that quickly discount alternative points of view or demonstrate an unwillingness to learn from other voices will signal to young adults a closed attitude about pursuing spiritual wisdom.
- These churches focus on the institution more than the community life. Young adults know that institutional realities are vital. Buildings, budgets, programs and structure are necessary. However, many churches are so focused on the organization that the organic, relational quality of community is quickly lost. Young adults are quick to see this distortion and have little interest in simply “keeping house.”
Sachs and Bos offer some alternative aspirations for congregations that are earnest about truly connecting with a new generation of believers. I will pick up with those constructive ideas at a later date. Perhaps these brief observations are enough to create a thoughtful conversation within your leadership team.
By the way, the question is not, “How do we perceive ourselves?” Rather, the question is, “How do young adults perceive our congregational life?” That question, held in tandem with God’s invitation to participate in the work he is doing in the world, would make for a remarkable conversation!
 William L. Sachs and Michael S. Bos. A Church Beyond Belief: The Search for Belonging and the Religious Future (Morehouse Publishing, 2014).
Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.