Every pastor I’ve spoken with in 2021 has called this the hardest year of their ministry. We could point to political polarization, COVID-19, mask mandates, racial tension and more as the reasons why. But one theme that has been a personal discouragement for me has been the so-called deconversion of young adult believers who formerly seemed solid in their faith.
It would take at least two hands to count the number of friends and people I’ve done ministry alongside who have lost their faith in the last few years. Several patterns have emerged as I’ve witnessed these deconversions, but one in particular struck me recently. We spend all sorts of time and energy preparing high schoolers for college, afraid they’ll lose their faith when they get out of the house and into campus life. But I have seen far more people walk away from their faith in their 20s than in college. Why is this happening? And is there anything church leaders can do? I’d like to suggest four reasons we are seeing so many deconversion stories.
4 reasons young adults are leaving the faith
1. Leaving the discipleship pressure cooker
For many, college is an intense discipleship environment. Some students get involved in college ministries that meet multiple times a week. Some spend all summer at the beach working by day and being trained in Bible literacy and evangelism by night. Others spend a month at camp being filled up by adult staff members and, in turn, pouring out what they’ve been taught to campers. These environments are life-changing. But what happens after college?
Recent college graduates often move to a new city for a job or get married and start looking for a different church. Now, instead of spending five or six hours a week in concentrated Bible study with close friends and leaders, they might spend 90 minutes a week at a community group, half of which is devoted to fellowship and half to discussing the previous Sunday’s sermon, with people they don’t honestly know that well. And instead of raising their big questions or doubts to a Christian roommate, discipleship group leader, or college pastor, they might work up the courage to call up a pastor at their new church. But, more than likely — especially if they attend a large church and have little access to a pastor — they’re taking their questions to blogs, social media and podcasts.
A few years go by, and these young adults have kids. Instead of spending 45 minutes or an hour a day reading Scripture and praying, they’re fighting for 15 minutes a few days a week in between night feedings and lunch packing, school drop-off and pick-up, work and house chores.
The loss of these three things — intense and regular communal discipleship, access to those more advanced and knowledgeable in the faith and extended devotional time with the Lord — amounts to a removal from the pressure cooker of college discipleship.
2. Looking for wisdom in the wrong places
One result of being removed from this pressure cooker is the pursuit of answers in new places. In the absence of the resources they once had, where do young adults go for wisdom? This challenge is only exacerbated by the ever-increasing amount of issues which demand their wisdom. The whirlwind of lightning-fast information exchange, ubiquitous social media and a polarized American culture demand not only our attention but also our “correct” opinion.
Many young adults — and older adults, too — turn to the 21st century’s solution for finding answers: our phones. Anyone with a social media account knows there are countless “influencers” offering their “expertise” on all kinds of cultural crises. Not sure who to vote for? Your favorite podcast can tell you. Don’t know what to think about vaccines? That Instagram model does. Not sure what to think about Afghanistan? Your favorite Twitter theologian has it figured out.
These influencers are ready to offer authoritative answers to all of these and a host of other complex issues, and we’re drawn to their certainty. We go to them for their opinions on sports or fitness or postpartum depression; we stay for their opinions on geopolitics, pandemics and racial justice. Before we know it, we’re so bought into their project that we’re listening not just about matters of temporal significance, but matters of eternal significance: issues related to human sexuality and gender, commentary on the trustworthiness of Scripture and (revisionist) history about the evangelicalism that taught us how to read the Bible, pray and share the gospel.
The unique challenges of 21st-century young adulthood tempt us to trade community, spiritual disciplines, theological expertise and pastoral wisdom for the sharp-tongued certainty of unqualified bloggers and podcasters who are quite literally profiting from our attention.
3. Owning your faith
The first two reasons for young adult deconversions are related to the transition out of college. These next two stem from things often taught in our student ministries, one of which relates to the heavy emphasis placed on “owning your faith.”
Both college and high school students are urged to let go of the coattails of Mom and Dad’s Christianity and make a personal decision for Christ. In college, this often takes the form of choosing your own church and beginning to engage in personal spiritual disciplines — good things. But two characteristics of our secular age make this a precarious value: expressive individualism and the “subtraction story.”
Robert Bellah coined the term “expressive individualism,” but it has been popularized by the Catholic Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. The basic idea is that we live in a context that locates one’s identity in one’s desires. We are told to look into ourselves — our hearts — to discover who we truly are, and then to express that self to the world — often in a way that rejects some important inheritance from authority figures in our lives. The danger here should be obvious. As teenagers are sent out of the home and into the world for college, “making their faith their own” usually includes not only additions (spiritual disciplines, etc.) but also rejections of something from their religious upbringing. In my case, I came home from my first semester at college ready and willing to lecture my parents about their financial decisions and to mock my Christian school for its legalism.
But something happens when we start down that road. The quest for individuality can prove insatiable. Once having rejected financial decadence and religious legalism, we often move onto political alliances, political positions and then to moral and theological positions. By their late 20s, many hold a “Christian” faith that looks different than their culturally Christian upbringing and than anything identifiable in 2,000 years of church history (by, for example, embracing the cultural orthodoxy on sexuality).
4. Defending your faith
Many youth ministries are rightly devoted to teaching high schoolers to defend their faith. We want students to know their faith is reasonable and that it can be defended by reason. We want, for example, them to be prepared for the progressive freshman literature professor who thinks Christianity is fundamentally about misogyny and white supremacy, or the freshman biology professor who mocks Christians for their belief in a six-day creation.
But sometimes in the process of teaching them to do so, we end up teaching students, however subtly or implicitly, that the reasonableness of the Christian faith lies in their ability to explain or defend it. In the pressure-cooker discipleship environment of college, this doesn’t usually start to pose a problem because students can rely on community and well-educated leaders to help them wrestle with those Christian beliefs that prove intellectually or emotionally challenging. But when those challenges arise in young adulthood, it can prove to be a disorienting and confusing experience.
Prepare students for life, not just college
So, how can pastors and ministry leaders prepare young people for life beyond college? Is there a way to prevent some of the young adult deconversions that are happening to those who made it through college without a significant challenge to their faith? While offering thorough strategies is beyond the scope of this article, I would offer four brief encouragements for student ministry leaders.
(1) Get students out of the pressure cooker and into the slow cooker. Many of us have had incredible moments at the “mountaintops” of Christian experience. But the peaks-and-valleys approach to discipleship is not sustainable. Feeding students a diet of this sets them up for starvation in young adulthood, when the peaks are out of reach and the valleys become faithful friends.
Young adults often lose their faith because they haven’t been shaped in the sustainable rhythms of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. They haven’t been given a vision of “a long obedience in the same direction,” to use Eugene Peterson’s words. They’re not prepared for the disappointment, depression and difficulties of Christian life as an adult — summer camp didn’t have a breakout session on that. We give young people a gift by training them in these sustainable rhythms long before they realize they need them.
(2) Teach students to value theological expertise. I have had the privilege to spend the last decade in formal theological education. The process of theological education has come at the expense of short nights of sleep, sacrificed time with my wife and daughter, neglected friendships and literal tears. I am in the company of many others who have studied theology so that we can build up the church. But, in our society, the opinions of the podcaster or Instagram influencer with no theological training are valued above scholars.
There is a real crisis of authority and expertise in American society. Evangelicals are suffering from the death of theological expertise. Our young people need to be taught — before they become young adults — that neither they nor their favorite TikTok theologian is going to ask a question that hasn’t already been asked and answered by someone in church history. The Bible and the Christian theological heritage have the resources to deal adequately with modern challenges to the faith, and theologians spend countless hours and energy mining those resources for this very purpose. Teach your students how to identify expertise, to respect and appreciate it and to take advantage of it when challenges inevitably come.
(3) Don’t teach students to make their faith their own; teach them to receive the faith once for all delivered to the saints. This sounds counterintuitive. Don’t we want students to have a personal faith? Of course we do. But we need to make sure they understand that it’s a personal appropriation of a faith that was there before them and will continue to be there after them. Coming into a personal faith is a lot less like finding a hidden waterfall in the forest and a lot more like jumping into a well-known rushing river that has carried faithful travelers through the starts and stops and storms of life for millennia. We need to emphasize this with young people.
(4) Teach students the importance of Christian presuppositions. The more I see my friends deconvert in their 20s, the more convinced I am of the importance of presuppositions. Many of us grew up being taught to remove presuppositions so we can see with objectivity and clarity. Some of us got to college and heard professors — from the other side of the religious aisle — doubling down. Both were convinced that an objective, reasonable approach would prove their point. But one of the surprising gifts of postmodernism has been the exposure of the myth of objectivity. We all have presuppositions. I am increasingly convinced of this. And if we all have presuppositions, we might as well have the right ones — or, at least, Christian ones.
Here are three Christian presuppositions every Christian should fight to maintain: (1) The Bible is God’s Word; (2) God is our Creator, so he knows what’s best for us; (3) God is good, so he wants what’s best for us. With these presuppositions firmly fixed, we will assume the right things as we face discontinuities between the Bible’s teachings and our culture’s ideologies. We will assume, for example, that if we don’t like something God has said in his Word, the problem isn’t with God or his Word; it’s with us. That leads to a second assumption — and a humbling one: if we don’t immediately see the answer to some question or problem that arises from God’s Word, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. That’s where the pursuit of understanding comes in. But the pursuit of understanding, as Anselm taught us a millennium ago, comes after faith, not before.
The 21st century has not proved easy for ministry. Disappointment after disappointment has come in the form of beloved friends and family members walking away from the faith they once held dear. Our sadness in the face of this reality should be accompanied by prayer, believing that God’s arm is not too short to save or draw back those who are wandering. And while we recognize and hope in the role of the Spirit in drawing people to Christ and giving them saving faith, we also want to consider how to effectively change methods or practices that may unintentionally lend to this trend of deconversion. My hope and prayer is that a more careful, historical, biblical approach to student ministry can help prevent a similar exodus of young adults from Christianity in the years to come.