Where Have All the Young Men Gone?

When, in 1961, Pete Seeger posed the question, “Where have all the young men gone? Where have all the young men gone?” he was mourning the fate of young men gone to war. But without much effort his lyrics could be adapted for use as a lament for the Christian Church in the west.

Lifeway Research reported in 2007 that more than two-thirds of young adults who regularly attended church during high school drop out of church, at least for a time. More than one out of three of those who drop out will not return by the time they reach thirty.

After the last census, researchers determined that the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. is not comprised of Christians or Muslims, but of “nones”; that is, of those who claim no connection to organized religion. In the 18-29-year-old age group, a whopping 32 percent claim no religious affiliation.

There are many reasons for this, some of which are sociological. Young adults are not joiners, like their parents were. They not only don’t go to Church, they don’t join Kiwanis either. Unlike previous generations, they have not been “institutionalized.”

But as the Lifeway research shows, some of the “nones” are young adults who were once regularly involved in Church but have walked away – and are not coming back. Their exodus represents a theological departure and not just an institutional detachment.

Jacob grew up in the Church and attended a Christian college. He comes from a long line of pastors and his father is a seminary professor. He is intelligent, socially connected and theologically informed. But he, his wife and their two-year-old daughter have given up on Church, believing that Christians are more concerned with looking good than being good.

Michael also went to a Christian college – because his parents forced him to go. When he arrived on campus he quickly found other students who felt just like him: turned off to the faith by parents who used religion to manage their behavior. Michael is now a college professor in another state. He has little connection to family and has cut off all relations with his mother-in-law because of her judgmental approach to the faith.

Unlike Jacob and Michael, Noah (who works in a Christian college) does attend a local church. He has, however, avoided any involvement beyond Sunday morning worship attendance, even though he once served other churches as a youth pastor. But he felt manipulated and overworked in those previous positions, and now refuses to place himself in a situation where that can happen again.

In each of these cases, someone in authority (parent or pastor) was more interested in controlling how the young person appeared than in how he was doing. For these young men, Church was all about keeping the rules – or at least trying to look like they kept them.

What they lacked growing up, they said in conversation, were pastors who could articulate Christian theology, week after week, in ways that were relevant to everyday life. They were never inspired by a vision of what an intelligent, passionate Christian life looks like.

If the experience of these young men is typical, as seems likely, then the Church may be barking up the wrong tree. For decades the emphasis has been on building bigger churches rather than developing stronger Christians. Denominations have their eyes peeled for type-A, high-energy personalities who know how to grow and lead an organization.

But where does that leave the Church when young adults are no longer interested in belonging to an organization – even a successful one? They really don’t care if the Church on the corner has ten-thousand members, unless it can offer them a compelling vision of the spiritual life, embodied in real-life church members who can show them how to live it.

Published in the Coldwater Daily Reporter, Saturday June 1.

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