What Young Adults Are Really Saying About Church


In February 2018, we at Y2AM released our newest podcast, We Are Orthodoxy. The project was a couple years in the making, and I, for one, have been so excited to share it with the world.

The podcast’s premise is fairly straightforward: we interview Orthodox young adults and listen to their stories so we can better understand why they are (or are not) still connected with Christ and His Church.

It’s been an awesome experiment and, as we prepare to launch season 2, I’m happy to say that the reception to the podcast has been overwhelmingly positive. People seem open to hearing what others have to say about their experiences in the Orthodox Church, which is something that is inexpressibly valuable.

The experiences themselves have been varied. I’ve actually been amazed to hear exactly how different each of these people are!

It’s especially surprising because when Steve and I travel around the country for our “BeeTreats,” we almost always hear well-meaning and concerned adults offer their theories on why young people are leaving the Church in droves. They suggest that it’s secularism, evolutionary biology, or even the LGBTQ+ agenda; that cultural trends are undoing the good work of the Church.

The reality, however, is that these theories tend to be founded on little (if any) evidence. Few people who think they know why young people are falling away from the Church have stopped to ask those who have left what is going on in their lives; even fewer pause to really listen to the experiences these young people would share. So, instead of hearing the real stories of real Orthodox Christians, we offer our own theory, a narrative that we think explains this epidemic of disengagement.

But such a story cannot be the story of every person.

In fact, the more people we interview, the more we see just how varied all these stories truly are. Nobody has the exact story as someone else.

But even amidst the shockingly unique experience of young adults, we have seen at least one interesting (and potentially surprising) commonality.

No matter where someone’s relationship with the Church stands, they seem to have an enduring respect (and even love) for the Liturgy.

Steve and I have spoken to dozens of young adults for We Are Orthodoxy, and we’ve spoken to hundreds more across the country during BeeTreats and other events. The complaints these young people offer have never been about worship; not even once.

Sure, there may be some complaints about the language used in worship, as it presents an obstacle to understanding when one doesn’t speak Greek, but the complaints have never once been levied against worship itself.

In fact, one of the interviewees who no longer believes in God went so far as to say that he even thinks it’s good for people to gather to worship (!). Of course, one might ask, “Worship what?” But for him, just the act of gathering to worship and honor the mystery of life is enough.

This is shocking to me.

Even though some people want nothing to do with the Church; even though some do not even believe in the possibility of divine action in the world; even though some people strongly disagree with the spiritual or moral teachings of the Church, they still believe that the worship and liturgical life of the Church is good (even if they don’t believe they’re worshipping anything - or Anyone - in particular).

What are we to make of this?

There’s a couple things I think we need to recognize.

First, that the answer to this whole “Young People Leaving the Church” thing is a lot more complex than we may think.

How is it that someone could stop believing in God, and yet still feel such reverence for the worshipping experience of a community? How is it that someone who has left the Church because of its moral teachings would still long to be at Pascha, even though she knows she can’t rightly partake of the awesome mysteries of Christ?

What are we to make of this deep longing in the hearts of young people, a reaching for transcendence of some kind, even while they express serious doubts about the existence of the transcendent?

I wonder if we’ve done a poor job of reading the times, causing us failurel to understand that belief in our time is complex. It’s not as simple as believing or not believing. It seems to be that our age is one of believing while also not believing (and vice versa).

It seems that no matter what someone comes to believe, there remains some inescapable longing for something that lies beyond themselves, that is to say, for something transcendent. Whether that transcendent something is God, the concept of justice, or even just mystery itself, the reaching for something remains.

Second, it seems like a lot of this is problem is our fault.

As I mentioned above, there are a lot of theories about why young adults are falling away from the Church. One of them suggests that young people, raised in a modern secular culture, disagree with the moral teachings of the Church. While it’s true that many young people do experience this tension, young people generally aren’t generally citing the Church’s moral teachings themselves as reasons they’re falling away. Sure, they have disagreements, but for young people, it seems to be much more about how those disagreements are handled and navigated that fuels their disengagement.

When we ask young adults to share their stories on We Are Orthodoxy, we don’t just hear accounts of intellectual disagreements with the Church. Instead, we hear profound experiences of hurt, pain, and missed opportunities.

The issues these young people have aren’t with abstract beliefs (even if they disagree); their issues are with other people.

Of course, “nobody’s perfect.” And yes, people (including those of us in the Church) are people. And precisely because none of us is perfect, we need to make it a lot easier for people to admit when people make mistakes.

Because, as we’re hearing from young adults, today’s fights and scandals and poor decisions can have lasting consequences in the hearts of people who are affected by them.

We need own the reality that we have ministered poorly, that we have become distracted with things other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church. We have settled for lesser kingdoms and missions than the Kingdom of God and the Missio Dei.

And we need to repent.

We need to turn back toward Christ, finding in Him the vision of what we are to be, of who we are to become. He alone is the Life-Giver, and without Him we are a Church without Christ, a body without a head.

And can a body with a head do anything else besides die?

Season 2 of We Are Orthodoxy premieres September 7.

Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, podcaster, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary and is a Licensed Associate Marriage and Family Therapist. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.

Photo Credits:

Liturgy: spbda Flickr via Compfight cc