There’s an interesting article going around the internet about the absence of young adults in the church. The headline reads “59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out—and they’re trying to tell us why.”

It’s a thought-provoking piece written by a savvy young adult. I really appreciate and resonate with almost everything in the article. He lists a number of things that are turning young people away from church—nobody’s listening to us; we’re sick of hearing about values and mission statements; helping the poor isn’t a priority, etc.

Every one of these accusations is fair and justified. There’s just one problem: This article really isn’t about the church. It’s about the institution that we know as the church. And that’s something different than the church.

The church is not a building, an institution, relevant programming or even a particular brand of theology. The church is the people of God. And that includes young adults. And the true identity of the church isn’t based on what the church wants to do, the age of its members or what it fails to do. The identity of the church is grounded in the mission and identity of the triune God.

The biggest challenge facing the church today is the fact that we’ve forgotten who we are. Our identity has been usurped by the consumeristic culture of North America and our faith in our powers of self-determination. And unfortunately, this article and so many other critiques of the church have been shaped by this worldview.

For instance, what if a congregation were to actually address all the concerns of this article? If it set out to intentionally care about the poor, threw away values and vision statements, and started listening to young adults, would that make it the church?

The answer is “no” because we would still be starting with human needs rather than God’s identity and mission. Everyone is asking the question: Why are young adults leaving the church? But maybe that’s the wrong question.

There are better questions to approach the issues raised in this article: What does God’s identity tell us about the identity of the church? What does the fact that God is continually present in the world through the act of creation, incarnation and the gift of the Spirit tell us about who the church is called to be? And what might God be doing in and through the younger generation to reform the church?

Young adults, you are onto something. We need you to ask the questions you’re asking to push us to rethink the way we organize ourselves. Let’s recognize that institutionalization is a reality for every organization, but that doesn’t mean that the form we presently embody is a faithful reflection of God and God’s mission.

Keep asking these question and keep pushing us, but don’t wait for us. You are the church, and like all of us, your identity is hidden with God in Christ (Colossians 3:3).

Brian A.F. Beckstrom
Brian A.F. Beckstrom is campus pastor at Wartburg College, an ELCA college in Waverly, Iowa.

Read more about: