Nearly half of young adults with ties to Christianity say church can’t answer their questions: survey

Young adults attend The Porch, a young adult community founded by Watermark Community Church in Dallas, Texas. | Watermark Community Church

Extensive new research from The Barna Group shows that nearly half of young adults worldwide who have a connection to Christianity feel that the Church can’t answer their questions.

Barna, a California-based evangelical research firm, partnered with the leading international evangelical humanitarian organization World Vision to compile “The Connected Generation” study.

Published in a research report, the study is based on a survey of 15,369 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 across 25 different countries and nine languages.

The study analyzes the values that millennials and Generation Z adults are bringing with them into adulthood and what their relationship to faith is like. The research aims to equip pastors and church leaders to better understand the young adults of today.

Although young adults seem to be in tune to issues of poverty and conflict around the globe, the study indicates that a large portion of young adults today are experiencing weaker levels of connectivity with the society around them.

Additionally, the survey suggests that churches are struggling to not only adequately respond to the questions of many young adults today but are also struggling to raise up the next generation of church leaders.

“This generation is often more alike to other people in their generation than they are older adults in their own countries,” Barna President David Kinneman said during a webcast rollout of the survey.

“They are truly a connected generation. They are connected through screens. They are connected through technology. They feel as though events around the world are affecting them. Think of this contrast: We have never lived in a more connected age but they are also disconnected in many ways with the people around them.”

Seventy-seven percent of young adults surveyed for the study said events around the world matter to them. Additionally, more than half of respondents sense a connection to people worldwide.

However, only one-third (33 percent) say they feel deeply cared for by those around them.

“Only a third say they often feel someone believes in me,” Kinnaman said. “This tells me that two out of three young people around the world would not feel these kinds of relational connection.”

Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of respondents say they encounter feelings of loneliness and isolation.

The U.S. and Australia are the two countries with the highest percentage of loneliness and isolation reported with 34 percent of young adult respondents from those two westernized nations reporting frequent loneliness and isolation.

By contrast, the countries with the lowest percentages of loneliness and isolation among young adults reported are Indonesia (11 percent) and Kenya (12 percent).

The survey shows that nearly two out of five (38 percent) of young adults globally are dealing with “weak levels of connectivity” to the world around them (measured by eight different factors of connectivity). Meanwhile, only about a quarter (23 percent) of young adults have “strong” levels of connectivity to the world around them.

While 32 percent of practicing Christians were said to have “strong” connectivity, the data indicates that respondents of no religious faith are much more likely than practicing Christians (44 percent to 26 percent) to have “weak” levels of connectivity to the world around them.

Fifty-one percent of respondents said they participate in private prayer at least monthly. However, 58 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29, who grew up with some type of Christian background, either no longer identify as Christian or do not regularly attend church even if they still identify as Christian.

Nearly half of young adults who said they left the Christian church reported being active in their church during their teen years.

Forty-seven percent of respondents with some connection to Christianity say they feel the Church “cannot answer their questions” or spiritual doubts.

According to the study, one in three young adults (32 percent) said “hypocrisy of religious people” causes them to doubt things of a spiritual dimension. Almost half of the young adults who have left Christianity see the religion as “hypocritical.”

Meanwhile, 31 percent of respondents said “science” also challenges their willingness to believe.

One-quarter (28 percent) of respondents said human suffering and conflicts around the world cause them to have doubts.

“It’s always the question of why God allows suffering; this is the biggest objection to Christianity. And there is no easy answer to it,” Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London and pioneer of the Alpha Course, wrote in an essay published with the research report.

Forty percent of young adults surveyed said they feel anxious about important decisions, uncertain about the future or afraid to fail.

Only 22 percent of respondents who reported having levels of anxiety said they attend church weekly. According to the survey, more anxious respondents were twice as likely to say they used to attend a place of worship.

“Respondents with heightened worries experience heightened doubts,” the report reads. “[T]hey are more likely than others to note that issues like hypocrisy, human suffering, global conflict or unanswered prayer are barriers to their belief in a spiritual dimension.”

The survey found that only 13 percent of respondents globally who grew up with a Christian background can be labeled “resilient disciples” today.

A “resilient disciple” is someone who attends church regularly, engages with the faith community beyond just attending worship services, trusts firmly in the authority of the Bible, is committed to Jesus personally, and expresses a desire for their faith to impact their actions.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents who grew up with a Christian background were defined by Barna as “habitual churchgoers” who do not fit the definition of “resilient disciple.”

Among respondents with a Christian background who live in countries with a “secular climate,” the survey found that only 5 percent can be defined as “resilient disciples.”

One-fifth of respondents were raised outside of a religious tradition and 29 percent of respondents identify as atheist, agnostic or simply irreligious today.

About 13 percent of 18- to 35-year-olds surveyed fall into the category of “former Christians” and tend to live in countries with a post-Christian or secular climate.

Eighty-nine percent of church dropouts say they want to distance themselves from the “politics of the Church,” and about six in 10 said the Church does not make a difference when it comes to issues of justice and poverty.

“The internet has changed the world because knowledge is available to everybody. You can’t not be exposed to the suffering of the world,” Gumbel wrote.

“Ultimately, the only answer to it is in Jesus, who suffered for us and suffers with us. So that is the answer, but it’s much harder to get to. We’ve got to answer their questions, but more importantly, they want to know what we’re doing about [these issues]. If the Church is doing nothing and is not engaged in social action against homelessness, poverty, racial injustice, climate change or any of these issues, young people are not going to be very interested.”

Eighty percent of young people who left Christianity said they believe that present-day Christianity is “anti-homosexual,” while 81 percent say present-day Christianity is judgmental.

Seventy-four percent of those who are no longer Christian said present-day Christianity is “out of touch with reality.” Only 60 percent of respondents who are no longer Christian said present-day Christianity “consistently shows love for people.”

More than half (57 percent) of respondents to the survey, however, said they feel as though religion is good for people and society.

When it comes to training young leaders in the church, the report indicates that one of the challenges that many churches are facing is that they “lack effective pipelines, processes and models to form young leaders.”

“Based on U.S. data collected over three decades, we know that institutions in general and churches, in particular, are performing below ‘replacement levels’ when it comes to identifying and preparing new leaders,” Kinnaman wrote.

Only 9 percent of young adults surveyed said they serve as a leader in their community of faith.

Twenty-one percent of all churchgoers surveyed said they had access to “leadership training for ministry” through their church. And, 26 percent of churchgoers surveyed said they have “been inspired to be a leader based on the example of someone at my church.”

“Pastors in America a growing older and there is a generation gap,” Kinnaman said.

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