Why are young people leaving the church? / A.J. Hendry

I spent the last couple of days with some of the Methodist church whānau, as part of the Methodist Alliance, which is the social justice and social services arm of the church.

One of the question’s that was brought up regularly throughout our kōrero was the question of church decline, and the exodus of rangatahi from parishes around Aotearoa. The questions raised in this forum are ones that I believe echo within church communities throughout Aotearoa and across denominations.

This kōrero is nothing new, I’ve heard the decline in youth participation in faith communities lamented regularly within the various faith contexts I’ve been in. When the issue is discussed, the diagnosis is laid at the feet of a variety of issues, whether that be young people’s perceived lack of commitment, youth “consumer culture”, postmodernism, or a preference for the scientific or secular. Now, we can blame any number of these issues, however my belief is that these fail to adequate grasp both the why and the what surrounding this drain from our faith tradition.

I do not believe our rangatahi are leaving because they don’t care, or because they are too consumeristic, or because they’re enamoured with science or afraid of commitment. I couldn’t think of anything further from the truth.

The young people I have been privileged to journey alongside in my life so far are people that care deeply about this world. They are people that feel deeply about the injustices, and inequalities that exist in our world. They grieve for what our species has done to the whenua, they feel deeply for those who have been marginalized and oppressed in this land. They are people that have faith in the possibility of social transformation, people who are willing to commit, to serve, to sacrifice, in order to see something new birthed out of the ashes of what previous generations have created.

To say our young people are leaving because they are afraid of commitment is to misdiagnose the problem. Perhaps because to pay attention to the voices of those who are no longer with us, would be to face some challenging, and potentially painful truths.

Yet, I believe if we are willing to listen, the voices of our rangatahi can provide a vital critique that if listened to could see new life breathed into our faith communities.

I said, our young people are some of the most committed, passionate, sacrificial people you will ever meet. If you questioned that, just look at what rangatahi have achieved through the Climate March’s, take a look at who was at the front line with the protector’s at Ihumātao, take note of those who are leading the movement to ban conversion therapy, or fighting for reform within our justice system.

Our young people are more than willing to commit, to sacrifice, to serve.

In fact they are on the front line of social justice movements up and down the whenua.

No, if we want to understand why our young people are leaving, we need to look internally.

Our rangatahi are leaving because the church lacks vision.

Many of our Rangatahi are exposed to, and touched by, the many injustices and inequalities that exist in our world. They see and feel them more keenly than many of their elders. They are looking to make sense of what is happening in our world, yet when they look to the church, what they see is hypocrisy.

A community whose core theology does not align with its praxis. A people more focused on saving people’s souls for some future salvation, than it is with addressing the living hell that so many people are expierencing every day.

And so, they move on, some finding themselves attracted to socialist groups, or social justice movements, where they find people who live out the ideals of Love, Justice and Mercy they first learnt from Jesus. Others becoming disillusioned and checking out completely.

Most young people that I speak with about faith have no problem with Jesus. They love Jesus, they love what He represents, they themselves seek to follow Him in their own lives. No, their problem is not with Jesus. Their problem is with the church.

With a community that professes to follow the radical, revolutionary, who taught his followers to Live Love, to give all they have to the poor, and to sacrifice their own lives for the those on the margins of society, yet fails to live and embody these teachings in all the ways that matter.

They are not leaving Jesus, they are leaving a community that has hurt their queer friends, that has no space for their indigenous authenticity, that fails to listen to the voice and plight of the poor, and thus fails again to allow this voice to influence the values and priorities of their community. They are leaving a community that is satisfied with preaching internal salvation, while allowing their members to participate in the exploitation of the whenua, and ignore the plight of the poor, the marginalized and oppressed. They are leaving a community that has historically stood in opposition to justice for tangata whenua, that has largely shirked it’s responsibility to honour te tiriti, and has failed to move from lip service to action.

Our young people do not lack faith. In fact, just spend some time with the young people in your lives, speak to them about the issue’s they care about, listen to their heart and passion for this world, for our people, for the whenua, and I have no doubt that you will find the faith enough for all of us.

They believe in the creation of a society that I can only name as the Kingdom of God.

They dream of a world, that can only be itself a foretaste of the Divine’s own Dream.

They sense something of the Divine’s heart, that many of us within institutional churches long to see and feel.

If we want to create space for rangatahi in our faith communities, we need to give them something to believe in. A faith they can live out of, one that speaks to the pressing injustices and issues that they, their friends and humanity are facing. Or perhaps, it’s not about us giving them anything. Perhaps, we need to get out of the way. Perhaps, it is they who have so much to give us.

And we simply need to pass the mic and start listening.

A.J. Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also a steering group member of Manaaki Rangatahi, a collective working to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.

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1 thought on “Why are young people leaving the church? / A.J. Hendry

  1. You are right on my friend. Long been thinking about this stuff. And can’t type fast enough to share my thoughts.
    A few…
    * YA’s are looking for a faith that is good not necessarily right.
    * This right stuff goes in with right/wrong which is a dualism and that has alienated and polarized for soooo long when sooooo many dont fit the dualisms of extremes or their friends dont either. These thoughts are “Straight outta Compton” my bad I mean straight outta Barna Research 2019 & some good old Richard Rohr.
    * Only role should be to “… only invite…” then get outta the way to allow for conversation and thats all.
    * You are right on about the commitment to causes, but too many organizations think YA’s are lazy & entitled but they aren’t. What these same orgs fail to do it put the cause 1st, instead they put the institution first and no YA wants to be part of that bc those same institutions have let them down with corruption, hypocrisy, white western approaches to leadership and more. Thats what Lions club…. Jaycees… Rotary etc are struggling b/c they put their precious institution 1st.
    * I could go on

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