Not so fast: Stats don’t show youth fleeing UMC

By Michael Ratliff, Special Contributor…

Recently, two different articles were forwarded to me concerning young people leaving the church. One article included six reasons, another had four. The reasons were those we’ve come to expect because we hear them so often—the church is not authentic, the Christianity exhibited by church members is not what young people are looking for, the church’s attitude toward social issues doesn’t connect, the church is too political, etc.

As a part of the UMC’s Young Adult Summit last fall, authenticity was identified by participants as the number one concern that young adults have about the church. When our politics overshadow our perceived faithfulness, relational capital and missional trajectory, young people look elsewhere for a place to invest their lives.

Does that mean the number of young people in the church is shrinking? The reality is, we have no idea how many young people are actually involved in our churches. So any statement about their departure is based on personal observation, conjecture and our statistical tables.

In 2009, we changed the way we report on youth and young adults in those tables. Local churches are asked to report the number of youth and the number of young adults involved in their ongoing faith formation activities. Though we know the accuracy of the tables depends on the accuracy of the individual reports, there is good news as we compare the 2009 and 2010 tables.

In 2010, U.S. churches reported 14,470 more youth involved in Christian formation than in 2009. In the same period, there was an increase of nearly 5,000 young adults. These are not huge numbers, but they are an indication of growth in the number of youth and young adults in United Methodist churches who are investing their time and energy in spiritual growth opportunities.

This is movement in a positive direction.

The tables show increases for children’s involvement as well. It is only in the “Other Adult” category that the numbers have decreased significantly. Concerned that inaccurate reporting might be influencing these numbers, we did additional calculations to better reflect the change in reporting and relate the numbers to the more “average” United Methodist church in the U.S. We found there was still an increase of youth, and a larger increase in young adults.

These numbers are encouraging. They reflect that our church is in ministry with more young people, not just as numbers on the rolls but as young disciples growing in their faith. If we are to have the young leaders that the church so desperately craves, it will begin by having more young followers of Jesus Christ. Our emphasis on young leaders rings hollow unless our young people first become young followers.

A rich experience of faith formation throughout the breadth of the church is fundamental if we are to develop effective young leaders for our church and our world. This issue stretches beyond the borders of the United States. Making young disciples is a challenge in Europe where young people who are involved in church are ridiculed as being “old fashioned.” In Africa and the Philippines, the church struggles to grow effective discipleship ministries at a rate commensurate with the growth in numbers.

There is work yet to be done—less than two thirds of our U.S. churches reported having any youth involved in Christian formation and only 43 percent indicated having at least one young adult involved.

While some churches are losing youth and young adults, it is also important to celebrate those who are increasing the involvement of young people in Christian formation. Let’s learn from those who are successfully sharing the gospel message in an effective way, so that each year’s statistics will reflect continued growth in the numbers of young people the church is reaching for the cause of Christ.

The Rev. Ratliff is associate general secretary of young people’s ministries at the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.

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