Why Conservative Churches Attract Young People… or Not

“Catch my conservative drift there? No? Too much? Let’s take it again from the top.”

A fellow pastor recently wrote a recent column entitled, “Why Conservative Churches Attract Young People.”  My interest was immediately piqued, as someone who is also interested in helping people of all ages cultivate their spiritual lives, including ‘young people.’

In the post, Aaron Vriesman, who pastors a church on the north side of Holland, Michigan, begins: “As a 33 year-old minister in the CRC, I can say with both personal and professional experience that conservative churches do indeed draw young adults.  In particular, churches that have a self-consciously high view of Scripture, a commitment to the creeds and confessions, traditional stances on marriage and sexuality, and work to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ actually do draw young adults.”

I have no doubt that this is the case.  He goes on to note some of the reasons, some of which I agree with, and some of which I might view from a slightly different angle.

To provoke thought, the article is prefaced with:
“Why would young adults be attracted to conservative churches? Aren’t young adults more educated and scientific in their view of the world? Aren’t young adults more accepting of premarital sex and gay relationships? Aren’t young adults more interested in communities of dialogue than cold hard doctrine?”

That’s more like it.

I’ll let you read his reasons in full, so that I’m not taking any parts of this out of context. (quotes italicized)

  1. Young adults want authenticity.  All people, but young people especially, appreciate people who are up front about who they are and what they are about.  As advertisements everywhere attempt to lure people into spending money with attractive images and promises, young people are constantly being played.  Give it to me straight.  Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.  Tell me where you stand and then I can form my own opinion.  Don’t be a jerk about it, but at least be honest. Some churches shy away from Bible passages that might offend certain groups or avoid verses about God’s judgment because it makes God appear unloving.  Conservative churches with a higher view of Scripture are not shy about anything the Bible says.  They will read and preach on the uncomfortable Bible texts.  Even those that equate divorce with adultery, tell wives to submit to husbands and spell out horrifying disaster for sinners. Since conservative churches are not worried about political correctness of any kind, they present the true God and Jesus Christ in all authenticity, with (what some would say) “warts” and all.  Even if some young adults disagree with what they hear, they usually respect a straightforward message without spin.

    My response.
      I agree, young adults want authenticity.  Aaron correctly notes that our culture has much shallow, get-your-attention-and-your-dollars gimmicky stuff going on.  Something deeper and more substantive does indeed have a certain draw.He notes, “Give it to me straight.  Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear.” He goes on to note that conservative churches don’t shy away from certain biblical texts. His examples consist of divorce, submission of women to their husbands, and judgment for sin (read between the lines: hell).  How can they be so daring as to talk about things so culturally against the grain?  Because “they’re not worried about political correctness of any kind.”

    I’d like to push back slightly.  There is indeed a culture that would take issue with people equating divorce with adultery, with endorsing repressive measures against women, and with fire-and-brimstone theology.  So in this sense, yes, these conservative churches are ‘against the grain.’  But let’s think about context for a moment.  Vriesman preaches in West Michigan in a very conservative area, in a very conservative congregation, likely among largely rural congregants who grew up in such a conservative milieu.  So in fact, what he is saying should be turned around.  In his context, preaching these things is exactly what people want and expect to hear.  It is not against the grain.  It is politically-correct, because if he were to suddenly start preaching a more progressive message that divorce is much more complicated than simply equating it with adultery (which everyone knows intuitively, but has to listen to repeated sermons to be convinced otherwise), that God loves everyone including divorced folks, that women and men should equally respect each other, and that perhaps our view of God ought to transcend a Puritan, fire-breathing, sinners-in-the-hands-of an angry God—if this was his approach, he would be questioned.  In his environment, sticking with a conservative approach is exactly the politically correct thing to do.

    He goes on to say that this approach communicates to people ‘the true God’ and Jesus Christ ‘in all authenticity.’ Hmmm… The hubris to assume your view and only your view displays God as he actually is (rather than our ideas of God) is in fact the kind of thing that causes young people outside of the bubble he is operating in to flee from churches.  Because they know it simply isn’t true, if anyone has taken the time to really wrestle with and engage traditions outside of their own, be it any of the many other Christian traditions, as well as other faiths. (See the excerpt of Chapter 6 of my book, An (Un)Safe Place, on Patheos).

    In fact, many of these conservative churches supposedly teaching about Jesus ‘in all authenticity,’ often fail to communicate the Jesus who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love our enemies, to practice reconciliation at all costs, to respond to violence with forgiveness.  These same churches consistently favor a militaristic approach to foreign policy, which looks like anything but ‘the authentic Jesus’, they often favor social policies that marginalize the poorest and weakest in our society, and one could go on. The point being that there is a healthy diversity of thought on what it means to follow ‘the real Jesus,’ and you better have a seat next to the angels in heaven before you claim to alone have insight into ‘the true God.’

    So back to the initial point: I agree young people want authenticity. I think all people do. The examples mentioned may well be authentic, but they hardly put conservative churches in sole possession of authenticity.

  1. Young adults want to know the real God.  Many people today build their own gods with the bits and pieces they like from various sources, but what is God really like?  Some churches present Scripture as human writing, introducing Biblical texts with, “Paul says…” or “David says…”  Conservative churches will say, “The Lord says…” or “God’s Word tells us…” Human opinions are a dime a dozen, but the Bible is not another human opinion.  It is God’s truth, and so it is worth getting up early on a weekend to hear.

    My response. 
    “Many people today built their own gods with bits and pieces they like from various sources.” Yes they do. Sources like the Heidelberg Catechism, or John Calvin, Saint Augustine, or various Bible passages. WE ARE ALL guilty of doing this.  Me too.  Can we do otherwise?  In our discussion at the pub the other night we asked, “Do we sometimes confuse our idea(s) of God with God?”  The answer, regardless of our approach, is YES. We are human beings, therefore it is impossible we will (in this life), have a pure, unfiltered view of who God is.  To say anything less is dishonest.

    Does that mean we are in the dark? Not at all. We do have the Scriptures, we have the witness of various theological traditions through history, and so on.  But it is only honest to acknowledge that there exists, and has always existed, a multiplicity of such traditions, even in biblical times.  The Bible itself is not always in agreement with itself.  Vriesman notes, “Some churches present Scripture as human writing…” as if this is some sort of indictment.  Scripture is human writing!  Perhaps he forgot his seminary training, that a Reformed view of the inspiration of Scripture is organic:  God’s Spirit at work through human beings, including all of their own personalities, character, humanity, and setting.  And of course, humanity is humanity. Broken, flawed, with a perspective inescapably rooted in one’s own self. To pretend that we don’t have to say, “Paul said… this,” but “Isaiah writes this…” is to miss out on fully understanding the very means God chose to use to communicate himself to us!  To simply say, “God says… ____,” without doing the hard work of understanding what God was saying originally in and through the very human authors, in and through its very context and to its first hearers, is to endanger one to presumptively miss out on what God is saying today, all the while claiming to speak for “the real God.”  (See my earlier post: What I meant to sayfor a discussion on the complicated reality of communication and interpretation, then and now).

    Young people can see through such unnuanced approaches, and are decreasingly satisfied with them.  More and more young people do want to know God as he really is, which is why they aren’t satisfied to sit in the pew and be told that we know exactly who God and what he is like. They are not satisfied with being told: “you’re not allowed to do any spiritual exploration on your own outside our own doctrinal boundaries, because that is ‘dangerous’.”  Such fear of exploration may well betray the fact that one doesn’t really believe what one claims to believe. And of course, the implication that conservative churches are the only place to encounter ‘the real God’ implies that any other sort of church will only connect you with something less. My experience (and many others), would say that God can be met in a variety of settings.
  1. Young adults hunger for meaning beyond themselves.  The mainstream culture’s gospel of toleration and acceptance is loud and constant. While this can be a smooth elixir to swallow, the net result is a sour stomach of uncertainty and meaninglessness.  Is there anything that is truly right and wrong?  Is life’s ultimate goal just being nice to everybody and never rock the boat?  Hearing about the ultimate truth from God’s own Word gives a measure of meaning beyond popular opinion and greater than our own selves.  Truth that confirms what we already feel and believe only betrays itself as our own personal truth. Truth greater than ourselves by definition will challenge our views, prick our hearts, cause us to humble ourselves and submit to God’s way. As awkward and unpopular as God’s way might be, its superior source and loving purpose is compelling.

    My response. 
    “The mainstream culture’s gospel of toleration and acceptance is loud and constant.”  Good!  Then perhaps the message of Jesus has been getting through.  Jesus tolerated and accepted people, people who were regularly dismissed from access to God through the religious institutions of the day: the poor, the prostitutes, the tax collectors, those labeled “sinners.”  The people he had the most problem with were the religious ones who didn’t practice the ‘toleration’ and ‘acceptance’ Jesus knew God extends toward all his broken humanity.  Apparently it gives this writer a ‘sour stomach’ to imagine that we should practice such love, tolerance, and acceptance.

    To go from this initial point to asking, ‘Is there anything that is truly right and wrong?’ is a complete disconnect. Extending God’s love doesn’t mean anything goes. It means everyone is welcome. It means we become the love of God on display.  And as we do that, people begin to experience healing to their brokenness, and consider ways to begin living in wholeness and newness.  And, this writer forgets, when we act in this way, it does rock the boat.  Jesus accepted and loved such people, and was constantly berated by the institution that claimed to speak for God: “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.”  “This one is a drunkard and a glutton.”

    I agree with his final point, that truth greater than ourselves will challenge our views and prick our hearts.  I’m simply wondering whether such truth is ever spoken in the kinds of communities he seems to be representing.  Would Jesus, himself a young person, be welcome in these churches with his radical displays of love and acceptance?
  1. Young adults resonate with sin. They are familiar with the suffering that comes from broken relationships, dead-end jobs, brittle commitments and love with strings attached.  Even a self-centered and narcissistic generation like mine has burning questions about why so many awful things happen in the world.  Preaching the reality of sin has a way of bringing light to the elusive suffering that is so apparent everywhere.  Some churches might call for awareness, dialogue, or assistance programs in response to the world’s problems. Some young adults are attracted to this because they feel the ache of sin and want to solve its problems.  But such human efforts mostly produce fatigue and frustration.  Sin, according to the Bible, is actually a spiritual problem that cannot be defeated by human efforts.  The truth, pure and simple, is that we need a Savior.  Instead of trying harder, we conquer sin in ourselves only as much as we trust God to work through us.  This leads us to open ourselves to God’s grace that comes by faith.  Grace calls for human activity, but activity that is motivated by thanksgiving and love for God, not a better world as an end in itself.

    My response. 
    Here I have a lot of agreement with the author. Many of us are indeed familiar with the suffering that comes from the things he notes.  Suffering that comes from inside of us, as well as suffering that is far beyond any one of us (famine, natural disasters, war, etc).  He notes that “some churches might call for awareness, dialogue, or assistance programs.”  His solution is simply to “preach the reality of sin,” because if we do all this hard work of increasing awareness, discussing solutions, and working toward improving things will result simply in ‘a better world as an end in itself.’  Imagine.  A better world?  Is that it?  Let’s stop before we get to that point.  Let’s instead focus on ‘spiritual problems.’  I agree that humanity is sinful and broken.  I agree that God brings healing through Jesus.  However, I balk at the notion that ‘a better world’ is not an end in itself, and that nothing can change unless we remind everyone that we can’t actually do anything.  In fact, if we paid attention, we’d see that non-Christians everywhere are working hard to effect real change in our world, and we would do well to begin to partner with them, rather than hide in our circles commiserating with each other over the futility of it all.
  1. Not all conservative churches attract young adults.  Some conservative churches simply attempt to hold on to the past.  Those that recoil at different ministry tactics or refuse to try the newer (or older) worship music reflect the idolatry of comfort zones, which undermines the gospel’s power even if it is accurately presented from the pulpit. The key component of conservative churches that attract young adults is the visible display of God’s love. Before and after worshiping together, the love of God is visible in the way people greet and speak to one another. People of a different color or socio-economic class are welcomed with the same smiles and greetings as everyone else. Truths are held without compromise but questions and discussions are always welcome because that is how we learn. The conservative moral standards are used to encourage sinners in their emerging faith, not as merit badges of superiority.

    My response. 
    Agreed!  Not all conservative churches attract young adults.  But neither do all progressive churches. Or all of any kind of church.  I also agree that the key component in a church attracting young adults is the visible display of God’s love.  However, I think it goes far beyond creating a welcoming environment over coffee before and after the service.  It comes not in simply being nice to someone ‘of a different color.’  It comes not by trumpeting our ‘conservative truths and moral standards.’  It comes by people living in genuine community throughout the week, people who can rely upon each other (and I know this often is practiced very well in conservative churches), but also by people living sacrificially on behalf of a broken world. People like the early church, who modeled Christ’s teaching by having everything in common, by taking in the poor, by suffering to declare that the way of a suffering Jewish teacher was superior to the way of Rome and Caesar.

    He notes in the end that ‘questions and discussions are always welcome because that is how we learn.’ This seems at odds with his earlier comments which dismiss dialogue in favor of preaching and ‘cold hard doctrine.’  I agree, we learn when we honestly engage views differently from our own, when we admit we haven’t figured everything out, least of all God. This approach, in my own experience, is refreshing to young people who have too often experienced the opposite.

The article closes as follows:
“At the end of the day, people need to see that God’s truth as well as his grace and love are more than theoretical beliefs. God is true and his Son Jesus Christ is mighty to save. Churches that show Jesus Christ is real will always attract people of all ages

I might articulate something more along these lines:
“At the end of the day, people need to experience the reality of God’s love and grace through communities seeking to embody the way of Jesus, the prophet and rabbi who declared that the ‘Kingdom of God is at hand.’  Churches that really seek to follow Jesus will attract people of all ages, but will not necessarily be popular.”

What do you think?  Do conservative churches attract young people?  Can we make such sharp delineations as ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’ among churches?  Is this a useful approach?  What might draw you to a particular community of faith? What might keep you away?

11 thoughts on “Why Conservative Churches Attract Young People… or Not

  1. The thing that strikes me most is “Young people want…” or “Young adults want…” as if there is some platonic ideal “Young People” or “Young Adult” out there. I have three young adult children. I couldn’t give you a collective “Young adults want…” that would apply to any 2 of them at the same time. Seems to me the old saw about rabbis (2 rabbis = 3 opinions) applies to young adults, too.

    The most important thing about a young person is the noun, not the adjective. Articles like the one referenced and, to a lesser extent, your response, seem to focus on the adjective. Focusing on the adjective sets people against one another and I am starting to find that very tiring. It is constant – in the media, in churches, everywhere.

    Strikes me the same is true of “conservative churches are…” and “liberal churches do…” I am interested in churches that, grounded on Scripture, seek to bear witness to the truth of Jesus Christ. Haven’t found one that does it perfectly. I know I don’t do it perfectly. But a church that knows where it stands – the foundation Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 3 – is a church I can live with, even if I think a lot of what is being built is with naught but straw.

    My theology is orthodox, traditional even, as is my taste generally. But I’ve gone to some very unorthodox, non-traditional churches and I’ve worked with some people on the fringes of what might be questionably labeled “Christian”. And I’ve been among people and congregations that go the other direction. What makes either bearable or unbearable is the answer to this question: Are they based on the Bible and aiming for Jesus?

    That’s not always what people want, but that’s what the Church should be about. Which is, I think, your bottom line, too.


  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I share a lot of your sentiments. You should give the sermon at church, I would come to listen. Having lived abroad and with my parents being accepting of all people and their beliefs, I think God is viewed culturally. Even our Christian religion was formed by man. So do we have it all correct?

    Why can’t people who believe differently still be children of God? Young people today are taught to be inclusive. Much of what is presented is exclusive. Is it any wonder that they don’t come to church?


  3. Love your thoughts here Bryan. I find it difficult to believe in a ‘high view of Scripture’ and then entirely ignore that Jesus calls us to be ‘Peacemakers’ according to the Sermon on the Mount. We’re called to love, but that only works if we are heterosexual. We are called to care for the poor, but that’s only if the poor are really trying to get a job. We’re called to care for our ‘neighbor’ but only if we don’t have to help pay for their health care.

    Essentially, we want to be in control of the world but not pay the cost of discipleship. Real discipleship comes at a cost; the idea of ‘a high view of Scripture’ costs us nothing except claiming something with one’s vocabulary.


    1. With you all the way, Randy. In a related conversation this morning I was trying to express to someone exactly what you are saying. Following Jesus in practice is a much greater challenge (and our world much more desperately needs it) than simply regurgitating a doctrine about Jesus (or anything else). Blessings as you seek to bring light and life to those around you!


  4. Excellent points. It is always good to be reminded that conservatism is not always gospel. You tie some things together in this article that need to be tied together in Evangelicalism. Especially calling out the inconsistencies of the religious right’s stace on foreign policy and seeing the common grace in “liberal culture”. Also, nice use of the word ‘hubris’. It’s one of my favorites.


  5. A very thoughtful response, Bryan! You may have written about this before, but I’m reminded of the Barna Group study of young people leaving church. It suggests that the church is not meeting the needs of those who 1) are concerned about solving problems of the real world, 2) desire a deeper, more meaningful spiritual life, 3) are scientifically educated, 4) need a more sophisticated ethics of sexuality, 5) are theologically open-minded/have non-Christian friends, and 6) have sincere questions and genuine doubts about their faith.



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