When They No Longer (Have to) Go to Church

We’ve seen the studies. Millennials are the least religiously affiliated generation, according to Pew. Adults under 40 are less religiously affiliated than older adults around the world. Every news report on religious practices seems to point to declining church attendance.

Nones. Dones. Spiritual but not religious. How do we walk alongside our young adult kids as their faith changes in this climate?

According to theologian James Fowler’s stages of faith development, college students shift into the individual-reflective stage of faith as they begin to own their beliefs — or differentiate from their parents’. That can mean they are identifying perceived conflicts within their belief system and wrestling with the complexities of their faith. Perhaps they shift away from the faith we raised them with — or at least away from the specific practices and beliefs of our home/church family.  

When we dropped our first child, Haydon, off at college, I fought to conceal a host of anxieties. How would I make sure he went to class? What kind of friends would he find? I worried about his choices, his physical and mental health.

What I didn’t lose sleep over was his faith. Throughout high school, trusted mentors had invested in Haydon, and he thrived as a leader in youth group. He was deeply committed to a weekly discipleship group and volunteered with middle school kids at church. He’d had a transformative experience at a youth conference the previous summer. I didn’t even stop to wonder if his faith would stick.

During his first month at school, I asked if he’d found a church. I asked if he’d joined a faith-related group on campus. I asked about his life with God. I asked and asked and asked.

But he didn’t do any of those things. He didn’t attend church or join any Christian groups. He didn’t even seem interested.

Recently when I asked him about that initial transition, he said, “I thought I’d come to college and be just like I was at high school. Wake up at 8:30 on Sunday to go to Sunday school and church every week. Get involved and volunteer at youth group. When that didn’t happen right away, I thought maybe I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I think I gave up a little and figured, ‘I guess my faith was really my parents’.’ Maybe if I’d come in with some healthy doubt, it wouldn’t have thrown me off so much.”

I hadn’t read Kara Powell and Steve Argue’s work on “sticky faith” at that point, but Haydon was echoing one of their key points: “The good news when our growing kids ask new questions is this: Faithing invites doubt rather than avoids it. . . . It’s not doubt that’s toxic to faith; it’s silence” (Growing With, Powell and Argue, 146).

Powell and Argue suggest intentional question-asking with our young adult kids, genuinely seeking to discover what they think:

  • When do you feel closest to God?
  • What is something you don’t believe that you think I still believe?
  • What are you excited about? What can I pray for you about?

I didn’t think we’d raised Haydon in an environment that was silent about such questions, but somehow he carried such fears with him.

Now I wish I hadn’t been so worried about Haydon. Rather than grill him about whether he was going to church, I wish I had been more curious. What was he wondering about? How might his beliefs be changing? How did he view the world? How was he thinking about God?

Today he says he has returned to a faith that is more open-minded than the one he grew up with. It doesn’t look as orthodox as I might choose for him, and he embraces practices from other religions. Yet he is truly encountering God in new ways, and I am trying to learn how to learn from him.

When our boys were young, we tried to ask each other three questions around the dining room table each evening: What was the best part of your day? What was the worst part? And where did you see God? These days I try to ask Haydon that last question — without expecting “right” answers he gave as a child, honestly listening to how he responds.  

He usually has some great answers. 

Cathy Norman Peterson is a writer and editor with two young adult sons. She lives in Chicago.