The Christian church in the United States is facing a crisis. People are leaving the church and they aren’t coming back. This mass exodus away from organized religion is most prominent among young people. Several books have been written about this phenomenon, noting that many young people love Jesus but not the church.
I believe there are several reasons why young people are leaving the church, but that’s not the focus of this blog post. My focus today is on how to get young people back. I think we can learn some important lessons from examining the social institutions that young people do show high levels of commitment toward—fraternities and sororities.
What is it about the Greek system that keeps young people engaged, and how can we apply these lessons to the church?
First, fraternities and sororities provide a context for community and close relationships to develop. Community and relationships are a high priority for young people. We are the first generation that was raised on the Internet and social media. As a result, we are more connected than ever before. But even though we are connected with lots of people on a surface level, we often struggle to experience genuine community and close relationships. We still need and long for intimacy, but this isn’t often our experience. Fraternities and sororities provide a powerful context for intimacy to develop. If churches want to successfully reach young people, they need to focus on providing a context for young people to develop community and intimacy with each other.
Second, fraternities and sororities provide opportunities to engage in activities that provide young people with a sense of meaning and purpose. Young people place a high priority on experiencing meaning and purpose in their lives. You can see this in the careers young people pursue. No longer is financial security enough—young people want meaningful work. Fraternities and sororities provide opportunities for young people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They also provide opportunities for young people to engage in service projects that promote various causes, allowing young people to help people less fortunate than themselves. Church can be an awesome setting to help young people engage in activities that provide them with a sense of meaning and purpose. Jesus was all about loving and serving the ‘least of these.’ But too often, churches are inwardly focused, separating themselves from society and complaining about a culture drifting further away from some ‘ideal.’ Checking out of culture and promoting an ‘us versus them’ mentality just isn’t working for many young people. We want to help those less fortunate than ourselves, feed the poor, build wells, find a cure for cancer, and fight for social justice.
If the church was able to provide the best context for developing community, intimacy, meaning, and purpose, I think young people would come back. There’s something about the church that can be awesome, beautiful, relational, and meaningful. But we have to make sure the church is meeting the needs of young people. Right now there’s a disconnect.
Discussion: In your experience, what do young people think of the church? Do you think they prioritize community and meaning, or do they have other priorities?