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Character Crisis: Why Young People Are Leaving the Church and How We Can Help

Updated: Jun 24



by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin


We often worry about young people who claim to follow Jesus but live in ways that raise our eyebrows—or form a pit in our gut. 


If you’ve ever scrolled social media and seen a post you wish you hadn’t seen of a teenager or young adult in your life, you know what we’re talking about. The party pic. The stunt video. The racy outfit. 


But what about the adults in our feeds—or more critically, in teenagers’ feeds? What do teenagers see when they look at the adult Christians around them and in the media? 

Too often, they see character gaps. 


These character gaps expose a lack of Christlikeness in adults who are modeling how to live as believers in the world. This is a problem for the church. 


Does character still matter?


Our research team at the Fuller Youth Institute set out to explore how character formation could fuel discipleship and help answer real questions that make a difference in forming lasting faith in young people. We think what we learned has implications not only for youth ministry leaders, but also for parents and every adult who cares about a young person.


We know character can be a loaded term. For some of us, the word is filled with baggage because of how it has been used to get us to conform to a certain set of standards. It’s inseparably tied to morality. For others, character feels dated, like something our grandparents harped on. 


Perhaps most complicated, we might associate character with a set of spiritual rules to follow and behaviors to avoid. When we come from traditions that emphasize purity, “holiness,” or strict norms that feel more like control than “freedom in Christ,” it’s understandable that conversations about character can make us bristle. But here’s the way we’re defining character: Living out Jesus’ goodness every day by loving God and our neighbors.


To be clear, forming character is not about trying to manipulate young people into behaving a certain way so that they can earn God’s love (or ours!). It’s also not about trying to form “good kids,” an expression we’re quite confident you’ve heard before.

Character is what extends faith beyond youth group. It’s what we want our good kids to take with them when they leave church or our homes so that wherever they go and whatever they do, they reflect and imitate Jesus. 


3 reasons character gaps exist today


Odds are good that you can name a handful of leaders right now—on the national level and in your own community—who have failed to show Christlike character. Headlines feature moral failures more often than any of us would prefer. 


Given these character gaps in adults, it’s no wonder we see them in young people. Why do such pronounced character gaps exist?


1. Our failure to understand God’s character

Researchers from Baylor University found that Americans picture God in four different ways:

  • An authoritative God with power over our lives.

  • A benevolent God who answers our prayers and comforts us.

  • A critical God who judges us in the next life.

  • A distant God largely removed from day-to-day activities.


These researchers concluded that how people view God is one of the “strongest predictors of a range of social and moral attitudes.” In other words, our character doesn’t only reflect our Creator God; it reflects who we create God to be.


When we fashion Jesus in our image, God’s character starts to resemble ours, rather than the other way around. 


2. The failure of the church to form character

Churches tend to equate health with size and measure their success by attendance. Elders worry that teenagers will only show up for laser tag, so we lean in on what will turn out numbers. Sure, character counts. But churches have a hard time counting character.


Our research found that the vast majority of youth leaders we surveyed did not include character and virtue development practices as part of their ministry goals and objectives at all. We get it. Numbers are easy. But character? That’s complicated. 


What’s more, we often boil discipleship down to knowledge acquisition. As a result, we prioritize teaching, often through one-way communication. One youth leader explained, “The primary function of youth ministry is information transfer. We have classes for specific grades or genders because we think we need to package information so that people can understand. The issue I find with young people is that the longing of their hearts is not to know more but to belong more.”


Or as we’ve heard from teenagers, showing up at youth group matters when they have “that feeling that I’m made to be here and I want to be here.” They crave unconditional relationships through which they can understand who they are in Christ and their place in God’s story.


3. A shifting cultural understanding of character

Cultural shifts in America’s understanding of character are a third factor contributing to the prevalence of character gaps. In The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that in the US, “morality has been displaced by utility.”


This shift has changed how we talk about character. The word has fallen out of vogue and out of use, so it shouldn’t be surprising that character doesn’t play prominently in what young people value. Today’s teenagers can seem as though they would rather be world-famous than well-formed. Social media hardly cultivates humility. And this is hardly a “young person problem.”


One youth pastor from an affluent context bemoaned, “Our community is really big on perception. Their identity is tied to their job, house, kids, and vacations. There are hidden issues within our context that do not ever really get to be addressed because looking right is prioritized over living right.” This kind of mirage jeopardizes faith that lasts.


When we favor looking right over living right, teenagers inevitably see the gaps. They see us stretch the truth, ignore rules, and sidestep guidelines. If fact, sometimes young people are the clearest about character. They are experts at sniffing out hypocrisy.


What we can do to fill the gaps and give young people the faith models they need

 

It’s not news that many young people are turned off from the church today. Character gaps play a role in this distaste. When famous Christian leaders—or much-less-famous but much-closer-to-home leaders—publicly fail (usually when private inconsistencies are exposed), young people might disqualify Christianity as a whole. 


Trust in the church has dropped to an all-time low. Fewer than one third of US respondents in one recent study rate pastors as highly honest and ethical. People are more likely to believe in the moral standards held by nurses, police officers, and chiropractors than their religious leaders. 


This is understandable but tragic.


The antidote is simple but not easy: what young people need is to see, know, and be supported by adults with character. Our research focused on what youth ministry leaders can do to shape character through discipleship, but these two key learnings apply to any adult influencing a young person. To make a difference in a teenager’s life, we need to cultivate trust and model growth


Cultivate trust

Trust is the bedrock of relationships. In the long race of cultivating character, it is like our pace car. As we log lap after lap of relationship with young people, we can never go faster in building faith and character than the speed of trust.


Often that pace is slower than we would hope. Teenagers may have been disappointed by adults in the past. What does it take for us to regain young people’s confidence that we will treat them with dignity? Research points to consistency and closeness. Consistency is our relational longevity, while closeness is our relational proximity

Consistency and closeness form the essential soil in which trust can grow.


Model Growth

Modeling is simply the act of showing others who we are every day. Teenagers wonder, Are you for real? Are you the same outside church as you are inside? They’re watching for what our everyday actions reveal about our character. When we live consistently (though imperfectly), we let them know they can trust us with the parts of themselves they might be hesitant to bring to church—including their questions, mistakes, and hurts. 


Modeling reinforces the reality that character is more caught than taught. If you think back on your own experiences, you’ll likely remember people in your life who demonstrated a particular virtue, whether or not they talked about it.


For example, I (Brad) have a friend who grew up in South America, in a home where hospitality was so common that it was just a given. Her parents frequently welcomed kids or adults who needed somewhere to stay for a few days or even months. This type of compassionate hospitality was such a way of life for her family that she was shocked to learn as a young adult that many US households found it unusual. For the decade I’ve known her, she and her husband have often welcomed in friends as well as strangers, helping their own kids “catch” what she caught from her parents: welcome as a way of life. Compassion as commonplace.


Once you’ve caught a lesson like that, teaching might reinforce it, give language to explain it, or help you interpret your experience. But it’s already inside you.


Life on display

Forest Hills Covenant Church is a multiethnic church in Boston whose youth ministry hopes to provide urban teenagers a safe space for dialogue, empowerment, and relationships.


In our research team’s visit, we saw leaders model these values over and over. Pastor Christina Tinglof grew up at Forest Hills and has now pastored the community long enough that she’s serving the kids of former youth group kids. Students and adults alike overwhelmingly describe her as someone who “truly cares” for people. This trust draws from a long history of building relationships with young people from all kinds of backgrounds, including gang-involved teens.


Pastor Christina both models growth and talks about it. She describes discipleship as “imitating Christ.” She wants students to see her imitating Christ, which includes serving in the community and seeking justice. Leaders at Forest Hills describe modeling by using language of their lives “being on display” for students. 


This intentionality comes through. Young people connect this level of care and welcome with trusting God. A teenager told us about a time when Pastor Christina and other leaders welcomed another teen who was really struggling with his mom’s serious health diagnosis and felt distant from God. Because of the leaders’ care for that student through such a tough season, the interviewee told us, “It made me believe in God way more, made me trust him way more, because there are going to be some of those times where, you know, God isn’t there and you’re going to feel distant, but it made me believe always to have faith in God.”


One volunteer serves every week by driving students to youth group. When this volunteer needed to buy a new car, she got a van—not because she needed the extra space herself but to increase her capacity to serve others.


Love modeled like that sticks with a kid. It can inspire the kind of character and faith that live long beyond youth group.


Adapted with permission from Faith Beyond Youth Group: 5 Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship, by Kara Powell, Jen Bradbury, and Brad M. Griffin. Published by Baker Books, 2023.

 

Kara Powell Jen Bradbury Brad M. Griffin

Chief of leadership formation Sr. Director of Family Ministry Sr. Director of Content &

at Fuller Youth Institute, at First Pres. Church in Research for the Fuller

professor of youth, family Glen Ellyn, IL and author of Youth Institute and

ministries, and author and The Jesus Gap, The Real Jesus, author of Faith Beyond

coauthor of Growing with, and other books. Youth Group, Sticky Faith,

Right Click, Mirror, Mirror, and other books.

and other books.










5 Comments


Jeeino JB
Jeeino JB
3 days ago

Thats really sad to see that how young people dont believe in god it us parents duty to guide them, Also to get classy furniture at discount use Aosom voucher code, May god guide us all.

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Run 3
Run 3
Jul 04

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Jun 26

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