MINNEAPOLIS Young Christians, who have grown up in a culture that denies absolute truth, struggle with the exclusive nature of their faith and the way they've seen their parents' generation communicate with an unbelieving world.
According to a research study recently released by the Barna Group, 59 percent of young adults disconnect from the church in their teen years. Many study participants told researchers that they stopped attending church because they wanted to find common ground with their peers, not build walls in areas where they disagreed.
Twenty-nine percent of study participants, all between 18 and 29 years old, said the church was afraid of the beliefs of other faiths. The same number said they felt like the church forced them to choose between their faith and their friends.
Young adults who grow up in a pluralistic, post-modern society have a hard time claiming that Christ is the only way, said Mark Mellen, the assistant pastor at Substance Church in St. Paul, Minn.
"This post-modern generation thinks that what's true for you is not necessarily true for me," Mellen said.
Matt Runion, the associate campus pastor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minn., said that the problem of exclusivity is complicated by hypocrisy when the church does not live up to its claims.
"As a general blanket statement, the exclusive claims of Christianity, while they are true, have not always been communicated, whether by words or lifestyle, in ways that are compelling for young people entering into this diverse world with lots of different perspectives," he said.
The struggle of students to support Christianity's claims is complicated by churches that say they are different than the rest of the world but lack any fruit to prove it, Runion said. If churches emphasized action and living out Biblical mandates in practical ways, church would be more attractive to young people, he said.
Not only do students wrestle with Christianity's claims compared to other religions but also with how narrowly some churches define their own theology.
Mellen said that Substance Church responds to these differences through a concentric circles approach. Absolute truths, like acknowledging Jesus as the Son of God, are in the center, with surrounding circles making room for interpretations, deductions and cultural questions about which the Bible is less clear and there is more debate.
"We allow for the diversity of belief to exist inside our church," Mellen said. Only people on the Substance leadership team must agree to the church's statement of faith.
Some respondents to the Barna study also equated the church to a country club, open only to the "right" kind of people. Young adults may perceive that church is only for those who already believe and act a certain way.
"What I hear students saying is 'We don't have space. In the churches we grew up in, there isn't a lot of space for the people who believe other things or don't believe what we believe,'" Runion said
Perhaps in response to those concerns, Runion sees a trend in churches nationwide that have begun marketing as 'a place to belong' and opening the door to people with various backgrounds.
Robert Shell, a Biblical and Theological Studies major at Bethel, said when he worked in a church youth program, he watched the country club mentality alienate students who felt they didn't fit in.
"They didn't feel like they were welcome, that their opinion could be shared or that they could express their faith as they wanted to express their faith," he said.
Shell suggested church leaders emphasize inter-generational dialogue to help make young believers feel like they are part of the community, rather than outsiders.
"I think the pastor has to be the main person to do this, because if it's not spoken from the pulpit, I don't see how it's ever going to get worked in," he said.