How to keep 18 - 35 year olds in your church

18th November 2019

Our research shows that many young adults leave the church around the age of 25 years old.  This isn’t because, as many say, they are losing their faith, but because the churches are not addressing the kinds of needs and issues they face in life.  Barna Research Group has just published a report about 18-35-year olds - The Connected Generation. Their research across many nations finds very similar results to our in depth questionnaire from 2012.

Of those identifying themselves as Christian, just over half (54%) of the 15,369 respondents in the Barna research aged 18-35 across 25 surveyed countries attend church at least once a month, including one-third (33%) who are in the pews once a week or more. We too found that many of the Never Married attended church more frequently than families with children. However, 3 in 10 (30%) attend less frequently and 1 in 10 reported that they used to go to church but no longer did so.  So what would draw them back?

Seeking relevant teaching

Most of all, they report going to church to grow their faith and learn about God.  For some there is an element of duty in church attendance, seeing it as being ‘the right thing to do’ and how they live out their faith.  Interestingly musical worship comes 7th in the list of given reasons (although there’s a big difference in Christian denomination: 50% Protestants vs. 22% of Catholics).

To grow their faith and learn about God, they want relevant teaching. 18-35 year olds seek:

  • ‘Teaching that is relevant to my life.’ (40%)
  • ‘Wisdom for how to live faithfully.’ (39%)
  • ‘Wisdom for how scriptures relate to my life.’ (35%)

These topics indicate the importance of having illustrations and applications that are relevant to them at that age, and most are single. So what can you do as a church leader?

Balance illustrations and stories: if you use illustrations about family and/or children, then balance them with applications for others who may be present.

Ask! If you don’t have a single leader to ask, then consider texting or emailing single members of the congregation, explain what you are working on for the sermon and ask for relevant thoughts.

Cover the bases: Jesus and Paul were single - why not mention this and consider how they lived their lives fruitfully?  Things that are relevant to this age group include finding their ‘place’ in the world - vocation, location, and ministry.

The social aspects of church

Barna, in the summary of their research,  expressed surprise at how little the social aspects (community, mentorship, multigenerational friendship etc.) were reported as drivers for 18-35s to participate in their churches.  They think that this was because many have low expectations of what their churches can offer -- and these social aspects are absent from their experience of church. Nearly all the areas that people said were missing were in fact relational in some way. 

Here are some key factors that 18-35s they reported as missing from their churches, and what we can do about it:


They want their friends in church - primarily their existing friends, but also to form new friendships. We know from many decades of research that attendance and physical and mental well-being are strongly connected to having friends in church that one meets outside of worship. Conversely, when groups of single friends of this age start to splinter as each in turn marries, then isolation and anxiety rapidly increases. We need to be sensitive to their need for friendship and promote this as a value to pursue.  (See also our blog about Kate Coleman at New Wine, one of Single Friendly Church’s patrons, who talked about this.)  Their expressed need for more social gatherings outside church may also reflect this.


Address vocational questions of identity, work and contribution to society. ‘Where can I best make a difference?’ In Barna’s previous report on this generation, this is the number one question they had discovered that wasn’t being addressed in many churches.  It’s not a question of replacing career guidance - but of helping people think through their gifts, skills and desires in their own life story when placed within the greater story of God’s love for all people.  Thus many are also concerned with matters of injustice and oppression and reaching out to help the poor and needy in their society.

Relationship building workshops

How often have we heard stories from single people in the UK about their churches putting on relationship courses for married people - but not for single people! Most single adults, especially in this age group, would identify themselves as ‘not yet married’ and so learning how to build relationships is key.  Communication primarily through social media and smartphone apps doesn’t necessarily prepare individuals for the face to face interaction that is core to developing friendships into marriage - such as reading body language and how to talk through misunderstandings and differences in personality and background.

Support groups for challenges in life

Every age group and family type has different challenges. We have guidance on many of these challenges. Appropriate to the 18-35 age group are money, housing, loneliness, how to thrive, freelancing and being a carer. Some may be younger single parents.  They are looking for support groups that are Christian and approach things from that perspective.


Overall church numbers in the UK are in decline - there are more older members and fewer younger members. We need to find ways to keep and encourage younger adults and to help them develop Christian relationships and families who in turn bring their children to church and raise them in the Christian faith. Church community is worshipful, faith-building and relational - it looks as if that we might need to develop the latter two much more consciously.

David Pullinger 14th November 2019