Young adults are leaving the church but not Jesus

January 5, 2022 | News | Volume 26 Issue 1
Christen Kong | Special to Canadian Mennonite
Toronto, Ont.
Colin McCartney, left, prays with youth in Brazil at a young Brazilian youth mission gathering. (Photo by Judith McCartney)

Depictions of God have always informed the faith of Christian believers.

Colin McCartney’s new book, Let the Light In: Healing from Distorted Images of God (Herald Press), on the other hand, is inspired by conversations with young adults who have left the church due to negative perceptions of God and experiences with the church. However, he says he observes a hopeful trend in their responses: “Many young adults are leaving the church, but they are not leaving Jesus.”

McCartney has served in urban missions for over 35 years. He currently leads Connect City Toronto and is pastor of Soul House, an urban congregation in Toronto affiliated with Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

A new survey conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) reveals a decrease in church attendance across Canadians, with many more people attending church at the age of 12 than as adults. Rick Hiemstra, the EFC’s director of research, writes, “Perhaps culture is changing too fast for us to reinvent church before the culture changes again.”

McCartney is grappling with similar findings and shifts. He recounts his own experience wrestling with his faith and God in trying to understand how to make sense of Jesus the Son of God in the New Testament, and an angry God in the Old Testament.

“Young adults are reluctant to live in a church that worships a God that does not reflect their experiences with Jesus,” he says. “The portrayal of God that they are hearing from the church has been negative, authoritarian, inflexible and strict.”

Young adults are experiencing the transformation of church culture as well as their own.

“Young people are looking for meaning outside the church because church members have not always shown the light of God. I have felt churches become political religions,” says Scott Janzen, a youth member at First Mennonite Church in Edmonton. He says that “people are using a diverse range of social media platforms to proclaim the good news and defend the Christian ethic.”

McCartney suggests seeking wisdom from early church leaders like the mystics, who believed Christianity was a movement instead of a religion. He says that these Desert Fathers found refuge in the desert as a response to the shifting perspectives of God that were un-Christ-like at the time. “The desert became a sacred place, quiet and still,” he says. “They were able to pray, read scripture and became a new community where people could come to experience Jesus.”

“A desert place for young adults would be a gathering of Jesus followers and Jesus seekers,” he says. “A place where they can ask questions and not be judged; it would be a third way.”

One such third way can look like Haverim, a Hebrew word that conveys fellowship, partnership, and mutual respect between friends.

McCartney describes Haverim as people who come together in “sacred arguments” as an act of worship, alongside prayer and Bible teaching. “This is beautiful because it is a form of discipleship and spiritual growth,” he says.

Janna Murie, a youth member at Bethel Mennonite Church in Langley, B.C., says, “Young people have left their faith trying to be faithful to God and to the teachings of Scripture, but also wanting to be open.”

“Desert places are sites for discerning with love,” says McCartney. “For young adults, it is a place where they can convene and engage in sacred arguments and feel encouraged.”

Following the publication of his book, McCartney continues to ask, “How are pastors, youth leaders and church members experiencing Jesus to become a desert place for young adults?”

“I have seen desert places at Soul House,” he says. “Soul House is about arriving at a safe place, making friendships, community, serving one another, learning about Jesus, challenging distortions of God. It is about grappling, not about preaching.”

McCartney continues to empower and invest in youth mentorship locally and globally, aiming to foster conversation by inviting church members and young adults to be in dialogue with one another.

Norm Dyck, mission minister with MC Eastern Canada writes in the book’s afterword, “This book is a courageous challenge to all of us to reclaim Jesus as the centre of who we are and all we are called to be.”

To learn more visit

Colin McCartney, left, prays with youth in Brazil at a young Brazilian youth mission gathering. (Photo by Judith McCartney)

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