Is It OK to Not Go to Church?

By Asha Philar

Youth and Young Adult Ministry Development

churchI grew up Unitarian and genuinely loved going to Sunday school. As a teenager, I loved youth group even more. Church was a BIG part of my life growing up, and I am so much the better for it.

So it came as a surprise to me and most other people that when I moved away for university, I only went to the local UU church twice in the 5 years I lived there.  Following graduation, I spent several more years moving often and, again, not attending church outside of visits home to Ottawa.

My experience is pretty typical of young adults (those in the 18-35 age range), so much so that we have a term for it – “The Gap” refers to that age between late teens and late twenties when young adults tend to be missing from our churches.

Contrary to some other religions, church isn’t “mandatory” for us. It’s not a sin to be absent from church, and no one has ever made me feel guilty for not going. In a religion where we celebrate everyone’s spiritual path and process, we have to be ok with people skipping church when they need or want to. In the case of young adults, I’ll take an educated guess about why they may not be attracted to the typical Sunday church experience:

  • a) Church doesn’t fit into their lives – whether it’s because of travel, moving, university, work, new relationships, or new commitments, there’s a lot going on – especially for 18-24 year olds.
  • b) Church isn’t physically accessible – sometimes church is far from the city centre, or far from where students live. And Sunday morning is just about the worst time to catch a city bus.
  • c) Church doesn’t feel like a welcoming place – coffee hour at a new church can be a bit of an unnerving experience for anyone, but especially for young adults. People either don’t know what to do with young people, what to ask besides “are you a student?”, or they go a bit overboard with the “welcoming” and by the time you leave you’re on 5 new committees.

Some congregations have greeters designated to welcome new people and introduce them to the church, and especially to other young adults, but many congregations don’t.

These are all factors in a young person’s decision to go to church or not, and it’s important that we examine these in order to create accessible and welcoming churches.

But what I would hope for is that young adults who don’t participate in traditional church have found Unitarian Universalist community and spiritual development in other places and other ways.

It can be an amazing experience to be surrounded by other young adults, worshipping together, doing social and environmental justice work together, and finding ways to live our principles in an ever changing world (and in our ever changing lives).

Examples of non-traditional UU gatherings include young adult conferences, trainings, sexuality education, small group ministry, climate justice work, book clubs, retreats, knitting circles, racial justice work, hiking trips, online worship services, theology pub nights and more.

There are many wonderful ways for young adults to live our faith, but there are always the constraints of time, distance, money, work and lack of critical mass limiting our opportunities to be together.

We also need our local churches to become more dynamic and welcoming spaces where young adults feel included, accepted, challenged and supported by a multigenerational community of like-minded folks. Our goal is for everyone of every age to have the spaces and communities they need to walk their own spiritual path and negotiate this imperfect, beautiful world.

If you are a young adult looking for opportunities to connect with others, the CUC has links, resources and ideas and events.
If you are a member of a congregation looking to encourage young adult participation, see our tips for inclusive and multigenerational church communities.