Where have all the youth gone?

Date night on my youth group's annual Habitat trip (2010).

Date night on my youth group’s annual Habitat trip (2010). Photo by Susan Cassada.

I never expected to feel like an outsider in my own congregation. Yet after I bridged (graduated), out of youth group and headed for the adult services each Sunday morning, I felt alone.

It didn’t matter that I knew most of the congregants or had been attending since I was four. It didn’t matter that the faces were familiar or that I’d been to a full service several times over the years.

I continued to attend for two years. My loneliness persisted.

I wasn’t aware how much it hurt until we had an inter-generational service. A friend who was still in youth group asked, “Why are you sitting alone?” I didn’t know how to answer. I always sat alone.

He reminded me, in that moment, that UU youth value community and connection to each other above all things. To leave someone sitting alone is unthinkable. Youth group is as much about good company and affection as it is religious education. While both seek community to some degree, youth seek community relationships that grow. Worship is an act of community bonding, a beautiful means to an important end.**

Railroad Crossing Ault Park

“We’ll All Float On.” Two friends crossing an unused railroad in Cincinnati’s Ault Park.

Congregations lament after their vanished youth. Many don’t return well into their adulthood if they return at all.

If you’re wondering why your youth vanish, don’t. Is going away to college a factor? For those who do that, yes. Is finding sustenance from other sources a factor? Yes.

But I think there is a more simple answer: UU youth culture is nothing like UU congregation culture.

We might speak a similar language and hold similar ideals, but we practice our religion differently. I imagine it’s something like being an native English speaker from the U.S. and trekking across the Atlantic to England. Similar but still foreign.

So, the real question is how do we bridge the two? What can we learn from each other? And how can congregations nurture youth through the transition? How can youth groups and religious educators prepare youth for congregational life?

I am seeking answers to these questions. Have ideas? Suggestions? Let me know in the comments or email me at ruth.e.hinkle@gmail.com.


**I feel confident making this assertion. I facilitated youth worship planning for over 8 years and have been trained as a youth leader in multiple capacities. I also served my home congregation after high school on the Committee on Ministry and have participated in Unitarian Universalism on a regional and national level. Let’s just say I know way more about church politics than I’d like.

15 Responses to “Where have all the youth gone?

  • Stephanie
    4 years ago

    Ruth, I am so interested in this… Been thinking about how we could do services with you all leading. I want to be led. Love you

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      Maybe we should be getting some people together locally to talk about this. Kelly M. and I have been having back and forth conversations about this and I’m getting a lot of feedback through private messages and Facebook from (former) youth and adults who have worked with youth.

      I’m writing a paper for my religious studies capstone about UU youth worship in comparison to adult worship and I’d love to hear what anyone has to say on the subject.

  • Deb Edgecombe
    4 years ago

    Snap! You said it. There it is! Thank you Ruth. I love you.

  • Ruth

    The trend you are pointing to has been around since at least the 1970’s, and it breaks my heart as someone who grew up UU. It is actually a trend across Mainline Protestant faiths that are also losing the people who grew up in their churches, and I think you are basically right that it’s the culture gap. Some of that is the separation, the upstairs/downstairs difference, and the fact that our congregations are culturally dominated by older generations. But mostly, I think it’s that many of our youth don’t experience congregations as really living out their values, nor the “traditional” form of church (focus on Sunday mornings in a single building) as being relevant, and neither do 33% of young adults in the Millennial Generation. This is a huge trend, Millennials are turned off by most of the “traditional” institutions of our society (government, big corporations, etc.).

    What you’re really asking is “how can our congregations embody and advance our shared values in ways that make sense for people of all ages?” That’s a big question, one that lots of other religious leaders around our faith are asking as well. Part of the answer has to do with harnessing the energy, passion, wisdom and leadership of our raised UU’s (while we’re/they’re still young!), creating faith communities that are willing to try new things and can value the unique gifts of every generation.

    I have preached a sermon on this topic (you can access it here [http://bit.ly/1aRKzjn]) and written blog posts (called A Bridge to Nowhere Parts A & B, found here [http://bit.ly/1cr0uUk] and here [http://bit.ly/17jKfLd]). I and my colleagues at the UUA would be happy to be helpful in any way we can as you wrestle with this issue in your congregation, since we do believe it is key for the future of our faith.

    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago


      Thank you so much for the response. I look forward to checking out your sermon on the topic. I agree with you about the underlying questions of my blog post. Most youth don’t experience congregational life as being representative of their values. I’ve engaged in many conversations on this topic, in addition to conversations about creating inclusive, inter-generational church that incorporates these different needs.

      I’m writing a paper about this for my theories of religion class this semester. Right now, I’m interested in understanding the structural differences between youth and adult worship particularly. As someone who planned and participated in youth worships for over 8 years, I know that worship is used as tool for community building. I also noticed that catharsis is often a desirable outcome in youth worship services, something which is sometimes considered suspect by adult congregants.

      I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. If you’re willing, can I send you my research prospectus? Although my paper is due 12/16, I know this is a topic that I will continue to pursue beyond the end of the semester. And please, if you know others in the UUA who might have something to add to the conversation, please send this along. Thank you!

  • Jamie H-R
    4 years ago

    Ruth, have you read Children of a Different Tribe? The author talks about this problem in depth and makes many of the same points you make. I talked about this a little bit in my last sermon, and I agree it’s a really significant problem and there needs to be dialogue on this between the groups you mentioned. Thanks for sharing your experience.


    • Ruth Hinkle
      4 years ago

      I haven’t read this. From the quick glance I took, this looks both interesting and useful. Thanks for sending it along! I’ve had a hard time finding good resources to resources to read, so this is very helpful.

  • Jamie S
    4 years ago

    This is really interesting, Ruth. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Ruth Hinkle
    4 years ago

    I’m not sure what happened to the comments that were on this post, so if your comment was deleted I apologize! I’m clearly still learning the system.

  • You have such great ideas for the retention of our youth in UU!

    This has been a problem for several generations.

    Thanks for your wonderful ideas.

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