Young adults can be a study in contradictions. They crave one-on-one interaction but spend hours alone playing video games. They’ve outgrown attending youth group but aren’t interested in plugging in to a Sunday school class. They want someone to care about them and their spiritual walk but don’t necessarily want to be involved in church.

It doesn’t seem likely these Millennials would flock into a Christian store, but retailers can engage with this YA group and contribute to their personal and Christian growth by offering authenticity, community, and a place of connection.

Walking Away

Christian parents clothe their children in values and faith, but as the kids grow up and become young adults, they take these “clothes” off and examine them. They may choose to put them on again or wear them in new combinations to see if they still fit. Sometimes they add an item or two their parents wouldn’t approve of or they may throw out the clothes all together and start over with a new outfit.

During the important YA years, older teens and twentysomethings start to figure out who they are and what they believe. Research shows it’s also when they often leave the church, either as a conscious decision or because they tune out.

The Barna Group has been examining Millennials’ faith development for 10 years, conducting 27,140 interviews in over 200 studies. Their research shows that nearly six in 10 young adults (59 percent) who have been raised in the church end up walking away from either their faith or from the church at some point in the first 10 years of their adult life.

The Pew Research Center arrived at similar findings. Its 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study states that as Millennials enter adulthood, they display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with the church, than older generations. More than 35 percent of Millennials ages 18 to 24 reported they were religiously unaffiliated as did 34 percent of older Millennials ages 25 to 33. Fewer than six in 10 of those asked identify with any branch of Christianity.

However, the future isn’t as bleak as this data might imply. In May 2014, LifeWay Research Executive Director Ed Stetzer said in his blog The Exchange that LifeWay Research data had found “about 70 percent of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out—but … of those who left, almost two-thirds return and currently attend church.”

Reasons Why

The fact that a concerning percentage of young Millenials are leaving the church begs the question: Why?

LifeWay Research learned that older teens generally drop out of church between the ages of 17 and 19. The top three reasons given for not attending were they didn’t feel it was personally relevant (35 percent), they could find God elsewhere (30 percent), and they could teach themselves what they needed to know (17 percent).

Cailee Smith, a frontliner at The Greatest Gift and Scripture Supply (Pueblo, CO), mentors teens at her local church.

“From my time with students, I would say that … mostly church has become irrelevant to them, whether that be church is confusing, they have different beliefs, or that nothing that is being preached has anything to do with where they are at in life,” she says.

Get Legit

For these young adults, church isn’t a place they go to for community and support. But Christian retail stores can be.

Young people crave relationships, a factor that also plays a big part in church attendance. Barna compared young adults active in their faith to their counterparts who had stopped going to church. The results show that those who stayed in church were twice as likely to have a close personal friendship with an adult inside the church as those who have left (59 percent vs. 31 percent).

Christian retailers that make a committed effort to nurture friendships with young adults can meet this felt need and keep them connected to spiritual things. The key is the relationships have to be real. The No. 1 need the YA group has of the church—and consequently a Christian store—is authenticity.

“They can see through someone who is putting on a show,” says Christian recording artist Kyle Kupecky. “They just want people they can look up to, believe in, and truly trust.”

In her experience, Nancy Campbell, trade book buyer for the Tree of Life chain as well as one of its owners, young adults long for “real.” “They don’t want fake. Real relationships, real conversations, real truth.”

But let’s step back for a minute and be honest: after serving customers, ordering product, training staff, and crunching numbers, retailers may feel the last thing they have the time or desire to do is build relationships with older teens and twentysomethings who aren’t happy with the church.

Smith, however, believes older teens and young adults are yearning for a relationship with God.

“When given the tools they need, I have seen them excel in their Christian faith, but we have to meet students where they are at,” she says.

Pay attention to the space aesthetics, from the overall vibe to the coffee you serve.

How to Do It

To begin fostering a community of connection in your store, consider taking these steps:

  1. Create a safe place. If you have the floor space, dedicate an area for young adults to hang out. Heather Adams, owner of The Greatest Gift, created The Comfort Zone with deliberately mismatched furniture, a mini-fridge with drinks, and a table for snacks.

“It was an attempt to have a nice, comfy-cushy place to sit and relax, peruse a book before buying, or meet a friend for coffee and fellowship,” she says. “We have Wi-Fi, so it’s a nice place for students to come and do homework.”

Kupecky advises retailers to pay attention to the atmosphere and design of the space. “Being smart and current with artwork and the overall vibe will make a huge difference,” he says. “Plus, every young person loves coffee. If you have truly great coffee that will get young people’s attention.”

  1. Host events. Have a local band popular with youth play a set or invite speakers to dialogue on subjects important to Millenials.

     “We need to teach biblical truth on homosexuality, drugs, relationships, etc., to meet them at the stage of life they are in,” says Smith. “Time and time again, students have come into youth group when we advertise we’re going to speak on these issues, and time and time again, the Holy Spirit has used that night to bring them to Christ.”

Kupecky agrees. “[Young adults] aren’t afraid to go deep and explore hard topics.”

  1. Become a mentor. Millenials may not have parents who are involved or even present. You can make a practical and eternal investment in a young person’s life by serving as a mentor.
  2. Get on social media. If you aren’t where Millennials are—online—then you won’t reach them. Use social media not to promote your business or to sell product but to create relationships.

     “Social media is a full-time job. It’s important for retailers to invest in this medium and hire someone who really gets it,” says Kupecky.

  1. Make connections. If you don’t have the time or manpower to reach out to young adults personally, consider serving as an intermediary to connect them with YA workers or authors, either in person or online.
  2. Employ young adults. Adams, who also sits on the CBA board of directors, has seen the value of having Cailee Smith on staff for insights into this age group.

     “None of us have kids that [age], so having a twentysomething on staff who works with teens is invaluable. She helps us decide what’s cool to order and what kinds of Bibles, t-shirts, hats, music, etc., are ‘in’ right now,” she says.

Campbell not only hires young people, she also includes them in some buying decisions. “Allow them to come up with events and ideas that reach young people. Spend time investing in them.  They are the future of your store and the church.”

-Lora Schrock