There is a buzz in the air where I live as thousands of young people are beginning or continuing their college experience. It’s an exciting time for them – new people, new experiences, academic and professional growth. Unfortunately, maintaining a vibrant and robust Christian faith and finding a church to help them in their relationship with God isn’t always at the top of the list – even for students with a church background.
Having worked with young people in some capacity for the past 16 years, my heart has been burdened with the trend of young people dropping out of church, and some losing their faith, between the ages of 18-22.
What the Numbers Tell Us
Many of us either know someone who has recently or gone through or is currently going through the transition from high school to college or young adulthood. Transitions are tough as it is, and thriving in your Christian faith when moving beyond high school seems to be one of the most difficult. Originally we heard stats like, 86% of young people were dropping out of church after high school never to return. The only problem is, that’s a myth. You also may have heard “Nearly 70% of college students who have grown up in church will drop out when they go to college.”[i] That is closer to the truth, but even that can be somewhat deceiving.
The Real Story…
So what is the truth when it comes to faith and young people? A more recent study by Lifeway Research reveals 70% of young adults between ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18-22.[ii] Although it’s not as bad as it was originally thought to be, the two-thirds who do return do so twice per month or sporadically. Clearly, we need to do better, and by we, I mean – parents, pastors (youth, college and senior), and older church members.
The Barna Group gives some specifics to these stats and calls our attention to “three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals, nomads, and exiles.”
One out of nine who grow up with a Christian background lose their faith in Christianity. After confessing to be a Christian at some point in their past, these “prodigals” as the article names them, have lost their faith in Christ and Christianity.
The largest group (four out of ten) is the nomads. They still call themselves Christians but are much less active in church life than they were during their high school years. According to The Barna Group, “Nomads have become ‘lost’ to church participation.”
Exiles, or those “who feel lost between the ‘church culture’ and the society they feel called to influence,” feel stuck between two worlds – the comfortable faith of their parents and the life that they believe God has in mind for them. These represent two out of ten.
Finally, “Three out of ten young people who grow up with a Christian background stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties.”[iii] Here is the conclusion of their research, “that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.”
Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church
Why is this transition so difficult for church going young adults? The Barna Group gives six reasons why young Christians are leaving the Church:
- Churches seem overprotective.
- Teens’ and twenty-something’s experience of Christianity is shallow.
- Church can come across as antagonistic to science.
- Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
- They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
- The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.[iv]
Clearly we aren’t doing a great job walking our young people through some of these difficult life questions. That’s exactly the conclusion of the Lifeway Research project I spoke of earlier. Ed Stetzer noted, “Parents and churches are not passing on a robust Christian faith and an accompanying commitment to the church. Christian parents and churches need to ask the hard question, ‘What is it about our faith commitment that does not find root in the live of our children?’”
We will talk about some of the challenges of transitioning well in my next post.
What’s Your Experience?
What’s your experience either as someone who has made the transition, seen the transition or someone who is currently in the transition?
[i] Andy Stanly, Lane Jones and Reggie Joiner, Seven Practices of Effective Ministry (Random House LLC 2008), 143
[iii] The Barna Group, “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts,” November 16, 2011, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/teens-nextgen/534-five-myths-about-young-adult-church-dropouts#.UuY_mmQo6b8
[iv] The Barna Group, “Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church,” September 28, 2011, https://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/528-six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church