Are We Losing the Youth?

The news is everywhere—young adults are leaving the church! Survey after survey is finding that only a small percentage of kids raised in a Christian home continue on with church attendance as they grow up. It doesn’t matter if they’re on their own, or still living with their parents. Christian leaders are doing some serious soul searching, beating their breasts over what went wrong.

  • The Barna Group has found that “nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.”
  • A survey by LifeWay Research found that “seven in ten Protestants ages 18 to 30 who went to church regularly in high school quit attending by age 23. A third of those had not returned by age 30. That means about one-fourth of young Protestants have left the church.”

These reports are quite alarming, but it’s not quite time for Chicken Little—the sky isn’t falling. Yes, the headlines scream that young adults are leaving the church in record numbers. But if you dig a bit deeper, it turns out that the headlines don’t say it all. It’s true that many people in their late teens and early twenties are dumping “churchianity,” and in some cases their faith goes with it. But…

It may not be true.
While numerous surveys indicate a problem, a Gallup poll shows that church attendance hasn’t radically changed since the 1950s! Take a look at this graph. As you can see, for Protestants (which includes Evangelicals),  attendance among 20-year-olds has only dropped 2% in the last 50+ years.

church attendance - gallup poll

It isn’t true for all kinds of churches.
Most surveys lump all churches into one large statistical basket. If you separate mainline denominations from newer independent evangelical churches and church networks, you find a very different story.

In an article by Ed Stetzer, he explains that his research shows a different story:

…the percentage of 20-somethings attending weekly worship services has been rising since 2000, after a serious dip in the mid-1990s. … Since then, the 2008 data showed another uptick, bringing attendance among evangelical 20-somethings back to what it was in 1972. Among non-evangelicals there was indeed a decline: Just fewer than 25 percent attended weekly in 1972. In 2008, it was just over 12 percent.

Many are unchurched but still believing.
According to another survey by the Barna Group, about 40% of young Christians remain believers, but they don’t want to commit to a local congregation. Whether they’re turned off by an abusive situation, hypocrisy, or a disagreement with doctrinal issues (such as gay rights), they no longer feel at home at church. Only about 10% of young adults actually lose their faith in Christianity.

Some of them are coming back (but not many)…
Yes, they left for a while. But will they come back as they get older?

A significant number of church leaders believe that as these prodigals get older, they’ll come back to the fold. The reasoning goes that as their responsibilities mount—spouses, mortgages, kids—some of the once-carefree youth will discover that God isn’t so irrelevant after all. After all, this is nothing new—young people have always sowed some wild oats before settling down and rejoining the status quo.

The problem with that viewpoint is that “normal” has changed. For the first time, singles outnumber those who are married, and many people are waiting, perhaps indefinitely, to tie the knot. Then, they’re waiting longer to have kids. and finally, yet another survey discovered that for half of families, becoming parents had no influence on whether or not they attended church. Only 17% returned to church after having kids, 5% went to church for the first time, and 4% actually became less active.

… while scores of those who grew up without church now attend!
Further along in the article mentioned above, Stetzer goes on to explain:

A 2008 study conducted by the Pew Forum found that 40 percent of religiously unaffiliated people say religion is still important in their lives. Further, … Pew found that 39 percent of those who grew up unaffiliated are now Protestant, most of them evangelical, while another 15 percent now affiliate with Catholicism or another faith. Though we hear a great deal about young people leaving the church, we hear few reports about the stream of young people coming into the church.

That’s cause for celebration!

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