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5 Myths About Why Young Adults Drop Out of Church

The Barna group recently shared some of their findings from five years of research into the real reasons why young adults are dropping out of the church.  The article is well worth a read for anyone but especially for parents, pastors, youth ministers, and campus ministers.  Barna identifies 5 common myths about why young people leave church and then gives us a solid dose of reality:

Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.  Reality: There has been considerable attention paid to the so-called loss of faith that happens between high school and early adulthood. Some have estimated this dropout in alarming terms, estimating that a large majority of young Christians will lose their faith. The reality is more nuanced. In general, there are three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals, nomads, and exiles.

Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation.  Reality: First, this line of reasoning ignores that tens of millions of young Christians never lose their faith or drop out of church. Thus, leaving church or losing faith should not be a foregone conclusion.

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.  Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. College experiences, particularly in public universities, can be neutral or even adversarial to faith. However, it is too simplistic to blame college for today’s young church dropouts. As evidence, many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.”  Reality: The study examined beliefs across the firm’s 28-year history, looking for generational gaps in spiritual beliefs and knowledge. When comparing the faith of young practicing faith Christians (ages 18 to 29) to those of older practicing Christians (ages 30-plus), surprisingly few differences emerged between what the two groups believe. This means that within the Christian community, the theological differences between generations are not as pronounced as might be expected. Young Christians lack biblical knowledge on some matters, but not significantly more so than older Christians.

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.  Reality: Some faith leaders minimize the church dropout problem by assuming that young adults will come back to the church when they get older, especially when they have children. However, previous research conducted by Barna Group raises doubts about this conclusion.

Obviously, if you’ve bought into one or more of these mythological diagnoses of the problem, your solutions are likely to be either overly simplistic or completely misplaced.

Things I found particularly striking were the study’s category of young adult “exiles” from church, the fact that most of those who leave church were emotionally disconnected from church well before arriving at college, and that those who leave church are not really much more “Biblically illiterate” than their elders (which is not to say that either they or their elders are particularly Biblically literate–in my experience, the bar of Biblical literacy has been set pretty low in our culture).

Here’s what the article says about church “exiles”:

Another two out of ten young Christians were categorized as exiles, those who feel lost between the “church culture” and the society they feel called to influence. The sentiments of exiles include feeling that “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me” and “I feel stuck between the comfortable faith of my parents and the life I believe God wants from me.”

That is a pretty damning finding: two out of ten young adults leave church not because they find Christianity to be too hard to stomach but because their churches’ versions of Christianity are insufficiently robust, too parochial, too detached from the needy world to which Christ calls us as ministers.  Ironically, nearly thirty percent of the young Christians who abandon church are precisely the Church’s most promising parishioners.

What are your thoughts?

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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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