Are Young People Leaving the Church in Droves?

By Glenn Stanton
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on print
Share on email
Unsplash: Daniel Tseng
It has become an oft-repeated truism that young people are leaving both the faith and Church in very disturbing numbers. The truth, however, is a much more encouraging story.

Within evangelicalism, it has become an oft-repeated truism that young people are leaving both the faith and Church in very disturbing numbers. Some of the numbers cited are indeed very disturbing. 

One very popular evangelical author said that if present trends in the beliefs and practices of young adults continue, church attendance will be half of what it is in ten years. He said that in 2005. We continue to hear similar warnings.

Has this happened in your church? Counter to such dire predictions, evangelical churches across the country are holding their own, even growing nicely in many instances. Even with young people.

Here is a concise explanation of the truth and fiction of this topic. It is a much more encouraging story than the one we usually hear.

The Reality: Yes and no.

It depends on what churches we’re talking about. But the best mainstream research says NO; young people are not leaving either the church or their faith in alarming numbers. Here are the quick facts according to leading university scholars:


  1. Mainline Churches. Young people are running for the exits, just like adults.
  2. Church attendance always slows at college age. Young adults have slowed (not abandoned) their attendance in young adulthood since the 1950s (new independence, college-life, etc.). They return to regular attendance after this stage, when they marry and have kids.


  1. Solid Bible-teaching Churches. These are growing slightly, even among young adults.
  2. High Faith Continuity. Kids raised in faithful, believing, practicing homes – even imperfectly so – are highly likely to retain the faith of their parents. This is evidenced in two large, longitudinal academic studies (conducted at UNC and USC).

Pew reports that only 11% of young adults who left the faith said they had a strong faith as a child. The other 89% reported no real faith.

Our kids don’t retain what they never really had.

Here are two additional factors explained:

Switching Lanes, Not Exiting:

Much “leaving” is found among youth simply changing faith lanes, typically from mainline or their family tradition to their own identities such as non-denominational or even more liturgical Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox communities. This is a normal part of maturing. Pew explains that nondenominational churches gain 5 members for each one it loses through switching. Traffic is moving toward biblically serious churches.


Those claiming no religious identity- the nones – are indeed growing. But the vast majority of these are not abandoning a meaningful faith. They are simply identifying themselves differently. Most of these are merely cultural Christians, people who identify with a particular faith due to family identity. They are just no longer using that identity which meant little to them anyway. As Ed Stetzer says, “It doesn’t mark a change as much as a clarification.” This growth of nones does not so much represent a new, growing category of disbelief.

The Sky is Not Falling

Christian Smith of Notre Dame, the uncontested leader in this field, reports an overall stability of young peoples’ faith through the last few decades. He explains that

“… emerging adults today appear no less religious than those of previous decades…when it comes to daily prayer, Bible beliefs and strong religious affiliation.”

He adds,

“Not much appears to have changed…on the whole…18- to 24-year-old Americans since 1972 have not become dramatically less religious or more secular.”Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford Press, 2009), p. 95, 99, 141.

He adds some additional and surprising good news here:

“Most emerging adults themselves report little change in how religious they have been in the previous five years. And those who do report change are more likely to say they have become more, not less, religious.”

  • © 2017 Focus on the Family.

    Share on facebook
    Share on twitter
    Share on pinterest
    Share on print
    Share on email

    About the Author

    Glenn Stanton

    Glenn T. Stanton is the director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family. He debates and lectures extensively on the issues of gender, sexuality, marriage and parenting at universities and churches around the world. Stanton also served the George W. Bush administration for many years as a consultant on increasing fatherhood involvement in the Head Start program. …

    Thank you [field id="first_name"] for signing up to get the free downloads of the Marrying Well Guides. 

    Click the image below to access your guide and learn about the counter-cultural, biblical concepts of intentionality, purity, community and Christian compatibility.

    (For best results use IE 8 or higher, Firefox, Chrome or Safari)

    To stay up-to-date with the latest from Boundless, sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter.

    If you have any comments or questions about the information included in the Guide, please send them to [email protected]

    Click here to return to Boundless

    Focus on the Family

    Thank you for submitting this form. You will hear from us soon. 

    The Daily Citizen

    The Daily Citizen from Focus on the Family exists to be your most trustworthy news source. Our team of analysts is devoted to giving you timely and relevant analysis of current events and cultural trends – all from a biblical worldview – so that you can be inspired and assured that the information you share with others comes from a reliable source.

    Alive to Thrive is a biblical guide to preventing teen suicide. Anyone who interacts with teens can learn how to help prevent suicidal thinking through sound practical and clinical advice, and more importantly, biblical principles that will provide a young person with hope in Christ.

    Bring Your Bible to School Day Logo Lockup with the Words Beneath

    Every year on Bring Your Bible to School Day, students across the nation celebrate religious freedom and share God’s love with their friends. This event is designed to empower students to express their belief in the truth of God’s Word–and to do so in a respectful way that demonstrates the love of Christ.

    Focus on the Family’s® Foster Care and Adoption program focuses on two main areas:

    • Wait No More events, which educate and empower families to help waiting kids in foster care

    • Post-placement resources for foster and adoptive families

    Christian Counselors Network

    Find Christian Counselors, Marriage & Family Therapists, Psychologists, Social Workers and Psychiatrists near you! Search by location, name or specialty to find professionals in Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network who are eager to assist you.

    Boundless is a Focus on the Family community for Christian young adults who want to pursue faith, relationships and adulthood with confidence and joy.

    Through reviews, articles and discussions, Plugged In exists to shine a light on the world of popular entertainment while giving you and your family the essential tools you need to understand, navigate and impact the culture in which we live.

    Have you been looking for a way to build your child’s faith in a fun and exciting way?
    Adventures in Odyssey® audio dramas will do just that. Through original audio stories brought to life by actors who make you feel like part of the experience; these fictional, character-building dramas use storytelling to teach lasting truths.

    Focus on the Family’s Hope Restored all-inclusive intensives offer marriage counseling for couples who are facing an extreme crisis in their marriage, and who may even feel they are headed for divorce.