Are Young People Leaving the Church in Droves?

By Glenn Stanton
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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:

Yes:

  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.

No:

  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.

Nones:

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.

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    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. …

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