Why are Young Doubters Leaving the Church in Large Numbers?

In a recent provocative article by Drew Dyck, a manager in the Church Ministry Media Group at Christianity Today, there are alarming indications that young adults are leaving the church in record numbers. Some question this type of data but increasingly it seems to be beyond dispute. (I have rarely heard discussion of the fact that only 10% of the population attended church in 1800 before the campus revivals of New England and the Second Great Awakening!)

There are some striking mile markers that appear on the road through young adulthood: leaving for college, getting your first job and apartment, starting a career, getting married—and, for many people today, you can add walking away from the Christian faith to this list. Drew Dyck says that sociologists are seeing a major shift taking place among young adults who are moving away from Christianity. Dyck believes: “A faithful response requires that we examine the exodus and ask ourselves some honest questions about why.”

Recent studies have brought this exodus trend to light. Among the findings released in 2009 from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), one stood out more than any other. The percentage of Americans claiming "no religion" almost doubled in nearly two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend wasn't confined to one region. Those marking "no religion” made up the only group to have grown in every state, from the secular Northeast to the conservative Southeast. The “Nones” were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. The study also found that 73 percent of “Nones” came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as "de-converts." This is staggering no matter how you cut it. People who were churched have intentionally left the church.

agcover165 Other survey results have been grimmer. At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their new book American Grace, which I have recently been reading and find powerfully important for understanding the present religious context of America. Putnam and Campbell report that "young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago)." Again, this news is grim if you care about the future of the church in America.

A corresponding drop in church involvement is also evident in this recent research. Rainer Research says that approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be "disengaged" by the time they are 29. Barna Group president David Kinnaman described the reality in these extremely bleak words: "Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church (or live within your community of believers) in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That's the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate through their faith during the next two decades."

book In his most important book unChristian, David Kinnaman relayed his findings from thousands of interviews with young adults. Among his many conclusions he discovered that: "The vast majority of outsiders [to the Christian faith] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals." Kinnaman says 65 percent of all American young people report having made a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point. The problem here is not simply reaching non-Christians but what to do with a whole generation of ex-Christians, most of whom already tried evangelical religion in some form.

A handful of researchers insist that the dramatic drop-off in 20-something spirituality is no real cause for alarm. They view the exodus from the church as a hiatus, a matter of many post-collegiate Americans "slapping the snooze" on Sunday mornings.

Sociologist Bradley Wright, whose book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told was given to me a few weeks ago by a friend Wright says this trend of young people leaving the faith is "one of the myths" of contemporary Christianity. Wright adds that older generations have always pushed the alarm button when it comes to the younger generation coming behind them. (I find this to self-evident, but not persuasive.) Wright describes himself as a youth sporting "longish hair and a disco-print shirt," and asks, "Do you think the adults of that generation had any faith in the future based on teens like us?" Though he acknowledges that "we can't know for sure what will happen," he believes the best bet is that history will repeat itself: "… young people commonly leave organized religion as they separate from their families, but then rejoin when they start families of their own." I see much more in this leaving trend than Wright does and find little to be assured of by in his positive spin.

Rodney Stark, a Baylor University scholar that I have immense respect for personally, urges calm about this present trend. He concedes that data from his school's research mirror that of the above studies, but insists: "Young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than older people. A bit later in life when they have married, and especially after children arrive, they become more regular [church] attendees. This happens in every generation." Again, I agree with Stark in a broad sense but something about this generation, and the lack of so much that is essentially Christian in their personal formation, alarms me very deeply.

These more positive scholars remind us that bleak and dire predictions have failed in the past. But they also offer us profoundly little spiritual reason as to why it might happen again. The facts are plain to see, “Young people are leaving at five to six times the historic rate," say Putnam and Campbell.

Dyck opined that the life-phase argument may no longer pertain in this instance. I could not agree more. “Young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it's much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely.”

Past generations may have rebelled for a season of life, and then come back to church. But remember, they inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. For those reared in scientific naturalism, pluralism and post-Christian America, the cultural concerns that have brought previous generations back to the faith have been weakened beyond recognition. I believe we must begin to re-evangelize and this will require an entirely new approach to reaching those who have de-converted in significant numbers.