(November 16, 2011). Five Myths about Young Adult Church Droupouts. Barna Group.
Think you know why young adults drop out of church? Think again. New research from the Barna Group suggests that many commonly held ideas about youth, such as the notion that college experiences are the leading cause of youth dropping out of church after Youth Group, are not as true as we might think. The following are five commonly held beliefs about young adults and church, and what the research shows about them:
1. Most people lose their faith after High School. The loss of faith that happens between high school and adulthood may not be as cut and dry as one might think. The Barna Group research outlines three distinct patterns in the ways in which young adults lose faith:
- Prodigals. Of those who grew up with a Christian background, one out of nine say that they lost their faith sometime in the distant past.
- Nomads. Four out of every ten young Christians simply wander away from the institutional church. This does not necessarily mean that they have lost their faith, but rather for one reason or another have lost a desire to participate in organized religion.
- Exiles. Two out of every ten young Christians reported feeling as if they were lost between “church culture” and the wider society. These Christians are looking for a way to follow Jesus and yet live in the “real world” with all its challenges and temptations.
2. Dropping out of church is a natural part of the maturation process. According to the research, countless millions of young adult Christians never lose their faith or drop out of church at all. If this myth were correct, the research would most likely show vastly different and vastly more depressing results. In addition, and perhaps more surprisingly, is that the patterns of young adults leaving the church have not always been normative. Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) “appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults.” This trend, coupled with social media technologies which give teens new ways to connect with the world, are giving rise to what the Barna Group has shown to be “spiritually the most eclectic generation the nation has seen.”
Thus, while dropping out of church is a relatively recent but growing phenomenon, it is not a part of the normal maturation process of young adults. According to David Kinnaman, one of the authors of this study, “today’s young adults who drop out of faith are continuing something the Boomers began as a generation of spiritual free agents. Yet, today’s dropout phenomenon is a more intractable, complex problem.”
3. College experiences are a major factor in causing young adults to drop out of church. While it is true that college and college experience play a role in the spiritual journeys of young adults, they are not necessarily as much of a determining factor in loss of faith as one might think. The research shows that “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.”
4. This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.” In fact, when comparing the Biblical knowledge of young Christians ages 18-29 with those of older Christians aged 30 and over, they found surprisingly few differences. While young Christians were found to be biblically illiterate in some areas, they were not found to be more so than other older Christians.
What the research does show that is surprising, however, is that “older non-Christians were more familiar than younger non-Christians with Bible stories and Christian theology, even if they did not personally embrace those beliefs.” This shows in part that “the broader culture seems to be losing its collective understanding of Christian teachings.”
5. Young people will come back to the church like they always do. In the past, the dropout problem in the church has been overlooked our downplayed by church leaders because of this notion. Yet, research conducted by the Barna Group has shown differently. Changes in social dynamics such a growing trend towards getting married and having children later in life, are causing more and more young Christian dropouts to not return to the faith they previously professed.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What, if anything, about the above information surprises you? Why does it surprise you?
- Would you describe yourself as a nomad, and exile, or a prodigal, as described above? Explain your answer.
- Given the above question, would you agree or disagree with the categories given? Would you add any of your own, or do you think that these are apt descriptions for why young adults leave the church?
- Does it surprise you at all that young Christians were not found to be more or less Biblically literate than older Christians? Why or why not?
- David Kinneman concludes that “most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.” While this is a somewhat positive statement in regards to the faith of our youth, it has profound implications for what “church” may look like in the future. If more and more young people continue to drop out of conventional church while at the same time retaining the faith of their parents, then conventional church as we know it is in grave danger of becoming a thing of the past.
- Church leaders must find new ways of teaching the value of traditional church as Scripture intended it to be; a place where young and old Christians alike can gather and worship in community. Christians were designed to be in community, and Christianity as a whole is in danger of falling apart if that desire for community ceases to exist. Perhaps, however, as the advent of social media and global communication continues to redefine “community,” church, too, will change with the times. Whether or not these changes will be positive steps for the advancement of the Gospel into the next century remains to be seen.
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