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Sunday School Dropouts: Debunking a Bad-News Myth About Kids

Sunday school dropouts

Preventing church and Sunday school dropouts is crucial. How do we keep kids from leaving the faith? First, we need to debunk a myth.

“So tell me,” I asked. “Why do you want to move your church toward a family ministry model?” The two ministry leaders I’d met with were sincere, good people. Both were passionate about the gospel and faithful to Scripture. Their church had asked me to help them minister more effectively to families.

“Well,” the pastor said, “nine out of 10 kids drop out of church after they graduate. Evidently, what we’re doing isn’t working.”

“Mm-hmm,” the children’s director agreed. “We want to do so much better than that.”

“Is your church actually losing that many?” I asked. They looked at each other before shrugging.

“I don’t really know,” the pastor replied. “We don’t see them after they graduate. Sometimes that’s because they’re involved in another church, I guess.”

The children’s director continued, “If we had programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the loss.”

“I’ll do everything I can to help your church,” I said. “But first, let’s rethink your reasons for considering these changes. Because the problem you think is the problem is probably not the problem at all.”

Here’s why these two ministry leaders—and scores of others—need to rethink their motivations. The nine-out-of-10 dropout number isn’t true. It was never true, yet many church leaders still believe it.

Take a trip with me to the origins of this statistic. And discover why it’s long past time to put this lie about church and Sunday school dropouts to rest.

Gut Feelings About Church & Sunday School Dropouts Aren’t Good Statistics

This lie about church and Sunday school dropouts didn’t start as a lie. It was a well-intended, casual survey that metamorphosed far beyond what anyone envisioned. Years ago, a doctoral student named Brandon Shields discovered the earliest sources of the 90 percent statistic.

Apparently, it began in the 1990s when Jay Strack, a conference speaker, invited a roomful of youth ministers to share gut feelings about how many youth were dropping out of church after high school. When Strack summed up the responses, he came up with a 90 percent rate of church and Sunday school dropouts.

Strack later reported that he never intended his statistic to be interpreted as fact. Once he repeated the information a few times, though, other leaders began to reiterate the 90 percent dropout rate as truth. It spread quicker than a stomach virus in a cabin full of middle schoolers halfway through a week of camp.

Nothing is wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. But conversational “surveys” will never result in reliable statistics. In this instance, the collective estimates of a few ministers resulted in exaggerated percentages that received tremendous publicity and eventually ended up in ministry resources.

Later claims escalated the hysteria about church and Sunday school dropouts. A popular book published in 1997 claimed that only four percent of young people surveyed at that time were born-again Christians. As a result, the author claimed, “According to present trends, we are about to lose eternally the second largest generation in America’s history.”

The truth is, this survey spanned only three U.S. states and included information from a mere 211 youth. (To be fair, at least the author was transparent on his methodology.) Other leaders then trumpeted the “trend” as a harbinger of impending doom.

Bad News Is Big News

It’s easy to point accusing fingers at the sources of statistics, but the problem isn’t really the numbers. These numbers arose from well-intended attempts to assess the effectiveness of church ministries. The more problematic question is, Why are we so willing to wallow in the worst possibilities, even when those possibilities aren’t well-founded?

We get excited about bad news.

Human nature relishes the discovery of a hidden crisis. Once we’ve discovered that crisis, we rarely keep the news to ourselves. We spread bad news and, with each retelling, we tend to stretch it. That’s why God warns: “Do not go about spreading slander” (Leviticus 19:16).

In a Wall Street Journal article, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson provided a clear example of this phenomenon: “The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by Barna Research claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation.”

The tendency to turn bad news into big news doesn’t completely explain how rapidly these numbers spread through churches. I suggest an additional reason. Since the 1950s, a fun-and-games approach dominated many youth ministries. In the 1990s, a new generation of youth ministers emerged. These leaders were quickly frustrated with the assumption that a youth minister’s role was primarily to entertain adolescents.

The news that youth ministry had failed to keep kids connected to the church resonated with these young leaders’ existing feelings of frustration.

This widespread frustration yielded some very positive results. This frustration fueled the development of healthier ministry strategies than the fun-and-games approaches the youth ministers had inherited. The results included ministry approaches that emphasized discipleship, community and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships. The good news is that many constructive outcomes were propelled forward by spreading twisted statistics.

Is the Sky Really Falling?

Serious questions remain: What are the real numbers of church and Sunday school dropouts? How many of today’s children will still be in the church in two decades? Answers to these questions vary, partly because of the wide range of definitions of what it means to be involved in church.