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

Here are a handful of ways researchers separate the churched from the unchurched:

  • Since 1978, a yearly Gallup Poll has identified respondents as “unchurched” if they answered either of these questions negatively: “Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?” and “Apart from weddings, funerals, or special holidays, have you attended the church or synagogue of your choice in the past six months, or not?” In recent years, “mosque” has been added alongside “church” and “synagogue.”
  • Another survey from Gallup, released in 2002, asked teenagers and young adults whether they’d attended “church or synagogue in the past seven days.”
  • In 2006, the Barna Group defined young adults as having been “churched” if they’d attended church regularly for at least two months at any time during their teenage years.
  • In 2007, LifeWay Research identified young adults as having been regular church attendees if they’d attended church twice a month or more for at least a year during high school.

With such disparate definitions of what it means to participate in church, even the best research designs will produce a variety of results. Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw the following valid inferences from the data.

Young adults have been church and Sunday school dropouts for a long time.

Young adult dropouts don’t represent a recent trend. At least since the 1930s, involvement in religious worship services has followed a similar pattern: Frequency of attendance declines among young adults in their late teens and early 20s and then rebounds by the time they turn 30.

The percentage of Protestants who attend church weekly has remained remarkably stable over the past few decades. Forty-two percent of all Protestants attended church weekly in the 1950s; 45 percent of Protestants made it to church every week in the early 21st century. In 1955, 38 percent of Protestant 20-somethings showed up at church weekly; today, 40 percent of Protestant young adults are weekly attendees. How many kids drop out of church after their high school years?

The LifeWay Research Teenage Dropout Study provides one of the best available snapshots on this subject. I don’t entirely agree with LifeWay’s choice to define regular church attendance as showing up at least twice-a-month for one year. (When I was a youth and children’s minister, twice-a-month kids were in my “strong prospect” file, not in my “regular attender” file!) Nevertheless, the numbers from LifeWay are statistically reliable.

According to this study, 70 percent of young adults who had attended church twice a month or more for at least a year during high school dropped out after high school. Even with LifeWay’s extremely generous definition of church involvement, the dropout rate is at least 20 percent lower than the nine-out-of-10 statistic. Among young adults who attended church three or four times per month as teenagers, the dropout rate is likely lower.

Many young adults come back.

Sometime between their mid-20s and their early 30s, a significant number of dropouts return. According to LifeWay, 35 percent of young adult dropouts return to church at least twice a month by the time they’re 30.

What causes 30-somethings to come back to church? Influence from parents or other family members was a deciding factor in 39 percent of returns; friends at church were influential 21 percent of the time. One out of five dropouts came back after they married; one-fourth returned because they had children. Other factors in these comebacks included an inner sense that God was calling them to return.

Young adults aren’t just dropping out–they’re also dropping in.

Here’s good news that rarely shows up in news stories: According to the biannual General Social Survey, the percentage of young adults attending weekly worship services has risen steadily since 2000.