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Squaring Off with Church Dropout

When my father, Thom S. Rainer, and I began looking at research about the young adult population, we were stunned. We knew anecdotally that people leave the church. And studying the latest research, we understood that many leave the church during their young adult years. What we did not realize was the concentration of people that leave during their college-age years.

The dropout number that the research uncovered alarmed us:  70% of young adults drop out between the ages of 18 and 22. The number alone is numbing. Perhaps more distressing are some of the reasons why these students are leaving.

Why Do Dropouts Leave?

Their faith doesn’t look like their parents’ faith. This generation likes to talk about faith. Many believe, rightly or wrongly, that they have faith. Religious matters do not scare them. Most maintain some level of interest in spiritual topics. But this generation must fuse faith and church, or else they see no reason to stay in church. Frankly, the faith of their parents is not reason enough for them to claim it as their own.

One of the most glaring issues of estrangement for 18-22 year-olds is the gap between their personal belief system and their church’s stated beliefs. In other words, the church’s external beliefs, covenant, or confession goes against the personal and internal belief structure of the younger adult crowd. In fact, only 53% of all young adult churchgoers state that they agree with the beliefs of their church. Clearly, the dropout crisis isn’t found in the style, venue, programs, or location of the church. This crisis is much deeper – it runs to the core of the doctrinal truths of the church if only half of our young adults agree with the church’s teachings.

Their lives change, and church attendance gets cut. Ninety-seven percent of dropouts stated that one reason they left the church was a change in their lives. Of all the major categories prompting someone to leave the church, this life change category was by far the most influential.

The top ten life changes that affect the younger generation’s church attendance are as follows:

  1. They simply “want a break” from church.
  2. They move to college.
  3. Work responsibilities change.
  4. They move too far away from church.
  5. They become too busy, though still want to attend.
  6. They spend more time with friends outside of church.
  7. School responsibilities prevent them from attending church.
  8. They want to make life decisions not accepted by the church.
  9. Family and/or home responsibilities prevent them from attending.
  10. They lose touch with churchgoing friends.

They see hypocrisy in the home. The age-old excuse of church hypocrisy has some merit, but our research found a new spin on the issue as it relates to young adults. This time, the problem of hypocrisy isn’t rooted in general perceptions of the church as a whole. The dropouts see spiritual hypocrisy in their own family.

Parents are attending church, and their young adult children see them participating in the worship service. But parents are not offering spiritual guidance to their young adult children. Basically, parents are not doing what they say, or perhaps more appropriately, parents are not saying as they do.

How Can the Church Reclaim Dropouts?

The tone of religious research can be quite negative. Numerous studies, including my own, point to the shortcomings in discipleship, assimilation, and other ministry areas. But I believe that God is still doing a great work in the American church. Quite frankly, many churches out there are reaching the younger generation. Some common themes exist in these churches that help them accomplish the goal of reaching and keeping this generation of dropouts.

By moving from complexity to simplicity. The structure of the church is not nearly as important as other aspects, but the structure is the bones of a church. Without a clear structure, the ministries of the church have little muscle.

Churches that keep dropouts have a simple structure. They have one simple mission statement that everyone knows, not fourteen different statements that have been piecemealed over several years. In this simplicity, they are intentional about a process of discipleship. This process is clear to everyone in the church. In other words, people understand how the church makes disciples, not just what the church slogan is.

One of every five dropouts indicated that they had no meaningful relationships with other members of the church. That is a clear sign of poor structure. A healthy structure is designed with intentionality to move members into small groups, Bible study classes, and ministry groups. It is in the context of those groups that relationships are formed.

A complex church will have a plethora of activities as well as too many organizations and programs. Despite the multitudes of programs, a complex church is typically weak at bringing members into meaningful Christian relationships with one another. Frankly, these churches are just too busy at activities to be intentional at most anything, except maintaining their activities.

By moving from shallowness to depth. Depth and relevance are not mutually exclusive. A church can connect with people without compromising the fundamentals of the faith.

A number of dropouts admitted that they were biblically ignorant. They confessed that they only had a shallow knowledge of biblical doctrines. And while they usually took personal responsibility for their lack of biblical understanding, they also blamed many of the churches for the doctrinal ignorance.

Over half of the church dropouts left the church because of differences or uncertainty about the church’s religious, ethical, or political beliefs. At least part of this problem can be directly attributed to shallow biblical teaching and preaching in the church. One dropout indicated that the doctrinal teaching at his former church was “piecemeal Christianity.”

“I would hear about passages from three or four books of the Bible in a single sermon, but I couldn’t figure out how they tied together,” one dropout told us. “And then I would go to a small group, and we would talk about some great issues, but no one explained how it tied in to the totality of Scripture. I felt so embarrassed about not knowing where the books of the Bible were located, so I taught myself. After four years at that church, I had not received any significant doctrinal teachings. I can’t blame anyone but myself for not being in some church, but I can blame the shallow teachings of my former church for at least part of the reason I left.”

The younger generation is, for the most part, bright and eager to learn. We do them a great disservice by failing to challenge them and instruct them in the depths of God’s word.

By moving from low expectations to high expectations. Most young adults will seek employment. Why? It is expected of them. Most young adults will complete a level of education. Why? It is expected of them. Most young adults will remain loyal to friends and social networks. Why? It is expected of them.

But over two-thirds of young adults that leave the church will drop out before their twenty-second birthday. Why? Church was an option. Church existed to serve them. In most cases, serving others through the church was never an expectation. Low-expectation churches make it too easy for young adults to drop out. And if you don’t expect a behavior, you are unlikely to get it.

Most of recent American church history has had low-expectations. Because the local church was comprised mostly of volunteers, leadership has been reticent to create an environment and attitude of accountability. As a consequence, membership expectations have been communicated with extreme caution, if at all, lest the members become offended and leave.

This low-expectation environment has been normative for most of the churches in which young adults have attended. Most of them have heard very little, if any, of what is expected of them as a church member. As a consequence, they have seen church as a low priority or even optional.

Through parents providing spiritual guidance to their children. “Doing church” is not enough. Parents must talk to their children about why church and spirituality are essential. Children and teens must hear regularly from their parents or guardians as well as seeing their actions:  do as I do, and hear what I say. The spiritual guidance that children hear from their parents weighs equally with the actions they see from them.

By moving from inward decline to outward multiplication. Luke states it as matter-of-fact in Acts 2:47:  “And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.” He makes it seem that multiplication was just a natural part of the New Testament church. Why? Because it was.

The church that is not multiplying, not reaching people, not starting new churches, and not involved in missions is the New Testament anomaly. Unfortunately, we have a lot of anomalies among our churches today.

Many of our churches are producing a lot of soft and self-centered Christians, and the young people in our churches are getting the message. Through the actions of many of our church leaders, they are hearing that the church is all about them, that the church is there to serve them, and that the church is a place for all their needs and desires to be met.

But churches that are outwardly focused are sending a different message:  The church is not all about my needs; it’s about how I can glorify God as I meet the needs of others. This is the irony of the essential church. The outwardly-focused church creates better inwardly-focused assimilation. As our young people meet the needs of others, they see that they are important to the life of the church, and thus they are prone not to enter the ranks of the dropouts.

The church that is essential to the lives of the young adult generation is the church that communicates a process of discipleship through a simple structure. The essential church does not separate depth and relevance; the two go hand-in-hand. The essential church that reclaims dropouts holds this generation to a reasonable level of expectations.  And the church that resonates with the dropout generation is one that maintains a culture of multiplication.   

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Sam Rainer is the lead pastor of West Bradenton Baptist Church and co-hosts the Est.Church podcast. He is the president of Church Answers, the co-founder and co-owner of Rainer Publishing, and the president of Revitalize Network. Sam has a wonderful wife, four fun children, one crazy old dog, and a cat his daughters insisted on keeping. You can read more from Sam at his blog.