Despite all the fear-driven presentations you’ve heard, not every young person is walking out of the church the moment they finish high school and never coming back.
Here’s what you need to know. The young adults who do drop out of church often lack a firsthand faith—a faith of their own—and a relationship with Christ that matters deeply in their own personal life apart from their parents’ pressure.
I’ve heard some pretty remarkable statistics about church dropouts—I’m sure you have, too. Such as: 94 percent (some say 86 percent) of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return. The problem? Those stats are urban legends. They’ve not been validated, and research has never come to that conclusion.
Let’s explore the actual statistics regarding young adult dropouts, and why they drop out.
The Truth: Some Young Adults Do Drop Out
The reality is there are dropout challenges, but it’s not 94 percent or even 86 percent of evangelicals. Real research shows that faith is rather resilient from one generation to the next—but that does not sell the books, I know!
A few years ago, LifeWay Research examined the issue, looking at some of the things that help young adults stick, stay and have a robust faith. We wanted to know what it takes for a student to continue his or her faith through high school, college, the career years and beyond. (It’s discussed in Essential Faith by Sam and Thom Rainer.)
We looked at the faith of students who attended a Protestant church (mainline or evangelical) twice a month or more for at least one year in high school. Here’s what we found: About 70 percent of young adults ages 18 to 22 stopped attending church regularly for at least one year. Is that a 70 percent dropout rate? With all the nuances and with all the caveats, we’d say so. That’s a dropout rate, a much too high dropout rate. Other research and studies among evangelical youth, however, indicate that number is almost certainly much lower (see the study mentioned earlier). And it should be noted that we found almost two-thirds of those who left in our Protestant study were back in church by the end of the study.
Why Do Young Adults Drop Out?
We also asked young adults why they dropped out of church. Of those who dropped out, about 97 percent stated it was because of life changes or situations. That’s a pretty substantial number. Among their more specific reasons:
- They simply wanted a break from church (27 percent).
- They had moved to college (25 percent).
- Their work made it impossible or difficult to attend (23 percent).
About 58 percent of young adults indicated they dropped out because of their church or pastor. When we probed further, they said:
- Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical (26 percent).
- They didn’t feel connected to the people at their church (20 percent).
- Church members were unfriendly and unwelcoming (15 percent).