WHY TEENS ARE LEAVING IN
BY REBECCA GRACE, AFA Journal May 2008
is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors. Where are all the
Seventy percent of the people, 23 to 30 years old, are nowhere to be
found in church on a regular basis for at least a year between the ages
of 18 and 22. They become church dropouts, according to a 2007 study
from LifeWay Research.
These students who attended a Protestant church at least twice a month
for at least one year during high school are leaving the church, and
most of them are doing so during their first year of college.
Findings from the study, in which 1,023 adults, ages 18 to 30, were
surveyed, reveal that 97% of dropouts give specific life-change issues
as their reason for leaving. Only 20% of the dropouts predetermined
their post high school departure.
“The most frequent reason for leaving church is, in fact, a self-imposed
change, ‘I simply wanted a break
from church’ (27%),” according to a LifeWay report summarizing the
study. “The path toward college and the workforce are also strong
reasons for young people to leave church: ‘I moved to college and
stopped attending church’ (25%) and ‘work responsibilities prevented me
from attending’ (23%).”
Following are some similar findings cited by the Youth Transition Network
(YTN), a coalition of some of the nation’s largest denominations and
ministries that are working together to help reduce the dramatic loss of
youth from the church:
“An Assemblies of God study showed a loss of 66% of
their students within one year of high school graduation.”
“A Southern Baptist transition project estimates an 82%
loss of youth within one year of high school graduation.”
“Fifty to eighty percent of high school students walk
“As someone who recognizes the importance of an
ever-growing faith, especially during the college years, these are
staggering statistics,” said Cyndi Forman, campus minister of the
Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) of Georgia Tech and Emory University.
“The statistics are sad, disappointing and dangerous, all at the same
While there are a host of reasons – or excuses – for young adults leaving
the church, a significant concern is that it happens so frequently when
high school seniors become college freshmen. Unfortunately, this falling
away is more than just a leave of absence from church; it’s a departure
from faith prompted by a misunderstanding of the Gospel.
Teacher, apologist and author Voddie Baucham explains it best when he
says going to church doesn’t make one a follower of Christ anymore than
standing in a garage makes one a car. However, church attendance and
communion with the body of Christ are desires that flow from an
individual heart that’s been changed by the Gospel.
“For many students, when they come to college, they have yet to begin to
own their faith, to make it personal,” Forman said. “They are still
relying on the faith of their parents, their church, even their friends.
It’s not something they have committed to in such a way that they can
stand solidly on it, no matter what comes.”
According to the LifeWay report, “How young people use their time and the
relationships they choose can also lead them away from church.
Twenty-two percent ‘became too busy, though still wanted to attend,’ and
17% ‘chose to spend more time with friends outside the church.’”
“Gone are the days in which young adults attend because they are
‘supposed to,’” added Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay
Research. “Only 10% of those who continued attending church did so to
please others. Young adults whose faith truly became integrated into
their lives as teens are much more likely to stay in church. If church
did not prove its value during their teen years, young adults won’t want
to attend – and won’t attend.”
Jeff Schadt, founder and executive director of YTN, believes it all boils
down to external versus internal motivation. Living a life of faith must
come from an inward desire prompted by the Holy Spirit and compelled by
the love of Christ. Too often, parents and ministry leaders become the
“walking Holy Spirit” in a young person’s life.
For example, Schadt explained how external motivation must be used when
children are young to help them make good decisions.
“But as they get older, we need to be like Jesus was with His disciples,”
Schadt said, meaning parents and ministry leaders need to allow teens to
make their own decisions based on what has been taught to and modeled
Mike Whelan, senior campus minister of the BCM of Georgia Tech, knows how
important it is to the growth of a young person’s faith for his family
to give him responsibilities based on a level of trust. It’s good for
parents to be involved, but students who have “helicopter parents”
hovering over them are at a disadvantage. Helicopter parents are those
who still call the dorm rooms to wake their children up for class.
“We’re so afraid sometimes as parents … [that kids are] going to do these
bad things [i.e., drinking, drugs, sex, partying], and we don’t want
them to do those things, so we restrict them by giving them rules with
consequences, …” Schadt explained. He said this legalistic approach
teaches teens to do the right things merely to avoid getting in trouble.
Therefore, teens are working together – often with their youth group
peers – to get around the rules because they only see Christianity as a
list of dos and don’ts. When they don’t meet those standards, they view
themselves as failures, and their hearts become numb as they walk in
sin. It’s more about doing right because their parents will ground them
if they don’t, rather than being right before the Lord.
“Then they hit college, and they haven’t learned any of the reasons for
making these decisions on their own, and there is no one there to take
away the car keys anymore,” Schadt added.
Perhaps, in their hearts, youth start “walking away” from the church much
sooner than the end of high school. It’s just that when they go to
college they are, for the first time, no longer under the
authority-control of family influence, explained Whelan.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City,
refers to this so-called faith as a Pharisaic religion, which is
practiced in numerous churches today and leads many people, including
young adults, astray.
In his new book titled The Reason for God (See Page 18.), Keller wrote:
“Recall the ‘sickness unto death,’ the spiritual deep nausea we
experience when we fail to build our identity on God. We struggle for a
sense of worth, purpose, and distinctiveness, but it is based on
conditions that we can never achieve or maintain, and that are always
slipping away from us.
“Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject
Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their
experience, …” he continued. “Pharisees and their unattractive lives
leave many people confused about the real nature of Christianity.”
The right way
Therefore, it’s imperative for youth ministry to be more
than just a “holding tank with pizza,” as referred to by Ed Stetzer,
director of LifeWay Research.
In other words, youth want and need church to be more than just a pizza
party where they get a five-minute devotional amidst the entertainment.
Based on research, Stetzer said youth want to know how to live life.
Church involvement that has made a real difference in their lives is a
significant reason they keep attending church, even after high school.
“Clearly the reasons young people leave are a reflection both of their
past experience in church and the new opportunities they have as young
adults,” McConnell explained. “To remain in church, a person must have
experienced the value of the teaching and relationships at church and
see the relevance for the next phase of life.”
The LifeWay study identified several tangible ways parents and churches
could be influential factors when it comes to keeping youth in church
once they leave high school. There must be proven value in church
attendance, relevant preaching, time investment in the young people’s
lives, and family members who live out an authentic Christian faith.
While these influences are certainly significant, at the end of the day
the hearts of the youth must be transformed by the Gospel in order for
church attendance to make sense. Otherwise, going to church is pointless
and meaningless, and the ways of the world become so attractive,
especially at the pivotal point of transition from high school to
“A college campus is a new, exciting, vibrant place for a freshman.
Suddenly everything they ever wanted to do and everything they didn’t
want to do is available, with limited restrictions and expectations,”
Forman explained. “For a student who has not wholeheartedly committed to
strengthen his faith while at college, the possibilities that college
offers can be overwhelming and overpowering. The voice of new friends,
new adventures, and a new future is often much louder than the voice of
God whispering to the heart and soul.”
“Whether teens are bombarded with positive or negative influences about
church, they all make their own decisions about whether to continue or
stop attending,” Stetzer said. “This study shows the benefit of parents
and church members faithfully doing their part, but in the final
analysis, we must leave it in the hands of God to work in their lives.”
“Students who have determined in their hearts and minds to stay committed
to their God (not their mother’s God or their youth minister’s God) no
matter the cost, will be able to better handle the dangers of college,”
Forman added. “But for the students who participated in a shallow faith
during high school just because it was ‘the thing to do,’ college has a
great chance of being the breaking point for them, where they leave
behind what was ‘cool’ in high school and do what is ‘cool’ in college,
which probably won’t be relentlessly pursuing God with everything they
What do you think about this article?