empty-pewsHere is the church, here is the steeple, open the door and…uh oh, where’s all the teen people?  It’s been observed that many teens graduate from church when they graduate from high school, but just how many do so, why do they do so, and what should we do about it?

First, how many are leaving?  Different studies show different results.  Figures range from 40% to 88%.  That’s quite a margin!  Some of the studies appear to be denomination-specific, and it’s not clear that the polling methodology is sound in every case.  The 2007 study from LifeWay Research appears to be the most thorough, accurate, and sound report on the subject to date.  They found that 70% of teens stop attending church for at least a year between the ages of 18-22.  That sound pretty bad, and it is.  But it is not as bad as some prophets of doom have made it out to be.

While upwards of 70% of Christian teens stop attending church upon becoming an adult, it’s not because all of them are giving up their faith.  In fact, according to the LifeWay study, 1/3 return by the time they are 30 (which means 53% of churched teens will still be in church by age 30), and another 30% begin attending church again once a month or less.  When LifeWay asked church dropouts why they stopped attending church, 97% cited some change in life situation such as their work schedule, not being close to a church, or being too busy (many go to college, after all).  Of course, 20% say that they intended to stop attending once they graduated, and 27% confessed that they just wanted a break from church (respondents could select more than one reason).

Pastor and/or church-related issues contributed to the departure of 58% of respondents.  Many felt the people in church were too hypocritical, or simply did not feel connected to the people.  Differences in religious, ethical, or political beliefs were a factor for 52% of teens.  About 1 in 10 (12%) stopped attending church because they were “unsure of the reasons behind my faith.”  Only 7% said they stopped believing in God.

While not every teen that stops attending church does so because s/he no longer believes Christianity is true, this isn’t to dismiss the fact that a sizable minority of teens do abandon their faith after high school, often for intellectual reasons.  Sociologists of religion, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, wrote a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers based on their research of teens’ religious beliefs, practices, and outlook.  They asked teens dropouts, “Why is it that you are no longer religious?”  Smith and Denton recorded the answers as given, and then categorized them by type.  The largest percentage — 32% — cited intellectual skepticism about the truthfulness of Christianity as the main reason they abandoned it (1 out of 3)!  The next closest response was “I don’t know,” coming in at 22%.

What do we need to do to prevent further bleeding?  Several things can be done.  First, I think we need to make apologetics a vital part of youth ministry.  We need to do more than indoctrinate and entertain our young people.  They need to be inoculated against the intellectual attacks often leveled against Christianity in the university and beyond.

We also need to show them how Christianity is relevant to their lives.  We need to live the faith we preach, and we need to actively involve them in the fabric of the church.  We need to cultivate their spiritual life, helping them to make their own connection to God so that Christianity is their religion, and not just their parents’.  We need to help them make spiritual disciplines such as prayer and Bible reading part of their daily routine.  And given the fact that many church dropouts return at the behest of their friends and family (60%), we would do well to encourage our young people to continue attending church during their post-graduation years, to help prevent their leaving in the first place.