Girl Sitting in a Church Large

If you want to get Christian leaders talking, just ask them one simple question: Why are young people leaving the church? More articles have been typed, penned, and scrawled out on napkins on this quandary than perhaps any other topic. Opinions vary from types of music to the way we’re teaching the Bible to the time of our services.

However, Ed Stetzer, president of Lifeway Research, thinks we need to take a deeper look into the data before we begin proscribing solutions. First, he wants us to get our facts straight:

“Dropout is a key word in today's evangelical churches concerning teenagers and young adults. The quote often sounds like this: ’86% of evangelical youth drop out of church after graduation, never to return.’ The problem with that statement (and others around that number) is that it's not true. But that doesn't mean there is no reason for concern.”

According to Lifeway’s multi-year study, in fact, the number of teens who leave the church comes to about 70%. This mainly clusters around teens from 16–19. But, in what may come as a surprise, two-thirds do ultimately return after a “hiatus.” The researchers also found that most of the teens didn’t set out to reject the church or the theology of their parents; they simply drifted away. They no longer found church to be important.

So, what factors kept teens plugged into church? Stetzer points to four important ones revealed by the study:

  • I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life (prior to [the age of] 18).
  • My parents were still married to each other and both attended church (prior to 18).
  • The pastor's sermons were relevant to my life (prior to 18).
  • At least one adult from church made a significant investment in me personally and spiritually (between 15 and 18).

Crosswalk contributor Rebecca Kenney especially wants us to pay attention to that last point. She says that too many adults see teens’ questions and doubts about faith as an attack, but that’s not always the case:

“The questioners are not malicious. They are at a stage of life where everything is changing. The old foundations, the ones their parents laid for them, are being broken up and scraped away to make room for the new foundations on which they will live their adult lives. This doubt is a natural process, part of the free will that God gave to his image-bearers. But it can be frightening for the parents and the youth leadership of the church.

“Most families or churches respond to young doubters in one of three ways. They ignore the question, they separate the questioner, or they prayerfully give an answer.”

What are your thoughts about teens leaving church? Did you leave church as a teen? Why? And what made you come back?

John UpChurch is the senior editor of BibleStudyTools.com and Jesus.org. You’ll usually find him downing coffee at his standing desk (like a boss).