By Jack Wilkie
In this series, the crisis of young generations leaving the church in droves will be examined to understand what’s really happening, why they’re leaving, how we can bring them back, and how we can guard the next generation from the same struggles. These articles are taken from Jack Wilkie’s new lesson series “The Lost Generation.” To schedule a seminar at your congregation, contact Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ve all heard about the lost generation. For years we’ve been told about the number of youth who are leaving the church, and articles, blogs, sermons, and books have all been dedicated to addressing the problem. When we really discuss this problem, though, what do we mean? It’s easy to talk about an abstract problem, this idea that some youth are leaving their religious habits as they grow older, but without really breaking down the numbers it’s not possible to fully understand the scope of the problem along with what changes need to take place. We need to analyze and be aware of the dropout numbers that are available, but we also need to be able to look beyond those to some of the more revealing stats, the ones that tell us why.
Let’s start with the stats the denominational world offers. On the very highest end of the spectrum, the Southern Baptist Convention commissioned a study in 2002 that came up with 88% as the dropout rate.i What that would mean, in practical terms, is that for every ten brought up in the Southern Baptist church, only one would remain faithful. Lifeway announced in 2007 that they found that 70% of those reared in a denominational church stop attending for at least a year during their college-age years.ii The Barna Group (an independent research group out of California) announced that their findings pointed to a rate of 61% but an 80% disengagement rate by age 30.iii Can the numbers really be that high?
If the denominational world believes their number to be at 61% on the low end, what numbers do we find outside the denominations? Dr. Flavil Yeakley conducted such a study and presented his results through Freed-Hardeman University in 2008.iv His study suggested a 40% permanent departure rate. He also pointed to one survey in the early 1990s that declared the number to be at 55%. One of the difficulties presented here, though, is that the denominations often have central governments that keep up with attendance statistics and regularly receive reports from their member congregations. The Bible doesn’t provide for such church government, so the groups that have Biblical autonomy will be much harder to track. In any case, if 40% is actually the number, we’re still in a state of disaster.
“Don’t worry about it,” some might say. “It’s a well-known fact that many leave their religious habits in college and return later as they get married and have children.” First of all, this doesn’t make it any more acceptable. What about those who died while gone? What about those whose doubts grow too strong? Also, we can’t just assume that they’ll all return. The stats don’t necessarily agree with that. The Lifeway study found that out of the 70% who leave, just over one-third of those return. As for the notion that marriage and children stabilize religious habits, it also fails to hold up under the stats. Barna found that only 17% of those who left were influenced to return by those facts. There’s another massive problem with this excuse that often goes ignored. Our goal should not and cannot be to just keep twentysomethings in the pews. A Christian is someone who is actively working as a member of the body. Rather than hoping they hang on, we need to be unleashing these young, smart, and talented people into the world as warriors for Christ.
With that in mind, we’re beginning to get to the heart of the matter. When the youth hit the real world and our greatest hope is that they just keep attending “church,” we have failed them. See, the fact that they leave the church physically is the outward symptom of physical failure. We need to focus on the real numbers if we want to understand the problem. Barna did another study on the importance of worldview, and what they found was shocking. Unlike what we at Focus Press mean by worldview, Barna took a very basic definition based on six foundational principles of Christianity – Jesus’ sinless life, God as ruling creator, salvation not earned by works, Satan’s existence, evangelism required, and Biblical accuracy. Only 19% of those who claim to be born again hold to all six, along with only 9% of all Americans. The most disturbing number of all? Only .5% of Americans between 18-23 years old hold all 6.v One out of every two hundred. Why do they leave the church? Because they don’t think like Christians.
By Jack Wilkie