Are Your Student Ministries a 4-Year Holding Tank with Pizza?

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 first-hand faith—a faith of their own—and a relationship with Christ that matters deeply in their own personal life apart from their parent’s 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).

Fifty-two percent indicated some sort of religious, ethical or political beliefs as the reason they dropped out. In other words, about 52 percent changed their Christian views. Maybe they didn’t believe what the church taught, or they didn’t believe what they perceived others in the church to believe.

More specifically, 18 percent disagreed with the church’s stance on political or social issues, 17 percent said they were only going to church to please others anyway, and 16 percent said they no longer wanted to identify with church or organized religion.

What Can We Do?

The reason that many church-attending young adults stopped going to church upon graduating from high school? Their faith just wasn’t personally meaningful to them. They did not have a first-hand faith. The church had not become a valued and valuable expression in their life—one that impacts how they live and how they relate and how they grow. Church was perhaps something their parents wanted them do. They may have grown up in church, and perhaps they faced pressure from parents and even peers to be involved in church. But it wasn’t a first-hand faith.

We cannot posture our student ministries to think like and act like a four-year holding tank with pizza. Instead, we need to prepare young adults for the spiritual challenges that will come and the faith questions they will face. Firsthand faith leads to life change and life-long commitment.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
"While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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