Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts
The Barna Group team spent much of the last five years exploring the lives of young people who drop out of church. The research provides many insights into the spiritual journeys of teens and young adults. The findings are revealed extensively in a new book called, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith.
The research uncovered five myths and realities about today’s young dropouts.
Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.
Reality: There has been considerable attention paid to the so-called loss of faith that happens between high school and early adulthood. Some have estimated this dropout in alarming terms, estimating that a large majority of young Christians will lose their faith. The reality is more nuanced. In general, there are three distinct patterns of loss: prodigals, nomads, and exiles.
One out of nine young people who grow up with a Christian background lose their faith in Christianity—a group described by the research team as prodigals. In essence, prodigals say they have lost their faith after being a Christian at some time in their past.
More commonly, young Christians wander away from the institutional church—a pattern the researchers labeled nomads. Roughly four out of ten young Christians fall into this category. They still call themselves Christians but they are far less active in church than they were during high school. Nomads have become ‘lost’ to church participation.
Another two out of ten young Christians were categorized as exiles, those who feel lost between the “church culture” and the society they feel called to influence. The sentiments of exiles include feeling that “I want to find a way to follow Jesus that connects with the world I live in,” “I want to be a Christian without separating myself from the world around me” and “I feel stuck between the comfortable faith of my parents and the life I believe God wants from me.”
Overall, about three out of ten young people who grow up with a Christian background stay faithful to church and to faith throughout their transitions from the teen years through their twenties.
David Kinnaman, who directed the research, concluded: “The reality of the dropout problem is not about a huge exodus of young people from the Christian faith. In fact, it is about the various ways that young people become disconnected in their spiritual journey. Church leaders and parents cannot effectively help the next generation in their spiritual development without understanding these three primary patterns. The conclusion from the research is that most young people with a Christian background are dropping out of conventional church involvement, not losing their faith.”
Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation.
Reality: First, this line of reasoning ignores that tens of millions of young Christians never lose their faith or drop out of church. Thus, leaving church or losing faith should not be a foregone conclusion.
Second, leaving church has not always been normative. Evidence exists that during the first half of the 1900s, young adults were not less churched than were older adults. In fact, Boomers appear to be the first American generation that dropped out of church participation in significant numbers when they became young adults. So, in one sense, the Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) were part of the evolution of the church dropout phenomenon during the rise of youth culture of the 1960s.
In addition to continuing the dropout pattern of previous generations, today’s teens and young adults (identified by Barna Group as Mosaics) are spiritually the most eclectic generation the nation has seen. They are also much less likely than prior generations to begin their religious explorations with Christianity…
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