Dropouts and Disciples: How many students are really leaving the church?

by Ed Stetzer

The folks at Modern Reformation magazine asked me to share a bit about dropouts. You can read the article here. I wrote an expanded version that I thought I would share:

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.

80% of young people who dropped out of church said they did not plan to do so during high school.

LifeWay Research data shows that about 70% of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school do, in fact, drop out—but don’t miss the details. Of those who left, almost two-thirds return and currently attend church (in the timeframe of our study). Also, that dropout rate is from all Protestant churches—evangelical and mainline.


Church attendance among teens and young adults follows some important patterns. There are always some coming and some going. Yet something significant happens between the ages of 17 and 19 that accounts for the vast majority of those who leave. At age 17, the twice- monthly attendance of our study sample drops as follows:

  • 16–17, drop 10%
  • 17–18, drop 14%
  • 18–19, drop 13%

Between 17 and 19 is where the drop takes place. Our study was of those who attended regularly for at least a year in high school—so our sample is not representative of all teens and young adults, but clearly something is happening in that age range…

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