When young adults leave church, is it forever?

By Mark A. Kellner
Posted January 28, 2019

It’s news that can break a mother’s heart and make a father weep: a young adult son or daughter has decided to give up on church.

And according to a survey recently released by LifeWay Research, some 66 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 22 say they’ve stopped attending for at least a year.

While that’s not encouraging news, the trend line is slightly down from a similar survey LifeWay conducted ten years earlier. In 2007, the organization reported that the number of young adults dropping out of church was at 70 percent.

“The good news for Christian leaders is that churches don’t seem to be losing more students than they were ten years ago. However, the difference in the dropout rate now and then is not large enough statistically to say it has actually improved,” LifeWay Research executive director Scott McConnell said in a statement.

“The reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within,” McConnell added.

According to the survey, “The five most frequently chosen specific reasons for dropping out were: moving to college and no longer attending (34 percent); church members seeming judgmental or hypocritical (32 percent); no longer feeling connected to people in their church (29 percent); disagreeing with the church’s stance on political or social issues (25 percent); and work responsibilities (24 percent).”

Not Always Politics

Although disagreements over political and social issues seem to get a lot of attention as a reason young adults give up on church, it’s some comfort that this ranks near the bottom of the list of main reasons for such departures. That’s not to say this is of no concern, but it does not seem to be the driver that some in the media claim.

The question of college and church attendance has long concerned parents and church leaders. In many areas, denominations have made impressive outreach efforts to connect with those going away from home for what may be the first extended period of their lives. At the same time, a 2014 study suggested that getting a college education is no longer a “faith-killer” for young adults.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges for young people moving away from home to a new situation. According to LifeWay’s Ben Trueblood, who directs the group’s student ministry arm, “For the most part, people aren’t leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith.”

Trueblood added, “What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: There was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life. The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else.”

When it comes to relationships within a church congregation, of course, feelings of disconnection to church members is not restricted to young adults. And while it’s easy to say that even if there are hypocrites attending worship each week—as is almost certainly the case—at least those hypocrites are hearing a message, that can sometimes be of little comfort to those on the receiving end of judgmental comments.

None of this is necessarily good news for parents who cling to the promise of Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Of course, such training has to be internalized, and weekly attendance can’t be substituted for a personal experience of receiving Christ as Savior and Lord.

It’s Relationship, Not "Religion"

If church is internalized as part of a relationship with God, and not just a routine, it’s more likely that teenagers will continue attending services even after leaving home. According to the 2017 LifeWay survey just released, more than half of those young adults still attending services at least twice a month “say the church was a vital part of their relationship with God (56 percent) and that they wanted the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life (54 percent).”

Again, those attitudes are most likely to develop, in the context of a born-again Christian experience. Jesus explained that to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s Gospel account: “You must be born again” (v. 7).

But what does that mean? Pastor Doug explains this in his study Nicodemus: Born Again, which is available free of charge. You’ll learn the importance of separating religious ritual from a genuine encounter with the living God and with Jesus, God’s Son.

To deepen your understanding of what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, Amazing Facts also provides online training. The Amazing Disciples course is a 12-week adventure that will sharpen your skills, deepen your faith, and ground you in Bible truths for your own life and to share with others.

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