Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropout [via the Barna Group]

The Barna Group recently posted some research related to our ongoing questions about what is happening with younger generations at the church. One of our priorities at Eastbrook Church is to empower the next generation to follow Christ over the long-haul. I thought Barna’s research was thought-provoking, particularly as they address common (mis)understandings by folks within the church about what is going on. You can read the entire article here, but I have excerpted some highlights for review below. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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.

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.

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.
Reality: College certainly plays a role in young Christians’ spiritual journeys, but it is not necessarily the ‘faith killer’ many assume. …

“The problem arises from the inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group.”

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.”
Reality: The study examined beliefs across the firm’s 28-year history, looking for generational gaps in spiritual beliefs and knowledge. When comparing the faith of young practicing faith Christians (ages 18 to 29) to those of older practicing Christians (ages 30-plus), surprisingly few differences emerged between what the two groups believe.

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.
Reality: Some faith leaders minimize the church dropout problem by assuming that young adults will come back to the church when they get older, especially when they have children. However, previous research conducted by Barna Group raises doubts about this conclusion.

Furthermore, the social changes since 1960 make this generation much less likely to follow the conventional path to having children: Mosaics (often called Millennials or Gen Y) are getting married roughly six years later than did the Boomers; they are having their first child much later in life; and they are eight times more likely than were the youth of the 1960s to come from homes where their own biological parents were never married.

8 thoughts on “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropout [via the Barna Group]

  1. Have you read Bradley Wright’s book about bad use of stats in the church? Worth reading.

    But to the point, I think 5 is a bigger deal that what he is suggesting. I agree that we should not just assume people will come back. But there is some good evidence that people will come back to church in fairly high numbers as they age (but not necessarily to the same church or denomination).

    I think that 2, 3 and 4 are related more than what Barna is suggesting but are still myths. I have been reading a lot about how christians use scripture and teach scripture. One of the big issues is that many churches are teaching scripture in a way that assumes that everything has to be understood in the exact way that it is taught or else it all falls appart. So when students go to college, it seems that those that have been taught to deal with issues of faith and culture in a way that is not all or nothing seem to be able to handle the transition to adulthood and faith in a way that students that are taught that things are all or nothing cannot.

    But that does not really support Barna’s point all that well.

    • I completely agree with your statement : “One of the big issues is that many churches are teaching scripture in a way that assumes that everything has to be understood in the exact way that it is taught or else it all falls apart.” What are we doing so that everyone in the community is engaged in discovery of the truth of scripture together. What are we doing to get everyone engaged iin living out the scrtipture together. How are we as Church standing out different from the rest of the world as a shining light of love and truth? Our understanding of the word will grow when we come together and encourage one another in the wrestling and wondering.

      • Leslie, your comment here reminds me of something many churches – particularly larger churches – have been grappling with in the last few years. There has been a widespread recognition that we are more apt at feeding people than teaching them to be ‘self-feeders’ in their life with God. A good counterpart question to you questions is how do we equip people to be lifelong disciples, able to grow with Scripture in a way that doesn’t fall apart when difficulties or uncertainties come.

  2. over my years in student ministry I have found that students are leaving their faith at less percentages when certain things are present:

    1. involvement in church as a whole (leading in kids and student ministries).
    2. family that takes active role and seeks out others to help stress importance of Jesus-based community
    3. church doesn’t lose contact when they leave to go off

    My take-away is that churches must seek to give young people a voice in their church now, not later. You might not think they are ready, but who really is; the disciples certainly were not ready but they were still chosen. Interesting. Do we think we know better than Jesus?

    Families also need to realize that community that brings encouragement and accountability and leadership must be forefront in their brains. Too many adults say that their kids are too busy to do this or be involved in that with the church. To them I ask, what is more important, the eternal scope of your childs soul or the club team or earthly success or popularity. The family is the primary spiritual leader, but they need other voices. I need my girls to have other people speaking the truth and love of Jesus into their life.

    Churches need to think creatively about the holistic nature of ministry. We are guilty of being too narrow in our scope of influence. Look at people we program for. Families. Mom and dad and kids. Why are single people disillusioned with church? Why are people not here? Maybe it is because we don’t really give a rip about them.

    I have many more thoughts and ideas but rule #1…dont respond to a blog with a longer blog.

  3. Adam,

    I haven’t read Wright’s book, but did read an excellent article about this by Ed Stetzer, of Lifeway Research, entitled: “Curing Christians’ Stats Abuse” ( It’s also a good – and quicker than a book – read.

    Statistical abuse aside, I appreciate some of the concerns about ministry to younger generations that were highlighted, as well as the challenges we face at this juncture for the church.


  4. I had to check out if I was a prodigal, nomad or exile in college.
    Here is a link to a 9 minute video with David Kinnaman on the subject.

    It’s a challenge to reach this group.
    I have three step-children ages 15, 17, and 19 that I worry about.
    My question is: How do you convince or guide a young adult to want to have a relationship with Jesus?

    I think that I was a combination of all three in my college years. I eventually came back to the church and was born again after being an agnostic who was really exploring the world’s views of spirituality and seriously confused about how being a Christian would look in today’s world. The only reason I came back to the church was because a friend cared enough to pester me to go to church with him in combination with the overwhelming knowledge that God was in heavy pursuit of me.

    I would say the key factor in the loss of young people in church is not having a personal relationship with Jesus. This is something that I was never taught about and did not have being raised in a Lutheran home.

    Thanks Pastor Matt for the thought provoking blog.

  5. I believe the biggest truth in the myth breaking that Barna is doing is that the students are leaving for college disconnected. Many times they have been marginalized in the church, kept in youth groups and not treated as thinking contributing people. They leave youth group never really committed to a church community. Additionally I think that some may not have wrestled with their faith enough. Having been told what to believe, rather than having been challenged to use their minds, engage their hands and develop their hearts they look for ways to engage spiritually in other places that actually engage them fully. Are our churches about more than sitting and listening to a sermon and singing some nice songs once a week? Is youth group about more than playing some silly games and listening to an engaging speaker? Let’s look at what the Church is meant to be and make sure we are bieng it. If not, then students should look else where.

  6. As a youth leader, I take the statistics to heart about students becoming estranged from church during college. But to me, more important is estrangement from God (I think there should be a distinction made). I work fiercely with my group of teenagers (all the while trying to come off as nonchalant…) to encourage them to develop their own relationship with Christ.

    I read a statistic recently that said if a college student doesn’t find a church within 6 weeks of leaving home the risk of estrangement from church is higher. In my personal life, my two sons are evidence of that statistic. Older boy never found a church and is currently declared agnostic. Younger boy found a church right away and made it pretty much his church family and his faith seems to be thriving.

    Then there’s the topic of “perseverence of the saints”: once in a relationship with Christ, He will never lose His grip on you… Where does that fit into this conversation?

    I think, nope I know, our hope is in Christ and as His servants we can and should do our very best to nurture the youth of our church in a right and authentic relationship with Him through the power of the Holy Spirit. And not just with our own biological children, but make all youth that God puts on our path a focus of our considerable prayer and support.

    thanks–good topic–:)

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