You’ve likely heard for years that 88 percent of churched high schoolers drop out of the church—permanently—by the time they graduate from college. Well, we challenged a class of youth ministry students at Bethel College in Indiana to either debunk or support the claim, and one student had no trouble blowing it out of the water.
by tom carpenter
Editor’s Note: In the fall of 2006 I taught a Saturday Seminar at Bethel College in Indiana—I spent the day leading a roomful of undergrads on a search-and-destroy mission that targeted five of youth ministry’s most notorious myths. As part of the for-credit course, students were required to write a graded paper. I gave them many topic options, but I also promised to publish any well-researched article that could dispel or support the much-repeated assertion that nine out of 10 church-attending high schoolers will drop out of church by the time they graduate from college. This article by Bethel student Tom Carpenter floored me, so I’m keeping my promise. —Rick Lawrence, editor
A couple of months ago I attended a volunteer training meeting at my church—a congregation of around 3,000 people. During the meeting the senior pastor got up to challenge me and the hundreds of people gathered there to look at ministry differently. His presentation pivoted around a much-quoted statistic in youth ministry today—that 88 percent of churched high schoolers will abandon their faith by the time they graduate from college.
I’d already heard this apocalyptic stat quoted many times, in many other contexts, but had never heard its source. So I emailed two pastors from the church to ask where they’d found that 88 percent. A few weeks and many emails later, neither could tell me anything about the stat’s origins.
If this was an isolated experience, you could chalk it up to simple carelessness. But this stat has been used as a kind of hot cattle prod in youth ministry for so long and so often, that it’s really a scandal that so few know its source or truthfulness.
Well, this article is my attempt to track down both the stat’s “lineage” and its “character.” For starters, the stat comes from the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on Family Life, which released a 2002 report that found roughly 88 percent of evangelical young people leave the church after they graduate from high school. That number is not only shocking and upsetting, but my analysis of its substance shows it’s also false.
CSI: Bad Stat
In contrast to the SBC’s 88 percent figure, mainstream researchers who are gathering information on church attendance say the dropout rate for churchgoing youth entering their 20s is much lower—they also assert that the majority of these dropouts later return to the church as active members later in life.
In June 2002 The Gallup Poll reported the results of a study that attempted to map the religious cycles people move through over the course of their lives. In the report, George Gallup Jr. said: “Although religion plays an important role in the lives of many teenagers, religiosity tends to drop off as teens enter adulthood, and then gradually increase again as young adults mature.”1 Gallup didn’t confine his study to evangelical Christians. His central question was: “Did you attend church or synagogue in the past seven days or not?” This graph (left) shows “yes” answers.
Did you attend church or synagogue in the past seven days or not?
13-15 years 54%
16-17 years 51%
18-29 years 32%
30-49 years 39%
50-64 years 44%
65-74 years 50%
75+ years 60%
Here’s my shorthand analysis. In the decade following high school graduation, about 20 percent of churched young people stop attending church regularly. This 20 percent drop in overall attendance among young adults who are 18-29 represents 40 percent of those aged 16-17 who reported weekly church attendance.
This means that the dropout rate among churched teenagers is actually 40 percent, not 88 percent.
This study was released the exact same year as the Southern Baptist Convention’s study. In addition, Gallup’s overall 20 percent drop in church attendance among young people closely mirrors another Gallup finding released in June 2006. 2 This time the pollster looked at American’s patterns of switching churches, denominations, and religions. As part of that broader pursuit, the study also marked the percentage of people who are moving away from any religion completely.
You can see that 19 percent of twentysomethings have turned their backs (at least temporarily) on their faith. And that figure matches the earlier 2002 finding.
percentage of adult population that moved away from any religion whatsoever (by age)
18-29 year olds 19%
30-49 year olds 10%
50-64 year olds 9%
65 and older 6%
What Would Barna Do?
Meanwhile, in September 2006, Christian pollster George Barna released a study that specifically looked at the number of twentysomethings who put their faith on hold. Barna reported: “The most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings—61 percent of today’s young adults—had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged.”3
Twentysomethings struggle to stay active in church
churched as teen, spiritually active at age 29 20%
churched as teen, disengaged during twenties 61%
never churched as teen, still unconnected 19%
Barna’s 61 percent is obviously a lot higher than Gallup’s 40 percent—I think there are two explanations for the discrepancy. First, Barna describes people as “churched” if they’ve attended church for two or more months sometime during their teenage years. Second, Barna considers people “disengaged” from their faith if they’re not actively going to church, reading their Bible, and praying.
I think Barna’s standard for “churched” is way too broad—it includes young people who show up at church for a couple of months but never return. That’s hardly a common-sense definition of “churched,” which implies an ongoing commitment. On the other hand, his standards for disengagement are way too strict. For example, I’m a college student and I know from experience it’s harder for my Christian peers to attend church regularly and keep up a habit of daily Bible study—but if you struggle in either area you’re considered disengaged. The truth is, most senior highers who go to church regularly get a lot of help with that from their parents, and they have better access to transportation and fewer responsibilities. Because of these flaws in Barna’s methodology, I believe his statistic is artificially inflated.
The Rest of the Story
Now, even though 40 percent of churchgoing teenagers go AWOL during their 20s, most don’t stay away (and I think it’s unfair to lay the blame at youth ministry’s doorstep anyway—more on that later). Gallup’s 2002 study shows that church attendance creeps back to teenage levels by the time people reach the age of 65. So either the church is successfully evangelizing around 20 percent more of the never-churched adult population by age 74 and we’re just not hearing much about it, or many of the young adults who left the church in their 20s are returning.
Gallup says: “Religion becomes more important again as young adults progress through their 20s, possibly marry, have children, and settle down…Many Americans want religion to play a role in their children’s lives, and this desire may draw people back into their religious communities.”
Now, I can’t prove what I’m about to say, but I’m compelled to say it anyway…I think one reason four out of 10 young people stop going to church during their college years has a lot to do with their positive experiences in youth ministry. In their youth groups many of my friends experienced authentic community, but when they left high school they found nothing close to that community available for post-grads. They went from playing an important role in something greater than themselves—a close Christian community—to either a weak or nonexistent community. It’s a notorious gap in the church’s ministry options.
In his book Youth Ministry in the 21st Century (Group), Rick Lawrence writes that “teenagers will welcome a relationship with Christ after someone welcomes them into a community of loving Christians.” This is true of teenagers—how much more true is it of young adults? We’re created by God to crave community, but right now most churches don’t provide the staff or resources to initiate intimate community for young adults.
In his research Barna found that: “Twentysomethings were nearly 70 percent more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they ‘cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.’ “ He also says that “young adults are just as likely…to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church.”
The truth between the stats is this: Although the research shows that 40 percent of churchgoing teenagers drop out of church during their 20s, they’re not necessarily dropping out of their Christian faith. In fact, Gallup’s insights into “boomerang” Christians—people who return to the church at some point during their lifetime—implies that many of these former church dropouts had turned their backs on the church, not on Christ. Most of my friends want to grow closer to Christ in a community like the one they had in their youth ministry.
So the failure here may have little to do with youth ministry and much more to do with a church that’s been slow in bridging the young-adult gap. As the dropouts enter their 30s, get married, and have kids, they start returning to the church, where they find plenty of ministries available for adults with children.
Of course, a dropout rate of 40 percent is nothing to celebrate—we should pay better attention to the forces driving young people away from the church. But it’s wrong to blast “ineffective” youth ministries when they may represent the solution to the problem, not its source.
tom is a senior youth ministry major at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. He’s a teaching intern for professor Terry Linhart, Ph.D.
evangelicals behaving badly with statistics
by christian smith
Editor’s Note: This short piece by Christian Smith is excerpted from a longer article he wrote for the January/February 2007 issue of Books & Culture—a sister publication to Christianity Today (go to www.christianitytoday.com/books to check it out).
American evangelicals, who profess to be committed to Truth, are among the worst abusers of simple descriptive statistics (which claim to represent the truth about reality). At stake in this misuse is evangelicals’ own integrity, credibility with outsiders, and effectiveness in the world. It’s an issue worth making a fuss over.
“Simple descriptive statistics” help quantify differences in the world. Now, I don’t believe the ability to quantify is the true test of authoritative knowledge. But I do think that statistics can often usefully represent what is going on in reality.
Of course, statistics are well-known for their easy misuse. Anyone can twist, misrepresent, and lie with statistics. And it takes a bit of basic knowledge for people to avoid common statistical pitfalls. But none of that exempts evangelicals from the imperative to use statistics responsibly. The problem is, they often do not.
Why do evangelicals recurrently abuse statistics? They’re usually trying desperately to attract attention and raise people’s concern in order to mobilize resources and action for some cause. In a world awash in information and burdened by myriad problems, it’s understandable that some evangelicals may indulge the misuse of statistics to get people to pay attention. But this is inexcusable. Such desperation, alarmism, and sloppiness reflect the worst, not the best, in evangelicalism.
The point is not that all evangelical leaders need an M.A. in statistics or should hire statisticians. But for heaven’s sake! All it takes is a phone call to a social science faculty member at a nearby evangelical college to check the reliability and validity of a statistical claim. I’m not pushing for the authority of experts. The last thing the world needs is more “expert worship.” I’m actually arguing for the opposite: for ordinary evangelical leaders, pastors, and organizational staffers to better exercise their God-given minds on basic matters of percents, averages, trends, and logical inferences. But the real question is not whether evangelicals can clean up their statistical act. The deeper question is whether they can learn to live without the alarmism they’ve used so often. To sacrifice what is actually true for the sake of immediate attention and action is plain wrong. It’s a very unevangelical thing to do.
christian smith, Ph.D, is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology and director of the Center for the Sociology of Religion at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He’s author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, and lead researcher for the groundbreaking National Study of Youth and Religion.