A revealing look at five myths and realities about young people that walk away from the church was released in a study Wednesday by a research company that provides resources for churches and non-profits.
The Barna Group recently concluded a five-year study comprised of eight national studies, which was done on teenagers and young adults between the ages of 18 to 29.
It found that nearly three out of every five young Christians (59 percent) disconnect from church life, either permanently or for a long period of time after the age of 15. Those polled were active in a Christian church during their teen years.
The first myth researchers looked at through the study was the idea that “most people lose their faith when they leave high school.” David Kinnaman, who directed the research, concluded on the website: "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.”
Kinnaman identifies three types of dropouts: prodigals, nomads and exiles. The most common of these three are nomads, or young Christians who wander away from the institutional church, yet still call themselves Christians. The study found roughly four out of 10 young Christians fall into this category.
However, that might not be the whole story. In an email to The Christian Post, Sociologist Bradley Wright, author of the book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve been Told, said, “It’s difficult to know how to evaluate a statistic such as the 59 percent drop-out rate.” It depends largely on how “not attending church regularly” is defined, he said.
Wright also said The Barna Group often defines a Christian to mean “just ‘born-agains’ and not Catholics or mainline Protestants, and other times it includes Catholics and mainlines.
The Barna research does concede that there are many young Christians who have never left the church, thus disproving the second myth that “dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults' maturation.” Although Kinnaman believes the number of dropouts is still high.
He said on the website: "The significant spiritual and technological changes over the last 50 years make the dropout problem more urgent. Young people are dropping out earlier, staying away longer, and if they come back, are less likely to see the church as a long-term part of their life.”
However, Wright said, “Young people leaving the faith has been a concern for centuries, not just the last couple of years. It’s the nature of young people to differentiate themselves from their elders, and it’s the nature of their elders to be upset about it. Young people dropping out of church is not unique to this generation.”
Other myths Kinnaman studied include the notion that today’s “twenty somethings” are biblically illiterate and their college experiences lead them to walk away from their faith. When comparing the faith of young practicing faith Christians (ages 18 to 29) to those of older practicing Christians (ages 30-plus), researchers said that surprisingly few differences emerged between what the two groups believe.
The study showed that within the Christian community, the theological differences between generations are not as pronounced as might be expected. Young Christians lack biblical knowledge on some matters, but not significantly more so than older Christians, according to Barna Group.
Kinnaman sees casting blame on college for the dropout rate as too simplistic, as the study found many young adults disconnect from church before their 16th birthday.
It is not always clear as to what brings young people back to their faith, if they do eventually return. The fifth myth, that young people will come back to church once they get settled and have families, is proven false by their previous research on the matter. In 2010 they found, “The largest share of parents (50 percent) reported that having children did not influence their connection to a church.” With 17 percent saying that having a child helped them reconnect with church after a long period of not attending.
However, Wright said, “The traditional life-course pattern has been for young people to assert their independence, in part, by moving away from institutions only to rejoin them later in life. In some analyses that I’ve done, I found this happened with people born in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. Will it happen now? I can’t predict the future, but it would be a major break from the past if it didn’t,” he said.
The Barna Group and Wright agree that young people are leaving the church, but the rate and urgency is still up for debate. Wright said, “Certainly more young people are leaving the church than we would like, but that would be the case if only one left."