Gone are the days when young adults attended church because they're "supposed to," said Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.
New research has confirmed speculation that young adults are leaving the church in droves.
LifeWay Research released study results that showed that more than two-thirds of young adults who attend a Protestant church stopped attending church regularly (at least twice a month) for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.
While many do return and attend church at least "sporadically," 34 percent said they had not returned by age 30.
"Lots of alarming numbers have been tossed around regarding church dropouts," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, in the study. "We wanted to get at the real situation with clear research – and there is some bad news here, no question. But, there are also some important solutions to be found in the research. When we know why people drop out, we can address how to help better connect them."
Most of the young adults who stopped attending church had not planned in advance on quitting the church. Only 20 percent of the church dropouts said that while attending church in high school, they planned on taking a break from church once they finished high school.
Almost all church dropouts were related to life changes. The top reason in this category young adults listed was "I simply wanted a break from church" (27 percent).
Transitioning into college was also a major reason for quitting church (25 percent); 23 percent said "work responsibilities prevented me from attending;" and 22 percent said they "moved too far away from the church to continue attending."
"It seems the teen years are like a free trial on a product. By 18, when it's their choice whether to buy in to church life, many don't feel engaged and welcome," said McConnell, according to USA Today.
"When life changes, reshuffle priorities and time in young adults' lives, church doesn't make it back on that list for a lot of them and I think that maybe tells us where we've prioritized those things," commented Stetzer in a LifeWay podcast.
Two out of three young adults reported attending church at least twice a month through the age of 16. The percentage drops sharply at ages 17, 18, and 19, with only 31 percent attending at age 19. And attendance remains low through age 22. Attendance rises slowly afterward.
Although some still wanted to attend church, 22 percent said they "became too busy" and 17 percent "chose to spend more time with friends outside the church."
More than half (52 percent) said "religious, ethical or political beliefs" contributed to their departure from church. More specifically, 18 percent said "I disagreed with the church's stance on political or social issues;" 17 percent said "I was only going to church to please others;" 16 percent no longer wanted to identify with a church or organized religion; and 14 percent disagreed with the church's teachings about God.
On church or pastor-related reasons for leaving, 26 percent said they left because "church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical" and 20 percent said they "didn't feel connected to the people in my church."
The research poses some great cause for concern, said Stetzer who recognizes the frequent criticism toward youth leaders regarding the high dropout rate.
"People have been beating on youth ministry like a low-hanging piñata on cinco de mayo for a few years now. I think we've got to ask some hard questions and I think it's okay to ask those hard questions," said Stetzer in the podcast.
"This research should not just say 'Oh, the sky's falling,' but 'What do we need to do differently?'"
Why some return
Most church dropouts, however, aren't gone for good. Among those who stopped attending church regularly and who are now ages 23-30, 35 percent currently attend church twice a month or more. Another 30 percent attend church more sporadically.
The primary reason church dropouts eventually return to church is because of encouragement from family or friends. Thirty-nine percent returned as a result of their parents' or family members' encouragement and 21 percent attribute their return to their friends or acquaintances.
On a more personal note, 34 percent return because "I simply the desire to return" and 28 percent said "I felt that God was calling me to return to the church."
Other reasons for returning include "I had children and felt it was time for them to start attending" (24 percent); and "I got married and wanted to attend with my spouse" (20 percent).
Some still decide to remain in the church through ages 18-22. Most (65 percent) said "Church was a vital part of my relationship with God" and more than half (58 percent) said "I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life" as reasons for staying in church.
Half said they felt the church was helping them become a better person; and 42 percent said they were "committed to the purpose and work of the church."
Those who stuck with the church during their young adult years largely remain a churchgoer. Only 6 percent of young adults who stayed do not currently attend church.
"When, by God's grace, young people see the church as essential in their lives and choose to continue attending, their loyalty remains strong," McConnell said in the study.
Stetzer noted, "Teens are looking for more from a youth ministry than a holding tank with pizza.
"They look for a church that teaches them how to live life. As they enter young adulthood, church involvement that has made a difference in their lives gives them a powerful reason to keep attending."
LifeWay researcher directors stressed the importance of relationships that can keep people in the church and parents in passing a robust Christian faith to their children.
LifeWay conducted the survey in April and May 2007 on more than 1,000 adults ages 18-30. Each indicated that they had attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school.