By Aaron Earls
Have you noticed your church may have a full student ministry and a thriving group of new families, but few college students and young adults? If that’s the case, you’re not alone.
A study from Lifeway Research found 66 percent of church-attending teenagers drop out for at least one year as an adult.
Of those who dropped out, 31 percent say they came back and now attend church regularly again. But 39 percent currently attend infrequently, and 29 percent of church dropouts say they currently don’t attend at all.
This means 7 in 10 teenagers who used to frequently be part of our congregations but dropped out for a season never made their way back as regular attenders.
For Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at Lifeway Research and author of Within Reach: The Power of Small Changes in Keeping Students Connected, this research should concern church leaders and lead to action.
“While seeing 66 percent of students dropping out of church isn’t something we should like to see, the research is also very clear in some areas where we, the church, can impact that number,” he said.
The first part of evaluating the issue is to discover why young adults say they left. Here are the most frequently given reasons they give for dropping out of church:
- I moved to college and stopped attending church. (34 percent)
- Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical. (32 percent)
- I didn’t feel connected to people in my church. (29 percent)
- I disagreed with the church’s stance on political/social issues (25 percent)
- My work responsibilities prevented me from attending. (24 percent)
- I never connected with students in the student ministry. (23 percent)
- I simply wanted a break from church. (23 percent)
- I was only going to church to please others. (22 percent)
Contrast that with the reasons listed for staying in church given by those who continued to attend regularly as young adults.
- Church was a vital part of my relationship with God. (56 percent)
- I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life. (54 percent)
- I wanted to follow a parent/family member’s example. (43 percent)
- Church activities were a big part of my life (39 percent)
- I felt that church was helping me become a better person. (39 percent)
- I was committed to the purpose and work of the church. (37 percent)
- Church was helping through a difficult time in my life. (26 percent)
- My friends were attending church at the time. (23 percent)
For those who left, they no longer saw church as a priority and there was a disconnect between themselves and others in the congregation.
For those who stayed, church remained a key part of their life because they saw it as relevant to their life and they had relationships there that mattered.
The dropouts saw church simply as “an address and when they move away from it they can’t go anymore,” said Trueblood.
“There simply isn’t an understanding of what the church is, how it functions in their life, and how they are meant to be function as part of it.”
Trueblood also said the research establishes the importance of small groups to a successful student ministry.
“Small groups can be a powerful tool in helping teenagers fulfill the sense of belonging that each of them have,” he said.
“Small groups for teenagers also provide a place for spiritual mentoring to being taking place with a godly, caring adult volunteer.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.