What percentage of Christian youth are actually leaving the church? There’s been some debate about the actual number, with some saying as little as 4% will remain Christian, while others suggest there’s virtually no exodus. Christian Smith tells us that evangelicals have been "behaving badly with statistics" and quickly dispenses with the 4% "panic-attack" stats. But can we get some idea of the percentage of youth leaving the church without being irresponsible with numbers?
These are the most recent and most cited studies that I could find:
- 88%: The Southern Baptist Convention's Family Life Council study in 2002 (unfortunately, I can't find the actual study and methodology)
- 70%: LifeWay Research study in 2007 (LifeWay also found only 35% eventually return)
- 66%: Assembly of God study (again, I can't find the actual study, only references here and there)
- 61%: "Barna study in 2006 -- "Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf..."
The LifeWay and Barna studies include research details. I’m no sociologist but from what I can tell, their methodology seems sounds.
Here are some related studies:
- "Spirituality in Higher Education": The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 52% of college students reported frequent church attendance the year before they entered college but only 29% continued frequent church attendance by their junior year.
- College Transition Project: The Fuller Youth Institute's current data seems "to suggest that about 40-50% of students in youth groups struggle in their faith after graduation."
- "The Religiosity Cycle": A 2002 Gallup Poll study found that church attendance “drops during the teen and young adult years.”
Conclusion: It's safe to conclude the church is losing a signficant portion of its young people for some period of time. Even if we take Barna's lower numbers and then cut 10% off to be extra conservative, we're still talking about losing half of our young people.
Is that acceptable? And if not, why are we losing them and what needs to be done?