Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors. Where are all the youths?
Seventy percent of the people, 23 to 30 years old, are nowhere to be found in church on a regular basis for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. They become church dropouts, according to a 2007 study from LifeWay Research. These students who attended a Protestant church at least twice a month for at least one year during high school are leaving the church, and most of them are doing so during their first year of college.
Findings from the study, in which 1,023 adults, ages 18 to 30, were surveyed, reveal that 97% of dropouts give specific life-change issues as their reason for leaving. Only 20% of the dropouts predetermined their post high school departure.
“The most frequent reason for leaving church is, in fact, a self-imposed change, ‘I simply wanted a break from church’ (27%),” according to a LifeWay report summarizing the study. “The path toward college and the workforce are also strong reasons for young people to leave church: ‘I moved to college and stopped attending church’ (25%) and ‘work responsibilities prevented me from attending’ (23%).”
Following are some similar findings cited by the Youth Transition Network (YTN), a coalition of some of the nation’s largest denominations and ministries that are working together to help reduce the dramatic loss of youth from the church:“An Assemblies of God study showed a loss of 66% of their students within one year of high school graduation.” “A Southern Baptist transition project estimates an 82% loss of youth within one year of high school graduation.”
“Fifty to eighty percent of high school students walk away.”“As someone who recognizes the importance of an ever-growing faith, especially during the college years, these are staggering statistics,” said Cyndi Forman, campus minister of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) of Georgia Tech and Emory University. “The statistics are sad, disappointing and dangerous, all at the same time.”
The Gospel misunderstood
While there are a host of reasons – or excuses – for young adults leaving the church, a significant concern is that it happens so frequently when high school seniors become college freshmen. Unfortunately, this falling away is more than just a leave of absence from church; it’s a departure from faith prompted by a misunderstanding of the Gospel. Teacher, apologist and author Voddie Baucham explains it best when he says going to church doesn’t make one a follower of Christ anymore than standing in a garage makes one a car.
However, church attendance and communion with the body of Christ are desires that flow from an individual heart that’s been changed by the Gospel. “For many students, when they come to college, they have yet to begin to own their faith, to make it personal,” Forman said. “They are still relying on the faith of their parents, their church, even their friends. It’s not something they have committed to in such a way that they can stand solidly on it, no matter what comes.”
According to the LifeWay report, “How young people use their time and the relationships they choose can also lead them away from church. Twenty-two percent ‘became too busy, though still wanted to attend,’ and 17% ‘chose to spend more time with friends outside the church.’”
“Gone are the days in which young adults attend because they are ‘supposed to,’” added Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research. “Only 10% of those who continued attending church did so to please others. Young adults whose faith truly became integrated into their lives as teens are much more likely to stay in church. If church did not prove its value during their teen years, young adults won’t want to attend – and won’t attend.”
The wrong motivation
Jeff Schadt, founder and executive director of YTN, believes it all boils down to external versus internal motivation. Living a life of faith must come from an inward desire prompted by the Holy Spirit and compelled by the love of Christ. Too often, parents and ministry leaders become the “walking Holy Spirit” in a young person’s life.
For example, Schadt explained how external motivation must be used when children are young to help them make good decisions.
“But as they get older, we need to be like Jesus was with His disciples,” Schadt said, meaning parents and ministry leaders need to allow teens to make their own decisions based on what has been taught to and modeled for them.
Mike Whelan, senior campus minister of the BCM of Georgia Tech, knows how important it is to the growth of a young person’s faith for his family to give him responsibilities based on a level of trust. It’s good for parents to be involved, but students who have “helicopter parents” hovering over them are at a disadvantage. Helicopter parents are those who still call the dorm rooms to wake their children up for class.
“We’re so afraid sometimes as parents … [that kids are] going to do these bad things [i.e., drinking, drugs, sex, partying], and we don’t want them to do those things, so we restrict them by giving them rules with consequences, …” Schadt explained. He said this legalistic approach teaches teens to do the right things merely to avoid getting in trouble.
Therefore, teens are working together – often with their youth group peers – to get around the rules because they only see Christianity as a list of dos and don’ts. When they don’t meet those standards, they view themselves as failures, and their hearts become numb as they walk in sin. It’s more about doing right because their parents will ground them if they don’t, rather than being right before the Lord.
“Then they hit college, and they haven’t learned any of the reasons for making these decisions on their own, and there is no one there to take away the car keys anymore,” Schadt added.
Perhaps, in their hearts, youth start “walking away” from the church much sooner than the end of high school. It’s just that when they go to college they are, for the first time, no longer under the authority-control of family influence, explained Whelan.
Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, refers to this so-called faith as a Pharisaic religion, which is practiced in numerous churches today and leads many people, including young adults, astray.
In his new book titled The Reason for God (See Page 18.), Keller wrote: “Recall the ‘sickness unto death,’ the spiritual deep nausea we experience when we fail to build our identity on God. We struggle for a sense of worth, purpose, and distinctiveness, but it is based on conditions that we can never achieve or maintain, and that are always slipping away from us.
“Millions of people raised in or near these kinds of churches reject Christianity at an early age or in college largely because of their experience, …” he continued. “Pharisees and their unattractive lives leave many people confused about the real nature of Christianity.”
The right way
Therefore, it’s imperative for youth ministry to be more than just a “holding tank with pizza,” as referred to by Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.
In other words, youth want and need church to be more than just a pizza party where they get a five-minute devotional amidst the entertainment. Based on research, Stetzer said youth want to know how to live life. Church involvement that has made a real difference in their lives is a significant reason they keep attending church, even after high school.
“Clearly the reasons young people leave are a reflection both of their past experience in church and the new opportunities they have as young adults,” McConnell explained. “To remain in church, a person must have experienced the value of the teaching and relationships at church and see the relevance for the next phase of life.”
The LifeWay study identified several tangible ways parents and churches could be influential factors when it comes to keeping youth in church once they leave high school. There must be proven value in church attendance, relevant preaching, time investment in the young people’s lives, and family members who live out an authentic Christian faith.
While these influences are certainly significant, at the end of the day the hearts of the youth must be transformed by the Gospel in order for church attendance to make sense. Otherwise, going to church is pointless and meaningless, and the ways of the world become so attractive, especially at the pivotal point of transition from high school to college.
“A college campus is a new, exciting, vibrant place for a freshman. Suddenly everything they ever wanted to do and everything they didn’t want to do is available, with limited restrictions and expectations,” Forman explained. “For a student who has not wholeheartedly committed to strengthen his faith while at college, the possibilities that college offers can be overwhelming and overpowering. The voice of new friends, new adventures, and a new future is often much louder than the voice of God whispering to the heart and soul.”
“Whether teens are bombarded with positive or negative influences about church, they all make their own decisions about whether to continue or stop attending,” Stetzer said. “This study shows the benefit of parents and church members faithfully doing their part, but in the final analysis, we must leave it in the hands of God to work in their lives.”
“Students who have determined in their hearts and minds to stay committed to their God (not their mother’s God or their youth minister’s God) no matter the cost, will be able to better handle the dangers of college,” Forman added. “But for the students who participated in a shallow faith during high school just because it was ‘the thing to do,’ college has a great chance of being the breaking point for them, where they leave behind what was ‘cool’ in high school and do what is ‘cool’ in college, which probably won’t be relentlessly pursuing God with everything they know.”
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