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The Ones Who Walk Away (free sample)

Young people are fleeing the faith and many may not return.
Store Code: PS89
Format: Microsoft Word
Type: Article

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Note: This article is included in our download series, Reaching Millennials Who Leave the Faith.

The statistics are grim. According to Rainer Research, 70 percent of youth leave church by the time they are 22 years old. Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be "disengaged" by the time they are 29 years old. Unlike older church dropouts, these young "leavers" are unlikely to seek out alternative forms of Christian community, such as home churches and small groups. When they leave church, many leave the faith as well. Barna Group president, David Kinnaman put the reality in stark terms:

Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church (or live within your community of believers) in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That's the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate through their faith during the next two decades.

Strangers from Our Midst

Kinnaman reports that 65 percent of all American young people report making a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point in their lives. Yet, based on his surveys, Kinnaman concludes that only about 3 percent of these young adults have a biblical worldview.

Kinnaman translates the percentages into real numbers: "This means that out of the 95 million Americans who are ages 18 to 41, about 60 million say they have already made a commitment to Jesus that is still important; however, only about 3 million of them have a biblical worldview."

Of course, that doesn't mean that there are 57 million young ex-Christians in the country. Only the most theologically lax would count anyone that makes a pledge or says a prayer as a genuine disciple of Jesus. On the other side of the coin, not having a biblical worldview doesn't seal your fate as an unbeliever. Ultimately the precise number of young adults leaving is beyond human knowing. Still, such research shows us something very valuable about young people outside the faith. As Kinnaman concludes, "the vast majority of outsiders in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals."

In other words, these are not strangers, some mysterious denizens of a heathen underworld. Rather, most unbelieving outsiders are old friends, yesterday's worshipers, children who once prayed to Jesus, even if they didn't fully grasp what they were saying. Strictly speaking, they are not an "unreached people group." They are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and our friends. They have dwelt among us.

Won't They Just Come Back?

Some hold out hope for a mass return, believing that once these young people settle down and have families, they'll come back to faith. And indeed, in past generations, people raised in the church who leave do tend to come back once they establish careers, marry, and have children. However, there are reasons to believe that this return will not automatically occur with this generation.

First, there's reason to believe that today's young people are leaving the faith at a greater rate than young people of previous generations. Reporting on the latest studies, Harvard professor Robert Putnam and Notre Dame professor David Campbell note: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of 5 to 6 times the historic rate (30-40% have no religion today versus 5-10% a generation ago)." Comparing today's young people with their parents may be like comparing apples and oranges.

Second, young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it's much longer. Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith describes this new extended phase in life: "The transition from the teenage years to fully-achieved adulthood has stretched out into an extended stage that is often amorphous, unstructured, and convoluted, lasting upward of twelve or more years." This is important because some of the defining milestones of adulthood, such as establishing a career, getting married, and having children are also factors that tend to drive people back to religious involvement. Past generations may have returned after the leaving during young adulthood. But coming back after a two or three year departure is one thing; returning after a decade or more away is much more unlikely.

It may be comforting to view what's happening with young adults as a temporary phenomenon, a short-term hiatus, and assume that they will automatically return en masse. Let's pray that they will. Unfortunately, such thinking may do more harm than good by giving us false hope and luring us into complacency.

—Drew Dyck; excerpted from Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring Them Back (Moody Press, 2010). Used by permission.

Topics:Agnosticism, Atheism, Generational differences, Generations, Postmodernism, Relevance
Filters:Emergent ministry, Evangelism, Outreach, Pastor, Shepherd, Young adults ministry

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Brett R

April 10, 2011  8:34am

The church should be a place to worship, learn, and fellowship. It has become about manipulation and control so people are leaving.

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February 28, 2011  3:56pm

i agree with the article. we are losing our present day generation youth because the church is not giving them a say in how to choose techniques of various programs. "Everyone likes to feel accepted and liked" if we hear a typical "NAY-NAY" WE begin to feel unimportant or unaccepted and then we go to look for a place of acceptance. I feel the youth should be given a say in matters in a "controlled atmoshere. SET UP A CHOICE SYSTEM. that way the older adults get to set up values and guidance yet allowing the youth to feel they have be involved in the decision making. When things do not work out as desired . Then why not have a "generation Jam session" LISTING THE DESIRED GOALS AND LISTING THE EFFECTS THEN HAVE YOUTH INPUT AS HOW TO REACH THE DESIRE GOALS AND EFFECTS. WITH OPEN COMMUNICATION THEN BOTH GROUPS WILL FEEL ACCEPTED AND APPRECIATED AND DECREASE COMPETITION AND OR FRUSTRATION . IT IS A WIN WIN SOLUTION.\ I USE IT IN MY CHILDREN'S WORSHIP AND IT IS WORKING!

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PK Experience

February 01, 2011  9:27pm

As a PK, I must say that church no longer has the calling it did to many of the younger generation because church existed under the rules of instilling fear rather than make it a different experience. Many books have been written regarding the changes christianity faces in order to appeal to the masses. The issue stands that those changes are not economically feasible to the business of church. Instead you have the now generation facing jokers who simply are faith sellers and squeeze their attendants with promises of abundance as long as the plant the seed "money" of faith. Sorry that doesn't fly for me as well as other whether in their 50's or younger. Its a technique that simply doesn't appeal to the "smarter" generation today or the one that follows us. I dont think anyone is questioning the existance of a higher being, instead they are simply saying that they are not willing to support the church in its current form. I would not and will not. As a PK i've seen the ugly side

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Jon Barnes

November 12, 2010  7:50am

Great thoughts- The research is statistically correct but it's our expectations and definitions that need to change, not the behaviors of a generation. First, let's stop assuming that a huge church presence of young people in decades past equalled any more or less actual faith than the absence of those folks today. Second, we cannot equate "leaving the church" with "leaving the faith." It may correlate, it may not, but being appalled by a drop in church attendance does not have a direct connection to faith- it's statistically separate. Third, the older generation really needs to ask itself if it trusts the younger generation to create the organizations of the future their way or if they are going to micro-manage and nay-say the more unincorporated forms of fellowship that are coming about. Lastly, church experience seems optional because if you really believe that church is "the people" then you really can have the milk without buying the cow. I'm 31 years old and a former pastor.

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Michael Cooper

October 21, 2010  12:32pm

We have already lost the previous two generations, let's not lose this one as well.

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