UPDATED: Are Young People Really Leaving Christianity?

58(Updated on October 6th, 2016)

Much has been written about both the illiteracy of teenage believers and the flight of young people from the Church. Many have observed this trend, and I too have witnessed it anecdotally as a youth pastor (and shamefully, I contributed to the trend for some time before I changed course). Some writers and Christian observers deny the flight of young people altogether, but the growing statistics should alarm us enough as Church leaders to do something about the dilemma. My hope in this post is to simply consolidate some of the research (many of the summaries are directly quoted) so you can decide for yourself. I’m going to organize the recent findings in a way that illuminates the problem:

Research Related to Spiritual Life of Teenagers:

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Oxford University Press, 2005

Book Findings: The majority of teenagers are incredibly inarticulate about their faith, religious beliefs and practices, and its place in their lives. The de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what they call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’: A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem; and good people go to heaven when they die.

Book Findings: Dean affirms what Soul Searching called ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ “If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation.”

Book Findings: More teens are embracing a nebulous belief in God. Yet there’s been an “explosion” in youth service since 1995 that Lewis attributes to more schools emphasizing community service.

The State of Theology
Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research (2015)

Study Findings: In this survey of theological beliefs, researchers asked self-professing Christians to respond to a series of statements related to classic, historic Christian doctrine. In every answer offered related to these theological beliefs, young people between the ages of 18 and 34 consistently held heretical views at a higher percentage than older respondents. Young people who identify themselves as Christians, are far more likely to hold views that aren’t Christian.

Research Related to the Attitude of College Professors:

Politics and Professional Advancement Among College Faculty
Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, Neil Nevitte (2005)

Study Findings: “Nearly three-quarters” (72%) of faculty members describe themselves as politically liberal, according to 1999 data from the North American Academic Study Survey (NAASS), up from 39 percent in a 1984 survey by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Study Findings: About 25% of college professors are professing atheists or agnostics (5-7% of the general population is atheistic or agnostic). Only 6% of college professors said the Bible is “the actual word of God”. 51% described it as “an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts.” 75% believe religion does not belong in public schools.

The Religious Beliefs and Behavior of College Faculty
The Institute for Jewish & Community Research Review – Staff (2007)

Study Findings: The study revealed several findings related to the political and religious views of professors, including the following key discoveries:

Most Faculty Believe in God, but Atheism Is Significantly More Prevalent among Faculty Than the General Public
The proportion of faculty who self-identified as atheist is over five times the proportion of people who self-identified as atheist in the general public.

Faculty Are Much Less Religious Than the General Public
The American public is much more likely to say that religion is very important in their everyday lives and to attend religious services more frequently than faculty.

Faculty Feel Warmly about Most Religious Groups, but Feel Coldly about Evangelicals and Mormons
Faculty have positive feelings toward Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and Atheists.

Faculty Feel Most Unfavorably about Evangelical Christians
This is the only religious group about which a majority of non-Evangelical faculty have negative feelings.

Faculty Are Almost Unanimous in Their Belief That Evangelical Christians (Fundamentalists) Should Keep Their Religious Beliefs Out of American Politics
Faculty who are secular/liberal are more likely to favor separation of religion and government, and those who are religious and conservative are more likely to advocate a closer connection between religion and government.

Although Faculty Generally Oppose Religion in the Public Sphere, Many Endorse the Idea That Muslims Should Express Their Religious Beliefs in American Politics
Faculty are far less likely to endorse Evangelical Christians expressing their beliefs in American politics.”

Compromising Scholarship; Religious and Political Bias in American Higher Education
George Yancey (2011)

Book Findings: “Religiously conservative academics are at a distinct disadvantage in our institutions of learning, threatening the free exchange of ideas to which our institutions aspire and leaving many scientific inquiries unexplored.”

Research Related to the Decreasing Christian Population in General

American Religious Identification Survey
Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Keysar (2001)

Study Findings: The number of people who identify themselves as Christian has dropped from 85% in 1990 to 76% in 2008. About 52% of American adults identify themselves as Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian denominations, according to the. That’s down from 60% in 1990.

Research Related to the Flight of Young People from the Church

Southern Baptist Convention Data
Pinkney, T.C., Remarks to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, Nashville, Tennessee (2001)

Study Findings: Data from the Southern Baptist Convention indicates that they are currently losing 70-88% of their youth after their freshman year in college. 70% of teenagers involved in church youth groups stop attending church within two years of their high school graduation.

“The Religiosity Cycle”
Gallop Poll Study (2002)

Study Findings: The results indicate that teens are more religious during their early teen years, and that religiosity begins to decline as teens near adulthood. When asked, “How important are your religious beliefs?”, 63% of 13- to 15-year-olds answered “very important,” compared to 52% of 16- to 17-year-olds. Church attendance also drops during the teen and young adult years and begins to climb as adults age. Fifty-four percent of teens aged 13 to 15 reported having attended church in the past seven days, as did 51% of 16- to 17-year-old teens. The figure drops to 32% among 18- to 29- year-olds but rises again to 44% among 50- to 64-year-olds and 60% among those aged 75 and older. 69% percent of 13- to 15-year-olds report being members of a church or synagogue, compared to 59% of 16- to 17-year-olds, 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds, 72% of 50- to 64-year-olds, and 80% of those aged 75 and older.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s Family Life Council
Southern Baptist Council on Family Life report to Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (2002)

Study Findings:  88% of the children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18

George Barna, Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, IL (2005)

Book Findings: If current trends in the belief systems and practices of the younger generation continue, in ten years, church attendance will be half the size it is today.

Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Oxford University Press (2005)

Book Findings: Students leave faith behind primarily because of intellectual doubt and skepticism (page 89). “Why did they fall away from the faith in which they were raised?” This was an open-ended question there were no multiple-choice answers. 32% said they left faith behind because of intellectual skepticism or doubt. (“It didn’t make any sense anymore.” “Some stuff is too far-fetched for me to believe.” “I think scientifically and there is no real proof.” “Too many questions that can’t be answered.”)

Study Findings: A majority of twenty-somethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged.

The Last Christian Generation
Josh McDowell,  David H. Bellis, Green Key Books (2006)

Book Findings: 63% of teenaged Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the Son of the one true God. 51% don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead. 68% don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is a real entity. Only 33% of churched youth have said that the church will play a part in their lives when they leave home.

Assemblies of God Study
Dayton A. Kingsriter (2007)

Study Findings: At least half and possibly over two-thirds of Christian young people will step away from the Christian faith while attending a non-Christian college or university. Between 50% and 66.7% of Assemblies of God young 
people who attend a non-Christian public or private university will have left the faith 
four years after entering college.

LifeWay Research Study
LifeWay Research and Ministry Development (2007)

Study Findings: 70% will leave the faith in college. Only 35% eventually return. 7 in 10 Protestants ages 18 to 30 – both evangelical and mainline – who went to church regularly in high school said they quit attending by age 23. 34% of those said they had not returned, even sporadically, by age 30. That means about one in four Protestant young people have left the church. “The most frequent reason for leaving church is, in fact, a self-imposed change, ‘I simply wanted a break from church’ (27%).” “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%).”

Barna Research Group director David Kinnaman, Baker Books; (2007)

Book Findings: Christians in their 20s are “significantly less likely to believe a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church. This life stage of spiritual disengagement is not going to fade away.”

Rethink: Is Student Ministry Working?
Steve Wright, InQuest Ministries, Inc. (2007)

Book Findings: 63% don’t believe Jesus is the Son of the one true God. 58% believe all faiths teach equally valid truths. 51% don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. 65% don’t believe Satan is a real entity. 68% don’t believe the Holy Spirit is a real entity

Book Findings: Among American adults, emerging adults are significantly less religious.
Generally speaking, the importance and practice of religion declines among young adults. No more than 15% of the total emerging adult population, embrace a strong religious faith. 30% tend to customize their faith to fit the rest of their lives. They often have strong religious upbringing but tend to be more discriminating about what they will adopt. A smaller group, about 15%, believe in some higher power but are not sure what that is or means. About 25% of the emerging adult population may claim to be religious or even appreciate religion—but it simply does not matter. 5% of all emerging adults have had little to no exposure to religious people, ideas, or organizations. 10% of emerging adults are  skeptical of religion and reject the idea of personal faith. They tend to hold critical, derogatory, and antagonistic attitudes towards religion.

Book Findings: 90% of youth active in high school church programs drop out of church by the time they are sophomores on college.

Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it
Ken Ham, Britt Beemer, with Todd Hillard, New Leaf Publishing Group/Master Books (2009)

Book Findings: Church youth already are “lost” in their hearts and minds in elementary, middle and high school – not in college as many assume.

Book Findings: “Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt.” The proportion of young adults identifying with mainline churches, is “about half the size it was a generation ago. Evangelical Protestants have barely held their own.”

“Spirituality in Higher Education”: The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA
Alexander W. Astin, Helen S. Astin, and Jennifer A. Lindholm (2010)

Study Findings: 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 (2010)

Study Findings: Current data seems “to suggest that about 40-50% of students in youth groups struggle in their faith after graduation.”

Book Findings: The departure of young people from the Church is acknowledged and several categories of “leavers” are identified, including “Post Modern Leavers”, “Recoilers”, “Modern Leavers”, “Neo Pagans”, “Rebels” and “Drifters.

Book Findings: Nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect from their churches after the age of 15.

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood
Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson and Patricia Snell Herzog, Oxford University Press (2011)

Book Findings: Young adults are unable to think coherently about moral beliefs and problems. Young adults have an excessive focus on consumption and materialism as the good life. The prevalent lifestyle of young adults includes routine intoxication and drug usage. The sexual encounters of young adults are not practiced in an environment of physical, mental, or emotional health. Young adults appear to have an inability to care about, invest in, and hope for the larger world through civic and political participation.

Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity
Larry Taunton, Fixed Point Foundation (2013)

Study Findings: Taunton interviewed members of atheist college groups (the Secular Student Alliance and Freethought Societies). “These college groups are the atheist equivalents to Campus Crusade: They meet regularly for fellowship, encourage one another in their (un)belief, and even proselytize. They are people who are not merely irreligious; they are actively, determinedly irreligious.” Taunton eventually recognized an emerging pattern in those he interviewed, and he identified several characteristics of young “determinedly irreligious” college students:

1. They had attended church at one time
2. The mission and message of their churches was vague
3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions
4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously
5. Ages 14-17 were decisive
6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one
7. The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism

America’s Changing Religious Landscape
Pew Research Center (2015)

Study Findings: “The percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in an equally massive Pew Research survey in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%. While many U.S. religious groups are aging, the unaffiliated are comparatively young – and getting younger, on average, over time… One of the most important factors in the declining share of Christians and the growth of the “nones” is generational replacement. As the Millennial generation enters adulthood, its members display much lower levels of religious affiliation, including less connection with Christian churches, than older generations. Fully 36% of young Millennials (those between the ages of 18 and 24) are religiously unaffiliated, as are 34% of older Millennials (ages 25-33)… As a rising cohort of highly unaffiliated Millennials reaches adulthood, the median age of unaffiliated adults has dropped to 36, down from 38 in 2007 and far lower than the general (adult) population’s median age of 46.4 By contrast, the median age of mainline Protestant adults in the new survey is 52 (up from 50 in 2007), and the median age of Catholic adults is 49 (up from 45 seven years earlier).”

Choosing a New Church or House of Worship
Pew Research Center (2015)

Study Findings: In this seemingly unrelated study, researchers surveyed religious “nones” (78%) who said they were raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood, and asked them to explain, in their own words, why they no longer identified with a religious group. They discovered the following themes:

About 50% said a “lack of belief led them to move away from religion. This includes many respondents who mention ‘science’ as the reason they do not believe in religious teachings, including one who said ‘I’m a scientist now, and I don’t believe in miracles.’ Others reference ‘common sense,’ ‘logic’ or a ‘lack of evidence’ – or simply say they do not believe in God.”

About 20% said they were in “opposition to organized religion in general. This share includes some who do not like the hierarchical nature of religious groups, several people who think religion is too much like a business and others who mention clergy sexual abuse scandals as reasons for their stance.”

About 18% said they were “religiously unsure. This include(d) people who (said) they (were) religious in some way despite being unaffiliated (e.g., ‘I believe in God, but in my own way’), others who describe(d) themselves as ‘seeking enlightenment’ or ‘open-minded,’ and several who (said) they are ‘spiritual’ if not religious.”

About 10% said they “may hold certain religious beliefs, but they (were) not currently taking part in religious practices. And most of them simply (said) they (didn’t) go to church or engage in other religious rituals, while others (said) they (were) too busy for religion.”

Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion—and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back
Betsy Cooper, Ph.D., Daniel Cox, Ph.D., Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., Public Religious Research Institute (2016)

Study Findings: “Today, nearly four in ten (39%) young adults (ages 18-29) are religiously unaffiliated—three times the unaffiliated rate (13%) among seniors (ages 65 and older). While previous generations were also more likely to be religiously unaffiliated in their twenties, young adults today are nearly four times as likely as young adults a generation ago to identify as religiously unaffiliated. In 1986, for example, only 10% of young adults claimed no religious affiliation. Among young adults, the religiously unaffiliated dwarf the percentages of other religious identifications: Catholic (15%), white evangelical Protestant (9%), white mainline Protestant (8%), black Protestant (7%), other non-white Protestants (11%), and affiliation with a non-Christian religion (7%).”

“In the 1970s, only about one-third (34%) of Americans who were raised in religiously unaffiliated households were still unaffiliated as adults. By the 1990s, slightly more than half (53%) of Americans who were unaffiliated in childhood retained their religious identity in adulthood. Today, about two-thirds (66%) of Americans who report being raised outside a formal religious tradition remain unaffiliated as adults.”

CARA National Study
Mark M. Gray, Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (2016)

Study Findings: (While CARA only surveys young Catholic believers, their results parallel the findings of Christian surveys as reported in this article). “The first CARA study, commissioned by Saint Mary’s Press, involved a survey with a random, national sample of young people, ages 15 to 25, who had been raised Catholic but no longer self-identified as such. The second CARA study, made possible through funding from the John Templeton Foundation, involved a survey of a random sample of self-identified Catholics, ages 18 and older, and focused on matters of religion and science.” Most young people said they left the Church by the age of 13: 63 percent said they left between the ages of 10 and 17. 23 percent say they left before the age of 10. Those who left cited the following reasons:

“Because I grew up realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.”

“As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find that the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.”

“Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”

“I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”

“Need proof of something.”

“It no longer fits into what I understand of the universe.”

While this survey of books and studies is less than complete, it does provide us with powerful cumulative, circumstantial evidence supporting the claim that young people are leaving the Church in large numbers. In addition, it appears that many of these young people are leaving based on their experiences in college. Studies related to the attitudes of University professors may account for this, and many ministries have tried to develop a response to the dilemma. Some studies have attempted to isolate potential responses that can be employed by parents and Church leaders:

Research Related to Potential Responses to the Flight of Young People from the Church

Book Findings: There appears to be no shortage of teenagers who want to be inspired and make the world better. But the version of Christianity some are taught doesn’t inspire them “to change anything that’s broken in the world.” Teens want to be challenged; they want their tough questions taken on. “We think that they want cake, but they actually want steak and potatoes, and we keep giving them cake,” Churches, not just parents, share some of the blame for teens’ religious apathy. “…The gospel of niceness can’t teach teens how to confront tragedy. It can’t bear the weight of deeper questions: Why are my parents getting a divorce? Why did my best friend commit suicide? Why, in this economy, can’t I get the good job I was promised if I was a good kid?”

Book Findings: Parents are the most crucial and powerful socializers in the lives of their adolescents. The adolescent years are not the time to disengage as a parent. Growing adolescent independence often necessitates negotiation. If adolescents experience parents who are religiously withdrawn and functionally absent, then the faith of an emerging adult likely will also be vacuous, directionless, and empty. The more adults involved in the lives of adolescents, the better off they will be. This will mean that ministries to youth and families must find ways to incorporate loving, agenda-free adults into the lives of the ministry. Ministries to youth matter now more than ever. With the breakdown of the family and the systemic erosion of adult support, congregational youth ministers are more necessary than ever before.

Book Findings: Parents of students who did not leave the church emphasized religion twice as much as those who students who left the church. Students who stayed in church through college said that the first thing they do when they have doubts or questions was to talk to their parents and then read their Bibles.

Book Findings: Nearly 25% of the 18- to 29-year-olds interviewed said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” most of the time. 22% also said the church ignores real-world problems and 18% said that their church was too concerned about the negative impact of movies, music and video games. 33% of survey participants felt that “church is boring.” 20% of those who attended as a teenager said that God appeared to be missing from their experience of church. Many young adults do not like the way churches appear to be against science. Over 33% of young adults said that “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” and 25% of them said that “Christianity is anti-science.” 17% percent of young Christians say they’ve “made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” Two out of five young adult Catholics said that the church’s teachings on birth control and sex are “out of date.” 29% of young Christians said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and feel they have to choose between their friends and their faith. Over 33% of young adults said they feel like they can’t ask life’s most pressing questions in church and 23% said they had “significant intellectual doubts” about their faith.

There you have it; a short summary of some of the research being done on the exodus of young people from the Church and some of the reasons they give for their departure. Can a case be made that young Christians are leaving the Church in record numbers? Yes. Can a case be made that many of these young people are leaving because the culture around them has impacted them deeply and caused them to question the truth claims of Christianity? Yes, again. So, what are we going to do about it? What can be done? That’s a topic for my next post.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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