Most young Christians drop out of church in college years

(Photo: Unsplash/Pete Bellis)

New research from LifeWay has revealed the challenge churches face in keeping young people in the pews as they head off to college. 

A new study from the research group found that two-thirds of young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager said they stopped going for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22.

The study found that the likelihood of leaving church increased with age, with the proportion saying they regularly attended church falling from 69 per cent at the age of 17 to 58 per cent when they were 18, and 40 per cent by the time they were 19.

Once the participants were into their twenties, only one in three said they were still attending church regularly.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay, said: 'We are seeing teenagers drop out of the church as they make the transition out of high school and student ministry. This moment of transition is often too late to act for churches.'

Out of the 2,002 young Americans surveyed in 2017, nearly half (47 percent) said moving to college was a factor in falling away from church for a year.  

Nearly all (96 per cent) said it was because of a change in their life circumstances, but nearly three-quarters cited the church or pastor (73 per cent), over two-thirds (70 per cent) their religious, ethical or political beliefs, and 63 per cent the student ministry.

Nearly a third (32 per cent) said they found church members judgmental or hypocritical while a quarter said they disagreed with the church position on political or social issues. 

A similar number (24 per cent) blamed work responsibilities, while over a quarter (29 per cent) said they had planned to take a break from church after high school. 

But the numbers also revealed a worrying drift from the church as nearly three-quarters (71 per cent) said their leaving wasn't an intentional decision.

'For the most part, people aren't leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith,' said Trueblood.

'What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: there was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life.

'The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else.'

Many also still identified with the faith. Among those who attended a Protestant church as teenager, 7 in 10 said they were still Protestant now, while another 10 per cent identified as Catholic. Only a handful said they were agnostic (4 per cent) or atheist (3 per cent).

'While some young adults who leave church are rejecting their childhood faith, most are choosing to keep many of the beliefs they had, but with a smaller dose of church,' said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

LifeWay's research also found that the numbers leaving church after going to college has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years. 

A 2007 study from LifeWay found that a slightly higher proportion of 18- to 22-year-olds had left church for at least a year (70 per cent). But McConnell said the margins were too small to call it an improvement. 

'The good news for Christian leaders is that churches don't seem to be losing more students than they were 10 years ago. However, the difference in the dropout rate now and then is not large enough statistically to say it has actually improved,' he said.

'The reality is that Protestant churches continue to see the new generation walk away as young adults. Regardless of any external factors, the Protestant church is slowly shrinking from within.'

He said many teenagers were only attending church regularly for a season because 'many families just don't attend that often'.  As they get older, their priorities are starting to change. 

'As those teenagers reach their late teen years, even those with a history of regular church attendance are pulled away as they get increased independence, a driver's license, or a job,' he said.

'The question becomes: will they become like older adults who have all those things and still attend or will students choose to stay away longer than a year.'

He continued: 'Most of the reasons young adults leave the church reflect shifting personal priorities and changes in their own habits.

'Even when churches have faithfully communicated their beliefs through words and actions, not every teenager who attends embraces or prioritizes those beliefs.'

The study also explored the reasons why those still regularly attending church continue to go.  Of the third (34 per cent) in the 2017 survey who said they still went to church twice a month or more when they were 22, over half (56 per cent) said the church was a vital part of their relationship with God.  

A similar proportion (54 per cent) said they wanted the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life, while more than four in 10 (43 per cent) say they wanted to follow the example of a parent or other family member.

Others said church activities were a big part of their life (39 per cent), they felt church was helping them become a better person (39 per cent), or they were committed to the purpose and work of the church (37 per cent).

The study also found that some young adults who fall away do later return, as 31 per cent of those who dropped out for at least one year said they were currently attending twice a month or more.

Among all the young adults surveyed, more than a quarter (27 per cent) said they attended church once a week or more, while a quarter said they attended a few times a year. 

'On some level, we can be encouraged that some return, while at the same time, we should recognize that when someone drops out in these years there is a 69 per cent chance they will stay gone,' said Trueblood. 

'There are steps we can begin taking with those currently in student ministry that will keep them connected from the beginning of these years.' 

He suggested churches make ministry to young adults more of a priority. 

'In many places this is a forgotten, under-resourced ministry area,' he said. 'Focus is placed on children, students, and then not again until someone enters the 'young family' stage. This needs to change.'