It’s probably no surprise to hear that children drop out of church in their teens or early twenties. It might be more surprising to learn that the drop out rate is significantly greater for mainline Protestant and Catholic churches than for ethnicity-based, conservative Protestant, and more liturgical congregations. There are a variety of reasons young adults abandon their church and faith tradition, and the independent work of several researchers indicates that those reasons can be grouped into four main issues:
- Churches tend to segregate children and youth from adults;
- Youth programs are given second-tier status, including low (or no) budgets and haphazard staffing;
- Children and youth receive lukewarm instruction in the key tenets of the faith, and see few or no adults who take their faith seriously;
- The church community fails to develop a robust alternative to the secular culture.
Here is a consideration of each key reason, accompanied by links to supporting summaries of research, and followed by a solution strategy based in analyses of what is working to keep children in church through their transition into adulthood. As you read you will see how these 4 issues are inter-connected.
1. Churches tend to segregate children and youth from adults.
Darwin Glassford notes that a new pattern of child raising entered into the American culture at the close of World War II. In general, American society began to separate children from adults. Where once parents and their children worked together on the farm, in a more urban environment fathers left home for hours each day, mothers became involved in neighborhood civic activities, and children were increasingly left on their own and seen as having interests different from that of their parents.
That pattern carried over into church, where the once-common experience of families worshiping together was replaced by separating children into Sunday school programs that took place at the same time as the parents worshiped. In this audio file from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship’s Calvin Symposium on Worship, 2007, Glassford maintains that adults left children, rather than children leaving adults, and that what’s needed is for adults to reintegrate children into the full range of their lives.
Solution: Introduce truly multi-generational services.
The Calvin Institute for Christian Worship explores why and how to do so. A two-part essay on their website expounds on the biblical warrants for multi-generational worship and addresses the practical aspects of making worship child- and youth-friendly. (Part 1; Part 2)
In separate studies, research conducted by Christian Smith and Carol Lytch uncovered the need youth have for warm and meaningful relationships with believing adults as a part of their socialization into faithfulness (Smith; Lytch). And Cynthia Woolever’s study of congregations points to the welcome and integration of children as one of the key markers of highly vital congregations (that material is linked in topic 2’s solutions).
2. Youth programs are given second-tier status, including low (or no) budgets and haphazard staffing.
Segregating children’s and youth programs leads to marginalization and little or no budgetary support. Staffing is often haphazard, carried out by volunteers recruited for a year or a month, many of whom either don’t have the time or a real passion for working with youth. Where youth ministers are hired, they are often either seminary students or newly-graduated seminarians who see youth ministry as a short-term stepping stone to “real” ministry with adults.
In an interview, Christian Smith, director the National Study of Youth and Religion, says segregation leads to few opportunities for youth and adults to communicate or interact around ideas at the crucial time in young people’s lives when they need connection to, not separation from, adults: this is when they are determining who they will be when they leave home.
Nancy Ammerman‘s research reinforces Smith’s conclusions. She highlights the lack of commitment by mainline Protestant congregations to develop institutions and programs that teach and support the core tenets of the faith community. That means teenagers and young adults who are defining themselves in preparation for leaving home have little or no vibrant religious influences in their lives. Her work is covered more in topic #4.
Solution: Intentionally focus resources on youth and youth programming.
Cynthia Woolever, director of the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, discovered that the most vital churches have active and integrated children’s and youth programming; children and youth are central to the life, ministry, and mission of highly successful churches. Read the relevant summary. This is a conclusion that ought to be self-evident. Since most church-attendance decisions are driven by women, and mothers are concerned for the welfare of their children, churches that prioritize children’s nurture and care will be more attractive to young families, and will experience a resulting vitality (assuming they are also good at welcoming and integrating the whole family – which Woolever’s research summaries also discuss.)
As Christian Smith indicates in his interview, his research shows that keeping youth in church, and keeping youth engaged as they become young adults and leave home, requires making the youth program a central element of church life. It must be approached in an organic, holistic, and family-based manner; it must have a viable budget; and it needs a youth minister who is committed to establishing deep, long-term relationships with teenagers.
For an example of what that can look like, read this issue of Congregational Stories from The Indianapolis Center for Congregations. The Center, which helps Indiana congregations work through challenges and opportunities, reported in 2007 on the results of four Indiana congregations that put dollars behind their commitment to take youth programming out of the basement and into the center of church life.
Carol Lytch identified youth groups as one of those few places where youth can find intimate community – a key ingredient in keeping young adults in church (see solution 4, below). And Nancy Ammerman notes the need for fellowship opportunities to reinforce a faith community’s counter-cultural perspective. Both studies reinforce the notion that robust youth groups and programs meet the needs of youth during their critical late teenage years, when they are defining their adult selves and values.
3. Children and youth receive lukewarm instruction in the key tenets of the faith, and see few or no adults who take their faith seriously.
Mainline Protestant and Catholic children often cannot distinguish the difference between the lives of faithful adults and non-faithful adults – either at church or at home. The absence of adults modeling the importance of belief, coupled to their church’s hesitant instruction in the key claims of the faith, lead youth to not see church and faith as important elements of a successful adult life.
As a church pastor, I discovered that mainline Protestant parents were hesitant to endorse their own religious convictions to their own children, and were suspicious of church leadership that wanted to do so, because they thought it would hamper their children’s free decision to believe or not believe when they became adults.
The fallacy in their reasoning is that children cannot choose what they do not know, and if they have no exposure to significant adults taking faith seriously while surrounded by a culture that increasingly dismisses the value of faith, they cannot compare the benefits of a life of faith to one without faith. Put a different way: if parents and church people do not behave differently than the non church-going general public, no choice needs to be made; and if children are not introduced to the tenets of the faith as items that are taken seriously, then those tenets cannot be taken seriously.
Christian Smith discovered that what parents do, say and choose matters to their kids far more than parents realize. And parental attitudes, choices and practices – that is, what they do, rather than what they say they do – is reflected and adopted by their children.
Nancy Ammerman noted that especially mainline Protestant congregations are out of touch with reality, and are failing to adapt to new conditions. They continue to feel no sense of urgency to pass on their values because they still think the general American society will help teach and reinforce basic Christian perspectives – even though U.S. culture moved away from its historic Christian orientation several generations ago.
Caroly Lytch points to the need youth have for a place where they are taught and encouraged to adopt a meaning system based on clear faith perspectives – without which youth will drift away from church.
Solution: Prioritize youth instruction and guidance in matters of faith, integrate youth and adults in learning and serving opportunities within the church and in the surrounding community, and provide mentoring by many church adults, including parents at home.
Caroly Lytch, author of Choosing Church, found that teens want their parents involved in their lives, and that what parents say really does matter to them. Her research revealed that youth remain in church when 6 out of 10 parental traits are present. The six that matter are:
- a non-permissive parenting style
- the presence of a quality parent-child network of interactions
- a warm tone to family life
- both parents (if there are two in the household) attend the same church
- the home is permeated by a “thick religious culture”
- the parents attend church on a regular basis
The four traits that did not matter are: living close to relatives, having an intact family structure; possessing a high income; and, having parents who have the same religious background.
Lytch also discovered that teens choose to remain active in church when their church experience offers 3 things:
- A sense of belonging – church is a place where youth can find intimate community with peers and adults;
- A sense of meaning based on believing – church is a place where youth are given the opportunity and support to discover what they believe and to grow in their understanding of their relationship to God;
- A challenge to competence – church is a place where youth have the opportunity to discover their gifts and talents through a range of responsibilities and activities that call forth their competencies.
You can read an interview with Lytch here.
4. The church community fails to develop a robust alternative to the secular culture.
U.S. mainstream culture and social institutions no longer reinforce Christian (or any) religious values. Consequently, religious communities have to practice a more robust faith in order to inculcate their values in their children, which is something mainline Protestantism – and even Catholicism, despite its near-obligatory Catechism program – is failing to do.
The research indicates that the growing religious diversity in America is seen as a positive development by more than three-fourths of our citizens. It also appears that all religious groups except mainline Protestantism are benefiting from the increased competition for adherents. Mainline Protestantism has not adjusted to the fact that there no longer exists a cultural consensus around Protestant Christian values. Conservative Christians, liturgical church traditions, the Black Christian Church, and non-Christian faiths have all developed as outsider communities, and all exhibit characteristics of what Nancy Ammerman calls “organizational robustness” in their faith expression. In an interview, she says they do 3 things mainline Protestants do not do that help transmit their community’s values to their children and youth:
- Their worship service clearly reflects and inculcates a particular view of God and humankind.
- Their religious education program intentionally articulates and explains those views.
- They offer fellowship opportunities that provide social and cultural reinforcements for those views, especially at those points where the community’s views and values separate from the dominant culture’s assumptions and values.
Solution: Develop the faith community as a robust alternative to mainstream secular culture, so that children are raised in families and communities that know what they believe, and practice what they know.
In my experience, mainline churches are not good at articulating what they believe, either at the individual member level or at the group level. Mainline churches need to correct for that by building disciple-making communities.
To create a community that can foster robust discipleship, churches must first engage in prayerful group discernment of their basic tenets and convictions, to be followed by an articulation of those commitments in the form of a vision statement and set of mission objectives. Then, the congregation must eliminate every program and practice that does not clearly relate to and reflect those convictions, and replace them with programs and practices that both reflect and build up the community’s commitments in the minds and lives of worshipers.
A robust culture of discipleship benefits youth by providing a solid basis for a more productive and happier life than results from more permissive childhoods, according to studies reviewed by David Briggs in his blog post, Parents play major role in religious lives of young adults. In his post, Briggs links Christian Smith’s findings to psychological studies that indicate that when parents consider religious life to be significant, and act on it by regularly attending church, their children have happier outcomes as young adults than do children of parents who take a more permissive and hands-off approach to child-rearing, have a more casual attitude toward worship attendance, and who step away from their children as they become late teenagers and young adults.
Those findings also reinforce the work of Lytch, and underscore her contention that many elements work together and reinforce one another to create a coherent and consistent matrix within which children can be raised into believing adults. Lytch notes that parents who are good at 2 or 3 of the 6 parental traits that matter will not produce the same effect in their children as parents who are strong in all 6.
Similarly, the 4 key reasons youth do not stay in church discussed here reinforce each other to take our children out of church. And the solutions also work together to create a warm, caring, disciple-making community where parents and other adults practice and model a robust faithfulness that “traditions” the next generation into a network of beliefs and congruent practices that both keep them in church and contribute to happier, more successful adult lives.
Additional Resources for Working with Youth
As you might imagine, race and ethnicity affect how youth see life and faith. Brad Christerson conducted a study that uncovered important racial and ethnic distinctions which he discussed in this interview.