The latest research spelled out here drives me to help this generation of students discover together with me the goodness of God, the blessings of following His call, and the joy of being engaged in Kingdom work...those are the things that draw people toward Jesus and His Church and keep students engaged in the community of 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 95million 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.