We Could Cut the Church Dropout Rate of 18-23 Year Olds in Half with One Thing

1 comment Posted on February 1, 2016

by Haydn Shaw

Hold up ten fingers. Now fold down seven and keep up three. Your lowered fingers represent the number of young people ages 18-23 who will drop out of church for at least a year (though two thirds will come back).1 Even more alarming, a third don’t return. They join the Nones, those who claim no religious affiliation, which we have heard so much about the past year. Or they remain Christian but their faith fades into the background like the wallpaper on their laptop screens.

There are many reasons why young people drop out of church. Although there is no magic formula for stopping it, there is one thing that would dramatically decrease that number, potentially by half.

It isn’t campus ministries, though I’ve heard hundreds tell me how they have impacted their lives.

It isn’t missions trips, the research on them is discouraging, even though no generation in history has been on more of them than the Millennials.

It isn’t young adults programs for high school graduates, though we need to put much more focus on them because they are the most underserved group in churches today.

It isn’t a failure of the youth programs for junior high and high school ages, though they need to adjust to a new generation.

So what it is?

The one thing that has the potential to cut the dropout rate in half: relationships with people from the older generations. People who, in addition to their parents, come alongside them and help them figure out the confusing, exciting, dangerous, and amazing stage of life between adolescence and settled adulthood that now stretches until almost twenty eight.

GenIqAccording to Barna Group, Millennials who remain involved in church after their teen years are “twice as likely as those who don’t to have a close personal friendship with an older adult in their faith community (59 percent versus 31 percent).”2

Even more, it’s what works the best with younger, hard-core Nones. When Barna Group asked unchurched Millennials what approach churches could take to draw them in, the tactic religious skeptics rated highest (14 percent) was one in which the older people regularly connected with and shared life experiences with younger adults. Relationships with adults of older generations are that powerful.

I was stunned that it’s so simple. I think the complexity of figuring out ministry to 18-23 year olds has us so overwhelmed that we missed it: small contacts. Texting them while they are away at college. Stopping to talk to them when you see them at church. Texting them to see how they are doing when you don’t. Staying in contact with them, even small contacts, can potentially keep them in the faith.

Make no mistake, parents matter most. The most successful parents pass on their faith to their children 74 percent of the time.3 But what their parents tell them often makes more sense when they hear it from someone else. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child who stays in the faith, it takes a church. That’s why I want to mention Sean (youth minister), John (youth sponsor), John (Bible study leader who still meets with my son every Sunday throughout his college years), and Annie (neighbor) for the difference you made in the lives of my four children. I don’t know how to thank you.

Millennials need someone they can talk to who isn’t their parents. Men don’t marry until they are twenty-eight today and even later in urban areas. Young people need someone to talk with about how to wait until marriage, and the chances are good they won’t want to talk about it with their parents. Many emerging adults still aren’t sure what they want to do for a career even four years out of college. Parents who spent thousands on a university degree often get worked up when their daughter says she wants to quit her high-paying banking job and work for a nonprofit. After they have poured that much money into a major, it’s hard for them to bite their tongue and to listen while their twentysomething thinks it through. Young adults need safe places to ask questions; people they can rely on to let them think outload.

So parents, go recruit other adults who will help you help your young adults. Especially single parents, it will significantly increase your chances of passing on your faith.

Emerging adults also need a safe place to talk about their doubts and think through hard questions. Research shows one of the biggest factors in young people leaving Christianity and not returning is having doubts about their faith and having no one they think they can talk to.

Instead of waiting for young people to come to you, let them know doubts are normal and they are welcome to talk to you when they experience them. You don’t have to have the answers to be their adult friend. You don’t have to know a lot about the Bible or theology. You don’t have to have a degree in psychology. You need to listen and not get freaked out when they say they have uncertainties.

You aren’t too old if you can care and listen. We need the older generations, the Traditionalists and the Baby Boomers to get involved in the lives of Millennials. Surveys show Millennials respect the Traditionalists.4 They know the older generations have a lot to share with them, even if they have messed up along the way.

That means you don’t have to have it altogether. Millennials respond to authenticity, not perfection. They admire their parents, even though they know their flaws up close. So don’t pretend you have it figured out. For example, I think divorced Boomers have a lot to say to Millennials about marriage. We need to tell stories of couples who waited to have sex until marriage and grew their love through faithfulness and commitment so Millennials believe it’s possible in the real world. But God can also use people who say, “If I could do it over again, I would have listened less to psychology and more to God. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and fifteen thousand dollars in therapy.” Whatever your story, share what you have learned about finding your identity in God with a generation whose identities come with some assembly required.

Remember those seven fingers you folded down that represent the number of 18-23 year olds who will drop out of church for at least a year? Now put three of them back up. Those are the ones who would not leave if you and others in your church became their older friend. It’s that simple.

1Ed Stetzer, “Dropouts and Disciples: How Many Students Are Really Leaving the Church,” The Exchange (blog), May 14, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/may/dropouts-and-disciples-how-many-students-are-really-leaving.html.

2Marian V. Liautaud, “Make Room for Me,” Christianity Today, October 13, 2014, http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2014/october-online-only/make-room-for-me.html?paging=off.

3Vern L. Bengtson, with Norella M. Putney and Susan Harris, Families and Faith: How Religion Is Passed Down across Generations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 99–112.

4Thom S. Rainer and Jess W. Rainer, The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Nashville: B&H, 2011), 88

Haydn Shaw, who has researched and helped clients regarding generational differences for over twenty years, is the author of Sticking Points: How to Get 4 Generations Working Together in the 12 Places They Come Apart, and FranklinCovey’s bestselling workshops Leading Across Generations and Working Across Generations. He has just written a new book, releasing this month, titled Generational IQ: Christianity Isn’t Dying, Millennials Aren’t the Problem, and The Future is Bright.

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  • 04/27/2018
    Ben Joiner said:

    From what I saw of that Spring 2007 lifeway study, about 1/3 of dropouts return to church, and 2/3 don’t. The article you cite quotes the same study, but it seems he made a mistake in how he quoted it. If you look at youth in church overall, about 1/3 never leave and about 1/3 come back. So that would mean about 1/3 leave and don’t come back.


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