The amount of students who are dropping out during their college years is shocking. But I am not talking about a surging attrition rate among American colleges and universities. What I am describing is the mass exodus of many Protestant teens from the local church during their college years.
A new study released by Lifeway Research reports that students are leaving the church faster than college football fans watching their team get blown out in 95 degree heat. According to a USA Today article describing the report:
Seventy percent of Protestants age 18 to 30 drop out of church before age 23 and give multiple reasons for their departure.
Why they leave
- Wanted a break from church: 27%
- Found church members judgmental or hypocritical: 26%
- Moved to college: 25%
- Tied up with work: 23%
- Moved too far away from home church: 22%
- Too busy: 22%
- Felt disconnected to people at church: 20%
- Disagreed with church’s stance on political/social issues: 18%
- Spent more time with friends outside church: 17%
- Only went before to please others: 17%
Reasons cited by the 30% who kept attending church:
- It’s vital to my relationship with God: 65%
- It helps guide my decision in everyday life: 58%
- It helps me become a better person: 50%
- I am following a family member’s example: 43%
- Church activities were a big part of my life: 35%
- It helps in getting through a difficult time: 30%
- I fear living without spiritual guidance: 24%
Lifeway offers a number of follow up articles unpacking the research:
- Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church
- Parents, Churches Can Help Teens Stay in Church
- Church Dropout Study Podcast
- Listening to Students About Leaving the Church, by Jeff Schadt
- Why Young Adults Drop Out of Church and What Can Be Done to Stem the Tide, a Research Reflection from Scott Stevens
- Dropout Study Illustrates the Great Opportunity We Have, a Research Reflection by Jim Johnston
- Lost In Transition, a Research Reflection by Mark Lydecker
Dr. Albert Mohler also did a radio show on the issue last week.
Based on my experiences in college ministry, here are the primary reasons I think these students leave the church during college:
- Some are not believers. Many attended church in high school because of pressure from their culture, their family or their peers; not because they know Christ and have a burden for meeting with His people for the sake of His kingdom. When their life situation shifts and these pressures are released, then their incentives for attendance are eliminated.
- Many operate as spiritual consumers. In out individualized culture, most of these students function as spiritual consumers who view the church as just another vendor of goods. So, their decisions about the church are largely based on what opportunities will provide the best return on their Sunday morning time investment. As long as students see the church as a business united to consumerism rather than a bride united to Christ, this dropout rate will continue.
- Most have not been taught to love the local church. As a result, they look at the church as just another option in the large spiritual buffet of Christian opportunities offered on many college campuses. When students can have their ‘spiritual needs’ met through campus Bible studies and Christian organizations, then their investment in church will suffer.
- Others put church on the back burner during their college years. This happens for two reasons. First, some forsake the church to sow their wild oats and live for themselves for a season of life. Second, others marginalize the church because they are trying to make the most of opportunities that are exclusive to college in order to maximize their personal and spiritual growth. In other words, in the quest to build a resume (or even, for some, to grow in godliness), the local church is not seen as a quality option.
- Last, many are disillusioned with the local church. For some, this occurs as they have bad experiences with the local church they grew up in. They become disenfranchised when they can’t find a church that’s different from their home church. For others, this takes place as they struggle for multiple years to finally settle on a church to commit themselves to during college. They become disenfranchised when they can’t find a church that’s just like their home church.
My hope is that studies like this will renew the sense of urgency in our local churches and our denominational entities to make every effort to redeem this pivotal time in the lives of our young people. As long as churches continue to lump college ministry into the pastoral duties of other ministers and denominational entities continue to slash budgets because this area is unprofitable, this dropout trend will continue.