I took a “gap year” before anyone called it such a thing. The “gap year” refers to a year in between high school and college. For some (as was my case), it’s an opportunity to hold a full-time job and start earning some savings that can be applied later to tuition. For others, it’s a chance to travel or experience something during the “educational break” that brings cultural awareness.
Unfortunately, during the period when young adults are between the ages of 18 and 22, research shows that the majority take a “gap year” (or two, or more) from church. Kids who grew up in evangelical churches graduate high school and stop going to church.
Now, before we go any further, we need to recognize that some of the statistics thrown around are overblown. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “The stats show 86% of the kids in our youth group will leave the church, never to return!” Really? Is it 86%? And how would the “never to return” even be provable? Are all the kids dead already?
Still, even accurate statistics are sobering. Two-thirds of American young adults who attended church regularly as a teenager will leave at least for a year during the college years. Call them “drop outs.” Or call it a “gap year” for churchgoing. Church leaders should take note when the majority of the kids who attend church regularly as teenagers take significant time off from church during some of the most crucial decision-making years of their lives.
The Reasons for the Church “Gap Year”
A LifeWay survey reveals four major categories of why young people disappear from church during those college years.
- “I moved to college and stopped attending church.” (34%)
- “Church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical.” (32%)
- “I didn’t feel connected to people in my church.” (29%)
- “I disagreed with the church’s stance on political/social issues.” (25%)
If you read articles about this phenomenon, most of the attention focuses on #4. Young people, it’s assumed, are more liberal than their churches, and so they drop out of church. But at least a portion of these cases are likely due to the church not being as populist or rightwing as they are. (Consider the young people you see on various social media platforms complaining about the church being made up of people who aren’t sufficiently dedicated as “culture warriors.”) What’s more, if political issues were the dominant factor here, you’d expect left-leaning young people to look for churches that align with their views. There is no shortage of liberal churches out there, and yet many of these denominations are, age-wise, much older and grayer than their conservative counterparts.
So, even though a church’s stance on political and social issues is clearly a factor, we should also devote attention to the other three factors, which—taken together—show a picture of young people dropping out for no real objection at all, other than they didn’t prioritize finding a new church, or they felt disconnected during a time of transition, or they chafed against the hypocrisy they sensed in some congregations.
The young adult years are transitional. During this time of maturation in which students make big decisions, many young people are faced with a choice, perhaps for the first time as independent adults: will they own for themselves the beliefs they’ve inherited or take a different path?
Why Some Young Adults Stay in Church
What about the young adults who never drop out? One-third of young people between 18 and 22 never leave. What factors contributed to their staying?
- “Church was a vital part of my relationship with God.” (56%)
- “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life.” (54%)
- “I wanted to follow a parent/family member’s example.” (43%)
- “Church activities were a big part of my life (i.e. youth group, church choir, etc.).” (39%)
From a theological perspective, we might say that the college years are a winnowing period in which those who are regenerate—true believers in Christ—remain in the faith, while those whose faith was superficial or not deeply rooted simply fall away.
But that doesn’t account for the fact that some believers will return to church. Of the two-thirds that dropped out for a season, 31% have made their way back during the 22-30 age range. Here’s why they came back:
- “My parents/family members encouraged me to attend.” (37%)
- “I simply felt the desire to return.” (32%)
- “I felt that God was calling me to return to church.” (28%)
- “My friends/acquaintances encouraged me to attend.” (19%)
Further analysis of these 23-30 year olds reveals their perceptions about church when they were 18-22.
- Only 38% agree that “My church was a source of support during personal crises.”
- Only 44% agree that “My church was a welcoming environment for people in my life stage.”
- 37% agree that they felt connected to the church as a whole.
- Only 31% agree that they felt connected to the student ministry at my church.
- And only 44% agree that the pastor’s sermons were relevant to their lives.
The Church Matters
What are some ways we can process these statistics? Ben Trueblood’s Within Reach takes a look at the research and provides many helpful suggestions. Here are some of my thoughts.
- In many churches, a ministry gap exists for this life stage. The answer is probably not in launching another “program” but developing people who will commit to disciple and mentor young adults during this crucial phase of life. Gospel-centered relationships are key to building strong believers who stay connected in the church community, not only in the teenage years but for the young adult years and beyond.
- Accountability and activities matter. Historically, some evangelical churches have developed a category for “watchcare,” in which the church where a young person grew up will partner with a church in the vicinity of a student’s college or university, so that the young believer is never without a community of faith. Also, let’s not see young people as merely consumers being served by the church, but as involved and necessary participants in the mission of God. Some statistics show how high expectations for young people serving is a primary factor in keeping them engaged.
- The church is made up of the people of God who showcase the reality of the resurrection through our common life together. The reason some kids abandon their faith is not because they go to college or enter the workforce, but because they stop going to church. They immerse themselves in a culture with naturalistic assumptions, rituals, and beliefs. The church becomes something for the holidays.
Missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a community apologetic. The Church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth is shown in a way of life. The best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, whose common life is oriented toward the true story of a new world which began on Easter morning. For this reason, we must increase our efforts at discipling, mentoring, retaining, and involving young people during the college years.
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