Is the often-cited youth exodus real or just business as usual for another generation? The data suggests the former.

Back in 2002, the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life did a survey that said 88% of their young people left the church. Now the survey goes on to say a handful come back, but the bottom line is they leave.

Soul Searching, written in 2005 by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, presented the results of an exhaustive study of approximately 3,300 teenagers between 13 and 17 years of age. Their results were equally disheartening; of those students that claim to be Christian, they “were often woefully unable to express what they believe or why it is important to them.”[1] The cited article goes on to say this is “due to churches failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.” This study, the National Survey of Youth and Religion, has been funded through 2015.

A 2009 study by Jossey-Bass of youth active in high school drop out of church at an alarming 90% rate. Lifeway Research did a similar study in 2011, and they found that 70% leave the church between the ages of 17 and 19.

David Kinnaman who is now the head of Barna Research, authored You Lost Me, a book that should be mandatory reading for any youth pastor. Kinnaman examines not only the data but the reasons behind the data. Why are they leaving?

While each study cited presents its own reasons, they do tend to fall into six general categories:

  1. The church is overprotective. Don’t believe me? How about the vilification of the Harry Potter series by some churches? Some students are told to avoid certain movies, music and the like because it’s evil. It may well be, but we should teach how to apply discernment to what we consume. Kinnaman states “An overprotected generation has been sold the lie that Christian living means material blessing, automatic protection, and bulletproof safety. Two millennia of Christian martyrs beg to differ…”[2] As the adage goes, we are in the world but not of it.
  2. The church is shallow. “If there was a message it was simple; I wasn’t getting a deeper understanding of my faith. So I left.”[3] Many students echo the findings of Kinnaman[4]:
    1. Church is boring.
    2. Faith is not relevant to my career or my interests.
    3. My church does not prepare me for real life.
    4. My church does not help me find my purpose.
    5. The Bible is not taught clearly of often enough.
    6. God seems missing from my experience of church.
  3. The church is anti-science. Students often feel the antagonism of the church toward science (real or perceived) force them into an either/or decision. It should be an “and” decision as both science and faith are intertwined. The teleological argument for a purposefully designed universe needs modern science on which to base its claims.
  4. The church is repressive, especially as it related to sexuality. Students need clear teaching on issues facing them regarding sexuality.
  5. The church is exclusive. Some churches encourage its students to avoid coming to events held at other churches. While there may be legitimate concerns, often it’s more about “turf.”
  6. The church discourages doubt. Thou shalt not doubt. Thankfully, this didn’t make the list. Yet it remains gospel in some churches. Students are reluctant to ask tough questions because of how they will be viewed by their peers or teachers. Doubt should be encouraged to the point no student is afraid to ask. If doubt remains when they leave their home, they will be more likely to fall prey to arguments against their faith.

So now that the problem has been identified, what is the solution? Apologetics play a central role in addressing the solution and we will begin with how to introduce apologetics into a student curriculum next week.

[1], accessed 1/10/17.

[2] David Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pg. 105

[3] Direct quote from a student who left her former youth group.

[4] Kinnaman, pg. 116