Exodus from the Church?
[Editor's Note: While commentators warned against the imminent threat of an evangelical theocracy in the United States (remember?), American evangelicals themselves were wondering what to make of a growing number of reports claiming that young people are dropping out of church at an unprecedented rate. For the moment, theocracy-talk has faded into the background. Worries about the state of the faith have not subsided. This week we feature a debate between Drew Dyck and Byron Johnson. Drew argues that there is "a move away from Christian commitment among young Americans." Byron contends that such concerns are based on misinformation. They respect each other even as they vigorously disagree.]
Religious beliefs are elusive targets for researchers. No survey or study can probe the heart of a person, much less the mind of God. So when it comes to assessing how many young people are joining or leaving the faith, we're dealing educated guesses. To steal the Apostle Paul's beautiful phrase, "we see through a glass darkly." Still, a number of recent studies provide important clues about the emerging generation's pattern of belief—and it's not a pretty picture. Several indicators point to a move away from Christian commitment among young Americans.
Results from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) released in 2009 showed that the percentage of Americans claiming "no religion" almost doubled in less than two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The "Nones," as the media called them, were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. The study also found that 73 percent of Nones came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as "de-converts."
Some assessments have been more dramatic. At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace. They reported that "young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago)."
Inquiries into levels of church involvement have revealed a corresponding decline. President of Rainer Research, Sam Rainer writes reports that "70% of young adults drop out (of church) between the ages of 18 and 22." The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be "disengaged" by the time they are 29. Of course disengagement from the church is not tantamount to apostasy. Yet for young dropouts—who are less likely than their older counterparts to seek out alternative forms of Christian community—an extended absence from church may also spell trouble for their Christian beliefs.
Some view the departure from church as a hiatus, a matter of 20-somethings slapping the snooze on Sunday mornings, as the prominent sociologist Rodney Stark claims. In this view the trend is a reversible, life-phase phenomenon. Once members of the younger generation start establishing careers, getting married, and having children, they'll come back.
I'm not so sure. Those sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment are now being delayed late into the 20s and even into the 30s, making an eventual return to faith more unlikely. Plus, as Putnam and Campbell report, today's young adults are abandoning religion at a greater rate than the young adults of yesteryear.
A note of caution is needed. Research on this topic has been abused. The trend has been exaggerated by Christians to sell books and conferences, and cited by detractors to sound triumphant predictions of Christianity's imminent demise. The trend does not pose an existential threat to Christendom, especially when you factor in the florescence of faith in the Global South. At the same time, the North American church would be wise to guard against complacency. If large numbers of our young people are leaving the Christian faith of their youth, now is the time for an informed and faithful response.
Drew Dyck is managing editor of Leadership Journal and author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … and How to Bring Them Back (Moody).
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