High School Grads Who Don’t Leave the Church

The bad news is that some young adults leave the church after high school. The good news is that not as many are leaving as we once thought. And, we increasingly know what makes the difference.

Once, we thought that kids who generally attended church for 18 years developed an okay faith. Then, we thought, they would go off to the terrible secular university (or military, or workplace) and there they would lose their faith. But the research does not support that scenario. The older teenagers who possess a genuine faith carry that faith on into adulthood. The older teenagers who never really possessed a genuine faith tend to leave the church after high school. But they are not “leaving the faith” because they cannot leave what they never had.

They are not “leaving the faith” because they cannot leave what they never had.

A Focus on the Family study casts light on trends among young adults that may contradict doomsday predictions for the Christian faith. The study, titled “Millennial Faith Participation and Retention,” tracked the religious trends of Millennials (usually those born between 1980 and 2000). The study utilizes data from the Pew research sources and the National Science Foundation’s annual General Social Survey.

Of the young adults who now are unaffiliated with any church, only 11 percent said they had a strong faith as a child and lived in a home where a vibrant faith was practiced and taught. In other words, the great majority of Millennials leaving the church (89 percent) never had a strong faith to start with.

The great majority of Millennials leaving the church (89 percent) never had a strong faith to start with.

Homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children. Homes modeling vibrant faith do. “This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting,” the Focus on the Family study noted.

“Parents who provide a home where faith is vibrantly practiced—even imperfectly—are remarkably likely to create young adults who remain serious Christians, even as they sometimes go through bumpy spots in the road,” the study said. “[N]ot surprisingly, homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children.”

Christian Smith, architect of the National Study of Youth and Religion, reports in his book Souls in Transition that “Religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not random happenstances about which all bets are off after age 18. Instead, they often flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape persons’ lives in early years. … The religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter—they make a difference.”

Parents can be divided into three groups:

Parents who are lost

  • Those parents do not know God through faith in Christ.
  • Most of those who grow up with lost parents spend all their lives lost (including their eternity). The few who do come to faith in Christ are true miracles.

Parents who are converts

  • Those parents know God through faith in Christ, but their faith is shallow and their daily preoccupation is themselves. Self reigns.
  • Most of those who grow up with convert parents leave the church and adopt a lifestyle similar to lost young adults. While middle-aged convert parents may find reasons to stay in church, young adult converts seldom do.

Parents who are disciples

  • Those parents know God through faith in Christ, and they are so transformed that their daily preoccupation is adoring King Jesus, following Him, and living for His glory.
  • Most of those who grow up with disciple parents spend all their lives as disciples. The few who do not are tragic exceptions.

The Focus on the Family study also noted a relationship between religious disengagement and the trend to postpone marriage and parenthood.

“Settling down in family usually means settling down to church,” the study said. “Growing strong marriages and thriving families is an important church growth strategy that cannot be ignored.”

Church sociologist Robert Wuthnow of Princeton would agree, noting that “today’s young adults are divided religiously on lines that correspond closely to their marital status. Young adults who are married go to church and often go to theologically conservative churches. Young adults who are not married are less likely to attend religious services.” (After the Baby Boomers)

Among the study’s key conclusions for ministry:

  • Churches clearly teaching the Bible (conservative evangelical churches) are growing while those that do not (mainline denominations) declined. Young adults want “uncompromising truth” that “calls them to something beyond themselves.”
  • Homes with serious faith tend to produce children who carry faith into adulthood. Christians should create homes where children “witness a vibrant faith that’s lived out honestly and intentionally.” Strong families produce lasting faith.
  • Millennials want serious, substantive faith—not entertainment and theatrics. “Truth trumps trappings,” the study said.

Richard Ross

Richard Ross

Professor of Student Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Dr. Ross serves as Professor of Student Ministry in the Jack D. Terry School of Church and Family Ministries. He is married to LaJuana and they are parents of Clayton.
Twitter: @richardaross
Website: RichardARoss.com
Richard Ross