Latest stats: More young adults dropping out of church because of political, moral clashes

It’s been 10 years since I published a book on why people quit church and, no surprise to me, the topic is still making news.

The Nashville-based Lifeway Research released some findings last week that I meant to get to sooner. But then the unlucky meeting of some Catholic high school kids, obscenity-spouting Black Hebrew Israelites and drum-pounding Native Americans in Washington, D.C., a week ago pushed everything else out of the news.

Back to the regular news chase, I found it unsurprising that young people drop out of church. I mean, most youth take a vacation from religion during their college years. The journalism issue right now is what has changed. As the Tennessean said:

Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church.

Two-thirds of young people say they stopped regularly going to church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, a new LifeWay Research survey shows.

That means the church had a chance to share its message and the value of attending with this group, but it didn't stick, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

"That's a lot of folks saying, 'No, that's not for me' or 'It's not for me right now' at that young age," McConnell said.

Again, youth have been dropping out of church during their college years for as long as I can remember, so that’s not news. What is?

The reasons fell under four categories:

· Nearly all — 96 percent — cited life changes, including moving to college and work responsibilities that prevented them from attending.

· Seventy-three percent said church or pastor-related reasons led them to leave. Of those, 32 percent said church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical and 29 percent said they did not feel connected to others who attended.

· Seventy percent named religious, ethical or political beliefs for dropping out. Of those, 25 percent said they disagreed with the church's stance on political or social issues while 22 percent said they were only attending to please someone else.

· And, 63 percent said student and youth ministry reasons contributed to their decision not to go. Of those, 23 percent said they never connected with students in student ministry and 20 percent said the students seemed judgmental or hypocritical.

What the Tennessean did was interview people who minister to youth on the best ways to keep them in church. Lifeway, by the way, is a research organization linked to the Southern Baptist Convention.

Turning to other media, I looked at how Christianity Today dealt with it.

The magazine had a much more cogent breakdown of the survey. It said that slightly fewer young adults are dropping out of church after high school, but those who do have more serious reasons for leaving than a decade ago.

I liked CT’s focus on comparing 2017’s results with the same survey 10 years before.

In a 2017 LifeWay Research survey released today, 66 percent of Americans between 23 and 30 years old said they stopped attending church on a regular basis for at least a year after turning 18, compared to 70 percent in 2007.

Most young churchgoers skip out on Sundays at some point amid their transition to going to college, moving away from home, or starting their first jobs. LifeWay has found that historically about two-thirds of dropouts return to services once they get older.

But these days, young Christians are more likely to cite weightier political and spiritual concerns as pushing them away from the church, with 70 percent listing such beliefs as a reason for their departure in 2017 compared to about half (52%) 10 years before.

Well, at least they’re thinking deeper thoughts, this bunch.

Not too many other outlets covered the survey, although Fox & Friends did. Not surprisingly, they concentrated on the 70 percent of youth who felt that differences in political and social issues.

Religion News Service had an editorial on that exact aspect titled, not surprisingly titled “Are churches willing to love their young people more than their politics?” What was surprising is that it was written by McConnell himself. We don’t usually delve into opinion pieces, but this particular paragraph is noteworthy:

Listening can be hard when young adults take idealistic stands or think that the church should learn from them, but not vice versa. Churches have a choice, however: Either relentlessly toe a specific political party line, or make sure young adults know they are valued. Almost 3 in 10 young adults who stop attending regularly attribute this to not feeling connected to people in their church.

All this sounds idealistic but how does one work these things out?

It’s interesting that young adults note political differences between them and the folks who run their churches but do they ever voice them? The last time I attended a church where the leaders really cared what I thought was in the early 1990s. Also, what some people call “political” differences — on sexual morality issues, such as abortion or marriage — are actually “doctrinal” issues for the church.

My research also showed that people found church irrelevant, but not for political or social justice reasons. They just didn’t feel the pastor lived on the same planet they did. I found that folks were more fed up with a lack of females in meaningful leadership positions; absolutely no status for singles, the lack of community and the lack of the supernatural gifts and graces that made the church survive during its first three bloody centuries.

Most churches I know avoid mentioning politics at all costs, so I’m wondering if something has changed in the Age of Donald Trump among the 20-something set. This poll was taken in 2017, so were the respondents expecting their congregations to make some kind of public pronouncement about Trump or Hillary Clinton? I am not convinced that they were.

The building blocks of church involvement are worship, preaching and the friendliness of the participants, aka community. If one factor is missing but the other two are strong, people will stick with that congregation. But if two of these factors are not working, it’s inevitable that people will leave.

I interviewed McConnell for my book and what he said back in 2006 (when I was doing most of my research) was there was no parallel in the 21st century to the Jesus movement that swept the country back in the 1970s and helped convert a lot of the Baby Boomer generation.

“Church after church sees seniors graduate and they know they’re not in church,” he told me “I’m picking up on a bit of revival in some churches aided by (megachurches like) the Willowcreeks and the Saddlebacks to some extent. But as to seeing a movement in our culture today, I don’t see that at all.”

However, I’ve visited non-denominational charismatic churches like Bethel in Redding, Calif. and the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, which are packed with 20-somethings. Neither of these churches talk about politics. So why are they overflowing? That’s grist for another piece and proof that even surveys have exceptions.

The bottom line: This news story is not going away.

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