A large proportion of children who grow up attending a church in Australia, United Kingdom or USA drop-out of church attendance. According to the 2009 International Social Survey Program, the drop-out rate in Australia was 72 per cent. In the United Kingdom, it was 57 per cent, and in the USA it was 47 per cent. Over the past four decades, the drop-out rate in the United Kingdom and Australia has not changed a great deal. Indeed, in Australia, there is some evidence of it decreasing. In the United States, it has been gradually climbing. A recent book has been prepared by the head of the Barna Group, David Kinnaman, exploring why young people are dropping out. The book is entitled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church … and Rethinking Faith.
Drawing on the Barna organisation’s internal statistics, Kinnaman suggests that the ages of 18 to 29 are the ‘blackhole of church attendance’ and that this age group is ‘missing in action’. He suggests there is a 43 per cent drop-off between the teen and early adult years in church engagement, a figure a little lower than the ISSP figure of 54 per cent for that age group.
A large portion of American children, between 70 and 80 per cent, have some regular involvement in a church or Sunday School. Yet, close to half of them drop out of church by the end of their teenage years. In Australia, 29 per cent of young people 18 to 29 indicated in the ISSP that they attended religious services at least once a month in their primary school years, but by the time they reach the end of their twenties, more than 70 per cent of them have dropped out. Table 1 shows the drop-out rate for different cohorts of young people from Australia, UK and USA.
Table 1. Drop-Out Rates from Religious Services for Various Age Cohorts in Australia, UK and USA.
|Australia (n=816)||UK (n=1669)||USA (n=1023)|
|15 to 29 year olds||72||54||54|
|30 to 39 year olds||67||56||46|
|40 to 49 year olds||83||50||53|
|50 to 59 year olds||81||67||46|
|60 to 69 year olds||69||55||44|
|70 years and older||61||56||35|
|Drop-out Rate for All Age Cohorts||51||57||47|
Note: These drop-out rates were calculated from the percentage of people of each age group in 2008-2009 who indicated that they attended religious services when they were aged 11 monthly or more often, but were attending less than monthly at the time when they completed the survey.
Source: International Social Survey Program 2008-2009.
Kinnaman begins by noting that many young adults not only leave the church, but squarely place the blame on the church itself. To some extent, they suggest that the disconnection was ‘out of their hands’. While one factor in disconnection may be failures of the churches, another factor may be the profound cultural change that is taking place in the USA, Kinnaman says (loc. 157). Kinnaman found strong similarities among Protestants and Catholics in the attitudes and patterns of behaviour. In a survey conducted by the Barna group, 51 per cent of Protestant and 49 per cent of Catholic young people indicated they had sometimes been personally significantly frustrated about their faith, and 65 per cent of Catholics and 58 per cent of Protestants were less active in the church at the time of the survey that they were when 15 years of age.
Kinnaman begins by identifying several groups of young people.
1. Nomads – who walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians.
2. Prodigals – who lose their faith and describe themselves as ‘no longer Christian’.
3. Exiles – who continue to invest in their Christian faith, but feel stuck (or lost) between culture and the church (loc. 289).
Kinnaman argues that the majority of disconnected young people are nomads and exiles rather than prodigals. In other words, the majority are not walking away from faith, but ‘are putting their involvement in church on hold’ (loc. 318). The ISSP (2009) survey data supports Kinnaman’s contention. Of those 18 to 29 year olds who had dropped out of church in the USA, just 25 per cent described themselves as having ‘no religion’. The patterns in the United Kingdom were similar with 29 per cent indicating no religion. However, in Australia, it would appear that a large portion of the young people who drop out of church also drop out of faith with 46 per cent describing themselves as having ‘no religion’.
The period of 18 to 29 is a time of big transitions for most young people. It is a time of completing their initial training and starting a career. It is a time of creating relationships and, for many, finding a partner with whom to share their lives. It is a time when many move out of home (often more than once) and find their own place to live. They are creating their adult lives in which they will live economically and relationally less dependent on their parents. One the one hand, as Kinnaman suggests, it is a critical time for making choices that will set directions for adult life (loc. 411). At the same time, the very mobility of people is an issue in relating to community or church through these years and there are some who return to church when they settle more permanently into a community and begin their own families.
Kinnaman argues that, at the heart of the problem, is the fact that ‘our culture is discontinuously different’. The contemporary culture of young people is, he says, fluid, diverse, complex and uncertain (loc. 502). Kinnaman summarises the new technological, social and spiritual reality with three words: access, alienation and authority.
In relation to access, Kinnaman writes about how personal computers, tablets, mobile devices and smart phones, in conjunction with the Internet, apps and software are providing people unlimited to other people and their ideas and worldviews (loc.551). They know they can discover an answer, and usually many different people’s answers, to any question on Google. They have grown up with these digital tools and the use of these tools comes naturally to them. Kinnaman suggests that digital media ‘generates extraordinary distractions and invites [young people] to be less linear and logical in their thought processes’. On the other hand, he also suggests, that it empowers them to think as participants and not just as consumers (loc.579). Kinnaman mentions that it means that teachers and pastors can be ‘fact-checked’ in real time!
On the other hand, Kinnaman suggests that teens and young adults feel alienated from family, community and institutions. He suggests that the rift between generations that began in the 1960s has been deepening. He says that compared with children in the 1960s, American children today are eight times more likely to be born to parents who are not married (loc. 633). The culture is affirming an increasing number of family types: traditional, blended, non-traditional and same-sex partnerships.
The path to adulthood, in finishing education, leaving home, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child has become much longer than it ever was. Kinnaman suggests that in 1960, 77 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men had completed all these tasks by 30 years of age. Today, just 46 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men had completed this by 30 years of age. Now, a minority of young adults are ‘settled’ by 30 years of age (loc. 643).
There is also widespread scepticism about the systems of education, economics, government and culture, Kinnaman suggests. He notes that the continuing job crisis is hitting young people especially hard (loc.663).
The authority of the Christian faith and of many institutions in society is regarded with considerable scepticism by many young people. There is widespread scepticism about the value of the Bible, which, Kinnaman says, young people tend to read through the lens of pluralism (loc. 736). Another area of scepticism is the role Christianity should play in public life and the broader culture. There is a strong sense in the wider culture that faith is irrelevant to politics, sexuality, science, media and technology and there is little regard for the contribution church leaders are making to contemporary public life. Kinnaman notes that young adults are more likely to consult the Internet than their pastor about a religious questions, and yet do not have a grid for evaluating responses (loc. 768).
Because of the issues of access, alienation and authority, Kinnaman says, ‘the ability of one generation to convey the message and meaning of faith to the next generation … has been disrupted’ (loc. 781) producing this generation of nomads, prodigals and exiles.
As an example of a nomad, Kinnaman describes the story of the pop star, Katy Perry. She was the daughter of Pentecostal evangelical ministers and grew up singing in the church and speaking in tongues. However, when she began her career in pop music she wanted to ‘spread her wings’ and try all the options that had been off-limits to her. In an article in Rolling Stone in 2010, she said that while she still believed that Jesus is the son of God, she also believed in extraterrestrials, and what she herself describes as many kinds of ‘crazy stuff’ (loc.873).
According to Kinnaman, many nomads have both positive and negative feelings about the faith they grew up in. In some ways, they are disenchanted with it. Yet, they have not cut all their ties with it (loc. 893). The importance of faith is not particularly strong and they believe personal involvement in a Christian community is optional. On the other hand, they are not hostile to Christianity and consider themselves Christians. Many are ‘spiritual experimentalists’ finding meaning and spiritual stimulation from a variety of activities in their lives.
These are people who describe themselves as ‘no longer Christian’. Kinnaman takes the example of David Bazan, a singer-song writer. He was deeply involved as an evangelical Christian until he was 25, but has since dumped it all. He said that he stayed involved as long as he did out of respect for his parents, whom he described as deeply ethical and compassionate people (loc. 949).
Kinnaman distinguishes two types of prodigals. Some abandon faith for intellectual reasons. Others do so for emotional reasons: as a result of deep wounds, frustration or anger. Kinnaman quotes surveys of young adults in which 31 per cent of those with a Christian background say that Christian beliefs do not make sense of them. Twenty-nine per cent of them said they had had a negative experience in church or with Christians. In disconnecting with the Christian faith Kinnaman says that many feel as if they have ‘broken out of constraints’. Christianity had ‘demanded that they become someone other than their true self’ (loc, 1008).
Kinnaman describes a man who grew up in the church and was intensely committed to his faith. After his studies, he was employed by a church to lead modern worship. There was some opposition to the worship he introduced. He also became concerned with the church obsession with programs and conservative politics, finding his non-church friends much more open and keen to talk about spirituality and doing good in the world. He and his wife had problems with depression and he resigned from the church. At the time of the writing of the book, he was leading a small faith community but working at qualifications which would lead him into a career outside the church. He had negative experiences of churches, but was deeply committed to the way of Jesus (loc.1080).
Kinnaman describes these ‘exiles’ as ‘those who grew up in the church are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honouring lives’ (loc. 1089). They feel lost and yet hopeful. Many see God at work in the wider society but feel that their Christian background has not prepared them for life in the wider society, whether it be in science, in journalism, film-production, or even in ministry. Some see themselves as reformers. Kinnaman estimates that about 10 per cent of young adults who grew up in the church are ‘exiles’ (loc. 1161), although nearly half of the young adults who grow up in the church demonstrate some characteristics of this group.
Factors in Disconnection
Kinnaman identifies six characteristics found in churches which contribute to the disconnection of young people with the church.
Kinnaman suggests there is a rise in a ‘culture of protectiveness’ which is clearly visible in ‘helicopter parents’ who hover over their parents to keep them safe from every possible danger (loc. 1422). It is also evident in the laws to protect people: the wearing of seat-belts and helmets, the background checks on every one who has anything to do with children or elderly people, the detailed labelling on all foods, and so on.
Kinnaman suggests that this culture takes on a specific form in some Christian communities as they demonise everything outside the church, including all forms of popular culture (loc.1441). Many young Christians feel that the dichotomy made between the church and the outside world does not do justice to the reality. In reaction to the culture of overprotection, young people look for forms of excitement, for example, in sex, drugs, and self-harm. At the same time, the overprotective culture fails to coach young adults on the issues of marriage, parenting, vocation, and many smaller choices that need to be made. Among some young people, the helicopter culture leads to a paralysis about making any decision in case it is the wrong one (loc. 1511).
This over-protectedness has had a particular impact in relation to creativity. Kinnaman suggests that many creative people have left the church because they found no room in it to use their creative talents in music and film, in graphic art and design (loc. 1540).
Kinnaman suggests that the church needs turn over-protectedness into a more balanced discernment to help young people discern that not all is evil, although there is a fundamental brokenness in humans. He suggests that ‘cultural exegesis’ must be learnt, discerning what is good and bad in culture (loc. 1567). He also notes that truly following Christ involves living lives of risk in God’s ‘risky story’ (loc. 1598). Kinnaman suggests that there is a real place for people helping to re-create, renew, and redeem the culture by their involvement in it (loc. 1635), while recognising that there is a danger in cultural accommodation (loc. 1654).
Kinnaman says that in many churches, the church culture in which young people have been raised appears to them to be ‘boring, irrelevant, sidelined from the real issues people face’. Many people have only a shallow understanding of faith, and churches have not encouraged much depth in living the Christian faith. Kinnaman refers to the moral therapeutic deism which Christian Smith and Melinda Denton have described in their book Soul Searching. God is seen as something like a divine butler or a cosmic therapist, simply there to help when problems arise. At the same time, young people think they know much more than they do. They are not encouraged by their churches to find a sense of mission or to make significant educational choices. They are not engaged by the churches in spiritual life of the church, but are left simply to be consumers of the church’s services (loc. 1898). Many churches and families simply expect too little. Kinnaman sees the solution in ‘apprenticeship’ which involves investing in an indepth discipling of young people (loc. 1956).
Kinnaman says that young Christians in the USA feel keenly the antagonism between religion and science. He suggests that scientism has dominated culture with the idea that ‘true’ means ‘verifiable in the lab’ (loc. 2093). One quarter of all young adults with a Christian background in the USA describe Christianity as anti-science and 18 per cent describe it as anti-intellectual (loc. 2112). Kinnaman says that the issue of evolution as one of the touch-stones in this problem although the problem is much wider that that. He sees as a solution the need ‘to develop young leaders who can capably serve in science, but not be so habituated to scientism that faith becomes untenable’ (loc. 2175). He sees this by challenging and training all young Christians ‘to think clearly, honestly and comprehensively about matters of science’ (loc. 2219).
Many young people, says Kinnaman, feel that the church is repressive in relation to sexuality and sexual expression. They have not necessarily been ‘captivated by the lax sexuality in the wider society’, but ‘they feel torn between the false purity of traditionalism (which, for some made sex in marriage a duty) and the empty permissiveness of their peers (in which sex is only about personal satisfaction)’ (loc. 2337). Kinnaman says that 80 per cent of unmarried evangelical young adults between 18 and 29 have had sex, similar to national patterns, but some are conscious of disapproval of the church, or have less interest in faith as a result of becoming sexually active.
Kinnaman says that neither traditionalism nor individualism are working in relation to sexuality. In seeking to develop a Christian response to sexuality, Kinnaman sees the answer in rediscovering the relational narrative of sexuality (loc. 2539). It is not primarily about the self, but about relationships. Sexuality is, in fact, about the whole community and how people see others and relate to one another. He suggests that the aim should be thriving relationships rather than putting the emphasis on sexual represssion (loc. 2614).
Many young adults view the church as very ready to exclude those who do not live according to its standards (loc. 2689). This contrasts with the wider society in which tolerance is seen as a very important value. For many young adults, choices are generally governed by what is fair, reasonable, and accessible (loc. 2727). Young people do not want to be excluded. Everyone has a right to belong, they argue. Yet, churches often make strong prerequisites for those who want to belong to them and young adults sometimes feel they are being made to choose between faith and their friends (loc. 2764). Many nomads and prodigals, says Kinnaman, see exclusivism as an unpalatable aspect of the Christian faith, particularly in relation to religious pluralism. Kinnaman sees the answer to this in relationships between exclusivism and tolerance. He says ‘Exclusion lacks love; the wrong kind of tolerance lacks courage’ (loc. 2875).
Doubt is one reason that many young adults disengage from the church. Yet, often, doubt can be ‘a powerful motivator towards a more complete and genuine spiritual life’ (loc. 2969). Some doubt is about the intellectual claims of faith, some is institutional scepticism. One of the powerful destroyers of faith, says Kinnaman, is ‘unexpressed doubt’: when it is felt that it is best to keep questions to oneself. Kinnaman says that 36 per cent of young adult Christians agree with the statement ‘I don’t feel that I can ask my most pressing life questions in church’ (loc. 3071). We need communities, says Kinnaman, where people feel safe ‘to talk about their deepest, darkest concerns, where expressing uncertainty is not seen as abnormal or apostate’ (loc. 3099). Part of it, he says, is developing a better balance between talking and listening. Sometimes people in the churches are too ready to give the answers. Often the doubts are ‘transitional’ and related to particular experiences of life which cause doubts to emerge (loc. 3119). However, it is sometimes in the ‘doing’ that believing makes sense (loc. 3160).
How Churches May Respond
Kinnaman suggests that there are three major dimensions in how churches needs to respond. The churches need to:
1. reconsider how to make disciples;
2. rediscover Christian calling and vocation; and
3. reprioritise wisdom over information in seeking to know God (loc. 3192).
Kinnaman notes that assumptions need correcting. It has often been assumed that the church exists to prepare the next generation to fulfil God’s purposes, but that assumption needs to be changed to the church being a partnership of generations in fulfilling God’s purposes (loc. 3210). There should be flourishing intergenerational relationships. The relational element lies at the heart of making disciples.
Theology of Vocation
Kinnaman notes that young people have access to endless information and ideas, but no clear vision for living a life of meaning. He says ‘I believe God is calling the church to cultivate a larger, grander, more historic sense of our purpose as a body and as individuals’ (loc. 3289). Following Jesus, he says, means finding a vocation (loc. 3336).
In this time of discontinuous change, Kinnaman says that we need wisdom, which is ‘the spiritual, mental, and emotional ability to relate rightly to God, to others, and to our culture’ (loc. 3345). Wisdom will empower us to live faithfully in a changing culture.
The book ends with 50 ideas to ‘find a generation’. This is a diverse collection of ideas from many commentators who Kinnaman has asked for their ideas about how to disciple the next generation. Kinnaman notes that he does not endorse them all. Some do not fit easily with the research findings. Nevertheless, there are some stimulating ideas for churches, for young adults themselves, for parents, and for church leaders and Christian organisations.
In looking for a solution to developing disciples, Kinnaman suggests that we need to measure not numerical growth but spiritual growth. The identifies the elements of spiritual growth as:
- knowledge and love of Scripture,
- clarity about gifts and vocation,
- willingness to listen to the voice of God and follow his direction,
- fruits of Spirit in people’s lives, and
- the depth and quality of love and service to others (loc. 3308).
The Australian Scene
As noted in the introduction, the extent of disconnection of young people from the churches is much greater in Australia than in the USA. Australia begins with a much smaller proportion of young people who attend church: 29 per cent, compared with 71 per cent in USA and 42 per cent in the UK. It hen has a much higher drop-out rate with 72 per cent of those 18 to 29 year olds who indicated they attended church monthly or more often when 11 years old indicating they no longer attend as frequently. Indeed, one third of them (39%) claim that they now never attend. It is likely that with a much larger portion of the culture that is not religious or involved with churches, the pull of that portion of Australian culture is much stronger than in the USA.
In the USA, most of the drop-outs continue to see themselves as Christians. The scene is rather different in Australia. According to the ISSP (2008-2009):
- 46% of young people who dropped out of frequent church attendance in Australia said they had no religion, compared with
- 29% in the UK, and
- 25% in the USA.
In Kinnaman’s categorisations, then, the majority of Australians would not be ‘nomads’ but ‘prodigals’. They have given up not only on the church, but also on the Christian faith.
Although we cannot be sure about the reasons, it seems likely that many of the reasons are similar:
1. Overprotection. There is some annecdotal evidence of over-protection in responses to surveys from some young people who attended low-fee religious schools. Some have complained of feeling that they were in a ‘Christian bubble’ while in the school which did not prepare them for life in the wider world. However, there is no evidence as to the extent of such feelings among young people who have grown up in a Christian environment.
2. Shallowness of faith is a problem among young people in Australia. We have noted elsewhere the fact that moral therapeutic deism is found widely in Australia. There is a strong sense that God is there for the sake of helping the individual rather than the individual being there for the sake of God’s purposes (Hughes 2007, pp.160 and 191).
3. Anti-scientific views in churches is a problem for some young people in Australia , although probably not to the extent that it is in the USA. Most Australians disagree with the statement ‘modern science does more harm than good’. Of those who used to attend church as a child and have dropped out 67 per cent disagreed with the statement, 55 per cent disagreed with among those who continued to attend. In other words, those who have dropped out of church affirm the role of science more strongly than those who have remained attenders. But the difference is only one of degree. Most Australians, whether church attenders or not, feel that science does more good than harm.
4. The sense that the churches are repressive is an issue for many young Australians. In the ISSP (2009) in Australia, the question was asked about the experience of religious teaching about morality. Sixteen per cent of those who had dropped in the frequency of their church attendance since attending frequently when growing up reported that they felt it was ‘negative and restricting’. This compares with just 4 per cent of those who have continued to attend a church. The different attitudes can be seen in responses to questions on pre-marital sex and sexual relationships between two adults of the same sex. Among those who have ceased frequent attendance, 3 per cent feel that pre-marital sexuality is always wrong, compared with 42 per cent of those who have continued to attend. Twenty-eight per cent of people who have ceased attending frequently see sexual relations between two adults of the same sex as always wrong compared with 68 per cent of those who continue to attend.
5. Exclusive attitudes in the churches are certainly a problem for Australians. Most Australians (77%) agree with the statement that ‘religious people are too intolerant’. Fifty-nine per cent of Australians who attend a church monthly or more feel that way. There is a significant different in the level of affirmation of that feeling among those who have ceased frequently attending with 39 per cent strongly agreeing that religious people are too intolerant compared with just 12 per cent of those who have continued to attend.
6. That churches do not make space for doubt. We suspect that this is not a problem in some churches but is a problem in others. In talking with young people in studies of youth ministry in local church churches, we have asked about whether they feel they can ask questions. Some feel they can, while others suggest that their questions and doubts are not always taken seriously or understood. The ISSP (2009) showed 27 per cent of Australians who went to church as children and had continued attending frequently agreed with the statement ‘we should just believe and not question our beliefs’. However, 21 per cent of those who had ceased attending frequently also felt that way.
Among Australian people who have dropped out of church, the sense that the church is repressive in its sexual attitudes and that it is often intolerant stand out as significant issues. The churches’ attitudes to doubt and science do not appear to be so widespread. There is, however, among those who have ceased to attend a lack of confidence in the churches. While among those who have continued to attend, 65 per cent say they have a great deal or complete confidence in the churches, compared with just 16 per cent of those who ceased frequent attendance. Most of those who have ceased to attend feel that the churches have much to offer.
The fact that most of them also describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ indicates that they have also lost confidence in the Christian faith. Few of those who have dropped out feel that religious faith is helpful either in giving values or in providing ways of connecting with God. Indeed, few of them believe in a God who is concerned with human beings.
In Australia, there appears to be increasing vigorous attempts by some parents to pass on their faith by shielding their children from a culture in which there is often little place for the Christian faith or for the churches. The rise of the low-fee Christian school movement is indicative of that. There is little evidence as to how well that works in the long-term in a world in which there is a very high level of connectivity.
Kinnaman makes some points in his which will be useful to Australian churches. However, it is not clear that the book is adequate for a culture in which the large majority have no church connections and in which 62 per cent of the adult population say that religious faith or spirituality is of little or no importance in shaping life’s decisions, relationships and life style choices. Some more radical solutions may be necessary.
Kinnaman, D. (2011) You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church … amd Rethinking Faith, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books. (References are to the Amazon e-book.)
This article was first published in Pointers, Vol.25, no.1, March 2015, pp.1-8.