Why Teens Are Leaving the Church & What to Do About It

Growing up, my parents were faithful to be sure that I was at church on Sundays and Wednesdays.  I had many friends in the same boat who attended church through their adolescent years.  Mom and dad would wake them up and drive them to church on Sunday mornings.  They would send these kids and teens on Wednesday nights.  But as time progressed and I graduated high school and entered into college, there was a drastic shift.  The majority of my friends ceased to attend church or be involved in any capacity.  What happened?  Where did they go?  Why did they stop?  I was left with a lot of questions.

We’ve all heard the numbers.  Regardless of what statistics you have read, a vast majority (upwards of 70%) of those raised in church walk away from the faith in college, many never to return.  Sure, there are a few that take a hiatus of sorts and return when they have their own kids.  But the statistics tell an alarming story: there is a massive youth exodus in American culture today.  After getting over the initial shock, we are left with one confounding question: why? What is the underlying cause of this departure?

Why?

I’ve heard so many responses from so many people across all specialties, but something else has alarmed me lately.  “For many years,” write Hillary Ferrer and Julie Loos, both mothers with a burden for this generation who wrote Mama Bear Apologetics, “most people assumed that the problem originated in college . . . However, we must take into account that college is when kids no longer have good ol’ mom and dad waking them up and driving them to Sunday school” (Ferrer & Loos, 28).  So, what does this mean for us parents?  They continue, “While college is and remains a contributing factor, these numbers are an external manifestation of an internal disconnection that started years earlier” (Ferrer & Loos, 28).

The Departure Before Departure

The departure that we witness is the youth leaving with their feet.  But what causes them to leave with their feet?  They have left with their feet because their hearts and minds departed far earlier “due to emotional, behavioral, or intellectual reasons” (Ferrer & Loos, 28).  Their external response is taking place long after their internal turmoil.  Researchers have discovered that “up to 46% of youth have spiritually ‘checked out’ by the end of middle school” (Ferrer & Loos, 32).  So, there really is a departure before the departure—an internal departure before an external departure. The external departure just allows us to see the previous internal departure.

One American Research Group study found, “We’ve always been trying to prepare our kids for college (and I still think that’s a critical thing to do, of course), but it turns out that only 11% of those who have left the church did so during the college years.  Almost 90% of them were lost in middle school and high school.  By the time they got to college they were already gone!  About 40% leaving the church during elementary and middle school years” (Ferrer & Loos, 32-33).  During the teen years, the youth may not be leaving physically, but they are definitely leaving mentally, emotionally, and intellectually.  College just gives them the freedom to do (or not do) what they have been wanting to do for a while.

College and liberal professors are often blamed for the destruction of faith that we have worked hard to construct for 18 years in our children.  While this outlook is tempting, the departure before the departure tells us a new story and gives us a fuller narrative.  The scary reality, as Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace mention in their new book So the Next Generation Will Know, is that “most young people abandon their Christian faith while they are still at home with their parents” (McDowell & Wallace, 36).  College freshmen today compared to college freshmen in 1986 are tree times more likely to be religiously unaffiliated.  The vast majority—79%—openly say that they walked away from Christianity during their adolescent and teen years.  Almost two thirds said they left their faith between 10 and 17.  When we look at the generations, Gen Z is twice as likely to be an atheist as the general population.

Much like a medical issue underneath the skin, it can be taking place for some time, days or even years, before it is manifested externally.  Just as this can be fatal physically, it can also be fatal spiritually.  So, as a doctor would approach an issue with the utmost care, so should we. So, what can we do?

What is Missing?

To give a proper prescription, we must get a proper diagnosis. The reason is simple: unanswered questions.  Kids and teens have been taught the “what” but rarely ever the “why.”  Growing up in church, I remember being taught stories from the Bible about Jonah and the whale, Moses and the exodus, and so many more.  We found morals from the stories and were taught how they pointed to Jesus.  There was no doubt that we were given the “what.”  But what about the “why?” When I asked why, I was often told that the “why” is not important. But this generation is beginning to push back on that. We can’t ignore the “why” questions any longer.

Lifeway found that 34% of those who stopped attending did so just because they moved to college.  There was no ill intent.  They just had no reason to go.  Let’s give them a reason! Let’s begin to engage rather than avoid those questions!

A Loving Response

For every “what” that we teach, let’s begin to offer a “why.”  That toddleresque question is something that none of us quit asking, regardless of our age.  Let’s engage that toddleresque response that we all have.  Don’t be afraid of the questions.  Their questions are less skeptical as they are innocently inquisitive.  These questions are best answered in the context of a relationship.  Reasonable explanations are best received in an authentic relationship.

A New Journey

I will invite you on a journey with me that I will be posting as blogs over the next few weeks.  These will mirror what we are doing in the student ministry at my church on Wednesday nights with the students.  We will tackle some of these big questions that they have—which we now know they are struggling through long before the college years.  I hope this will better equip you as parents to navigate these new waters with this uniquely gifted generation!

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