Why Do Pastors’ Kids Leave the Church? A New Poll Investigates… by Asking the Pastors

How likely is it that preachers’ kids will lose their faith? Is it any different from the general population?

The Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, just published the results of its study of pastors’ children to see whether it was true that “those who’ve grown up closest to the church are the quickest to leave it.”

Here’s the big takeaway:

Two out of every five pastors (40%) say their child, age 15 or older, went through a period where they significantly doubted their faith

Overall, one–third of pastors (33%) say their child is no longer actively involved in church. Yet when it comes to the rejection of Christian identity altogether, the occurrences are even less.

When pastors were asked if their children no longer consider themselves to be Christians, only 7% said this was “accurate” of their kids — that’s less than one in 10. This compares to the nationwide prodigal rate of about 9% among Millennials.

I think it’s important to point out here that all of these results came from telephone conversations with pastors, not their children. It’s not that the pastors were lying, but I suspect you would’ve gotten some very different responses if you talked to their children. If 40% of children seriously doubted their faith, according to their fathers, how many more went through a period of doubt without their parents even knowing about it? How many still go to church now despite being an atheist?

The Barna Group asked those same pastors why they thought their kids struggled with faith and we get a list of seven reasons:

Surprisingly, “They realized the whole ‘God’ thing was a sham” isn’t an option… though “self-discovery… resulting in rebellion” is.

I guess none of the pastors think it’s possible that their children would ever say to them, “Dad, I believe you’ve dedicated your life to a lie.”

There’s no doubt that PKs have it rough. They’re under significant pressure to follow in their pious parents’ footsteps, and many may leave the faith as they form their own paths. (Hell, atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair‘s son became a hard-core Christian later in life, too.)

But this study overlooks the possibility that many of these numbers are serious underestimates because the kids just never communicated their true feelings with their parents — or the parents refused to believe their children would just get rid of their faith for reasons other than personal problems or bad influences.

Interestingly enough, there’s a difference in responses between white churches and black churches:

When broken down into types of congregations, the pastors most likely to agree their children have faced significant doubt are pastors serving white congregations (43%) or mainline churches (51%). In contrast, the pastors least likely to say this describes their children are pastors serving non–white congregations (25%) or non–mainline churches (37%).

You might argue that this lends support to the idea that religion is strongly intertwined with black/Latino cultures, making it harder for preachers’ kids from those traditions to tell their parents they’re walking away from the faith, lest it sound like they’re turning their backs on their cultures.

If you really want to know what it’s like being a pastor’s kid, ask them. Don’t ask their parents. I suspect you’ll find that logic and reason play a bigger role in why they walked away from the church than even the hypocrisy they saw from within.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jo

    There are eight of us in my family. As far as my preacher father knows, only one of his children have actually left the faith. The reality is that only two of his children still identify as Christian. The rest of us simply let him believe what comforts him to believe. My atheist sister actually would embrace Budhism if she had to pick any religion, but my father believes her to be a member of a local Methodist church just not an active attender. Well, yes, she does have membership there. It’s a business decision because of living in the Bible belt and she attends approximately once every five years just to keep up the charade. I suspect most PKs are like my family. Why hurt him by telling him the truth. It’s easier to simply let him believe what he wants and go on with our lives. We don’t live near him, so there’s no reason anyone has to explain to him that they really are simply NOT Christian anymore. He would totally give similar answers if surveyed and it would be SOOO far from the reality of his family that it would be comical. I see no reason to get into it with him. I am one of the two who does identify Christian, but I refuse to participate in church ever, though my father believes I am active in a local congregation. If my siblings don’t want to tell him that they find his faith quaint and archaic, that’s my place to tell him either.

  • Religion Suckz

    My parents are devout Christians and even though I’m 46 years-old I would not share my thoughts about the Christian faith, because I wouldn’t want to worry them. So what makes Barna think a PASTOR’S kid is going to be completely honest?

  • Al V

    I suspect that all the PK athiests that have commented here have one more thing in common. Every one of you have a particularly pleasurable sin that defines your identity for yourself or to others. It is inescapable. I been there and back and it’s best to be honest to God about your desire for sin. Even though you did not see the Spirit of God in your parents you should understand that the christian life is the very Life of Christ and not a set of standards. You haven’t rejected God as much as you have embraced your sin. You couldn’t live the christian life in your flesh. You couldn’t defeat temptation because the Spirit of God was not in you from the beginning or you never knew that sanctification like justification is by faith and not by flesh.

  • Al V

    You are entitled to your “BELIEFS”
    Can’t ever get away from it can you? – the truth is (can I say truth?) that your ideas are in essence your religion. Athiests are caught in a trap that they have built. To say that my beliefs are inherently harmful is to elevate “your” beliefs above mine. If we can’t agree upon what truth is – how come your truth trumps mine. Now, even an open minded person like yourself can see how wrong that would be. Theists are at least honest in the debate about what belief is – and what isn’t – we just say you are wrong and will face God for it. He does the convincing. Now, the real question is – what is your sin? The thing that you identify with and separates you from God? You know what it is because it “popped” into your head when you just read my question. You are in God’s system. Not man’s. And your hostility to “religion” shows that you are still open to Him or else you wouldn’t feel threatened by people who have no more power than you but are only susceptible to harmful thinking. God bless you – I see there is still hope.
    Thanks for allowing us to post patheos.

  • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

    You do the common thing of conflating faith (the expectation that a thing is like something or will occur in a certain way) with religious faith (belief in a thing absent any evidence or even in the face of contrary evidence). And yes, religious faith is seen among various ideologues who are not religious- a very common form of religious faith occurs among Chicago School economists, who insist that austerity in time of recession is a good idea in spite of copious evidence to the contrary.

    You are entitled to have your beliefs. You are not entitled to have people respect those beliefs, nor to pretend that they are not wrong or absurd. I would believe in a god if I could see any evidence for one, but I haven’t found any, so I don’t. This way of thinking- skeptical, assessing, critical, and open to reevaluation- is empirically superior to a way of thinking that assumes the answer are what one wishes they were and refuses to test one’s assumptions against reality. It is what has led to the development of antibiotics, the Internet, space exploration, plastics, hell even the wheel and controlled fire were the result of critical thinking and testing.

    You say you believe in a god. Why? What is your evidence for it? I’ll be willing to change my mind if you present me with convincing evidence for a deity. What would cause you to change your mind?

  • Al V

    …ah like get together like a….church – that is too weird.

  • Al V

    No, Jessica, you didn’t come to atheism “on my own”. You and I were born that way. Separated from God.

    I noticed (like some others) that you cannot even write the word christian (though you did capitalize X in Xtian). I am a christian and I can write buddhist and muslim (no caps).

    Anyway what’s your sin that you identify with. I have noticed that many athiests post about some christian sins that they like doing and are prevented from that sin (by guilt or shame) if they make a claim of belief in the God of the Bible. The USA is full of christians (no cap) that sin like the “devil” and wear their sin and christianity on their sleeves. We now live in a world where it’s vogue to be a christian and trash Jesus at the same time.

    This isn’t a christian world – never has been. The “world” killed Him – what irony that the Jews in the name of religion and Romans not in the name of religion crucified the messiah that could reconcile both.

    Christianity in the flesh – in the mind – without the Spirit of God is absolutely deadening. However, what most “christians” do not know is that Christianity is the Life of Christ joined to the spirit of man.

    Yes, true religion is supernatural and I don’t have to imagine that for …the Spirit of Christ lives in, through and around me. Rom. 6

    Your words have no power. My words have no power unless the Spirit of God is in them. I see the posts of people whose faith was killed by words that were spoken by the law and not in the Spirit. The law kills – the Spirit gives life.

  • Al V

    …And, she reacted as expected. Her first response was a horrified “And all this time I thought you were smart.”

    See how spiritless words kill. Ask your mother sometime if she has the Spirit of God? If she is without an answer and is “horrified” to give her testimony then you may have more in common with your mother than you thought.

  • Al V

    It isn’t often..? Really, there isn’t any sin in Alabama. All sin is a lack of faith in God = athiesm.
    When we don’t take God at His word and commit sin (guilty here) that is atheism.

  • Arthur Dent

    Welcome! Glad to meet a fellow atheist.

  • Al V

    You are the benefactor of 2000 years of christians rebelling against a world system of slavery and other wickedness. Somehow you seem to think the Jews or Christians invented slavery. Are you convinced of this? Your “LOGIC” is slipping or maybe it is showing.
    Somehow you seem to think that all that call themselves christians are who they say they are True Christians are filled with the supernatural Spirit of Christ. True Spirit led Christians should be different from the world’s system. Those that call themselves (and may very well be) christian but rely on the flesh fall prey to the worlds system.
    I am glad that “you” have arrived at the apex of morality and logic and all by yourself I might add. All your opinions on the history of mankind is from the top of the heap and not from the bottom and you with no hindsight at all figured it out. You and I have been shown the mercy of God beyond what we would give others.