Bogus youth drop-out statistics

Nine out of ten young people leave the church as soon as they graduate. That is, churches are losing 90% or (in another version) 88% of their children.  Have you heard that?  Has your congregation, alarmed at these statistics, started elaborate youth group programs or family ministries?  Or scrapped your traditional worship services and brought in new styles of music that someone thinks will appeal to the young people?   Well, quite a few teenagers and young adults do drop out of church once they leave home, at least for awhile.  This is indeed a problem.  But the 90% number is yet another bogus statistic, as Timothy Paul Jones shows.

From Family Ministry: Gut Feelings, the Gospel, and the Big Lie About Nine-Out-of-Ten | Lead. Learn. Solve. Serve.:

 

In the first place, when did conference speakers first begin to claim that the vast majority of youth were exiting the church before their sophomore year of college? And was their research reliable?

The first references to the dropout statistic come from the late 1990s. That’s when a well-meaning speaker reported a post-youth group attrition rate of 90 percent.

And how did he obtain this number?

The speaker’s information was based on the “gut feelings” that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministers.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. Yet the communal hunch of a single group rarely results in a reliable statistic. In this case, an informal averaging of personal recollections resulted in a wildly overstated percentage that received tremendous publicity. As a result, over the past couple of decades, many youth ministries have leaped from one bandwagon to another, driven by the unsubstantiated estimates of a few youth pastors. Another popular percentage—88 percent—has been traced back to the estimates of two youth ministry experts, based on their own experiences.

So, why do the dropout percentages represent an insufficient reason to reorient your ministry toward an emphasis on family ministry? In the first place, it’s because many of these dropout numbers—particularly the nine-out-of-ten ratio—have little basis in fact. This infamous evangelical attrition rate does not rightly describe the present reality, and it probably never described any past reality.

Later claims escalated the hysteria. A popular book published in 1997 claimed that only four percent of young people surveyed at that time were born-again Christians. As a result, the author claimed, “According to present trends, we are about to lose eternally the second largest generation.” Never mind that the survey spanned only three states and included information from a mere 211 youth (to be fair, at least this author did admit his methodology); later leaders trumpeted this supposed trend as a harbinger of impending doom unless churches changed their ministry methods.

Throughout the early twenty-first century, news of dismal retention and evangelism rates among young adults continued to spread until nearly every youth and children’s minister heard how his or her ministry was destined to fail. And yet, very few of these claims were true. Even the handful of claims that were true were often misconstrued by the time they reached the pews.

So how many church-involved students actually do drop out in the months following their graduation ceremonies? The answer to this question depends largely on how you define church involvement. When involvement in a faith-community is defined as attendance in the past seven days, the young adult dropout rate is around 38 percent. When church involvement is defined as two months of attendance at any time during the teenage years, about 61 percent of young adults disengage from church after high school. When a research sample mixes frequent attendees with twice-a-month attendees, the dropout rate rises to 70 percent.

To be sure, even the moderated attrition patterns that I have reported here are not a cause for celebration. Yet the real dropout numbers vary widely, and they are affected by a range of factors that’s far broader than family ministry. This much seems clear, though: The real numbers are far removed from the spurious statistics that have been spouted from the platforms of far too many ministry conferences.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Grace

    Dr. Veith

    The article you quote:

    “So how many church-involved students actually do drop out in the months following their graduation ceremonies? The answer to this question depends largely on how you define church involvement.”

    It’s not when they drop out, it’s what they have been doing and then drop out, and why.

    We are in the throws of this dilemma within our own family. For reasons I will not state, it’s become apparent that the Youth groups are catering to kids, according to their whims – if it’s sports, or racing, that’s IT, that’s what they structure their youth plan upon. The popular flag of the moment. It doesn’t matter if the sport is dangerous, what matters is; if its’ fun, if it draws attention, if everyone is having a good time.

    Church Youth groups aren’t about sports achievements, but tell that to their immature Youth leaders. They believe that rounding up the older high school youth, and college youth, means catering to their whims, whatever that might be. That isn’t Gospel, as we all know, but they, meaning the “Youth Leaders” believe it will make a difference. I don’t buy it – the results don’t show a reason to believe it.

    I ‘think Youth Leaders should be young men in their forties, however their superiors should be much older. Meaning, men who have gone through the tangled web of leadership, youth, and many other phases are more adept at counseling and steering young people, EVEN it’s leaders who are younger, are the apparent best choice.

  • #4 Kitty

    Here’s a Lutheran source from last month claiming the attrition rate is 70%.
    Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the methodology he used in order to come up with “ten reasons our kids leave the church”. He made that up too.

  • tODD

    From the article:

    The speaker’s information was based on the “gut feelings” that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministers.

    That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. Now, I know some of you are going to say, “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book. Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. (actual source)

  • Caleb Land

    Dr. Veith,
    The number I read came from the book “Soul Searching” by Christian Smith, who is a UNC sociology prof I believe. It is the results of a study he and his colleagues did. He also coined the phrase Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to describe the religious climate in America’s young people. The number was 70 percent though.

  • kempin04

    For the record, I’ve never heard, or at least never registered, the 90% statistic. I’ve certainly heard alarming statistics, but they tend to blend together in my mind, and while I have never been one to particularly value statistical accuracy, my experience tells me that there is generational crisis in the institutional church.

    So what is the point here, exactly? 90% of youth are NOT dropping out. Phew, that IS a relief. Do we conclude, though, that because this statistic is inaccurate (possibly wildly inaccurate) that the premise is false? That we have no problem transmitting the faith to the next generation? I’m just not sure where this is going.

    I would like to believe that this is more than just a shot at the credibility of “conference speakers” and “those guys” who have caused all of this by [fill in the blank with the different conclusion some have made that really annoys you.] I know, shake your head. It’s just kempin on his thing again. Really, though, what helpful point does this advance other than to cultivate an uncharitable attitude in the larger debate(s)?

  • Paul Reed

    I don’t think they drop out so much as accept a radically different form of Christianity.

  • fjsteve

    Maybe the reason some youth are leaving the church is that their leadership, if not making stuff up themselves, are believing made up stuff. But it’s okay if it’s done in the name of spreading the Gospel, right?

  • fjsteve

    With respect to the sort of evangelical rumshpringa mentioned in the OP, I did it. I just assumed everyone did, to a greater or lesser extent.

  • http://pekoponian.blogspot.com pekoponian

    I’m a rumshpringa-er too. I think most youth are bored/put off by “youth” ministries. I mean, what do we tell youth by having separate worship or Bible studies for them? You’re too dumb for adult Bible study so we’ll water it down for you? You won’t like traditional worship and liturgy is unimportant, so we’ll set you up a “relevant” service in the gym? We’re scared stiff you’ll not wait for marriage, but also scared stiff to discuss these issues with you, so go “hang out” with your youth leaders? Seriously, why *should* any of this stuff attract them, particularly in non-denominational or even Lutheran churches where no doctrine is ever taught?

  • sg

    Why guys rankle at youth group, lame videos by goofy dudes like Francis Chan and Rob Bell that young guys find vaguely creepy, boring and manifestly inscrutible.

  • http://www.christcomchurch.org Bernie

    Speaking with all due respect as a pastor and preacher of the gospe,l who planted a ‘Family-Integrated Church’ in South Florida four years ago, the main question in this debate should be centered on what does the Bible say about discipleship and whose role is to be most prominent in it and why?

    Although there may be some question as to the statistical extent of the problem of youth and church/faith desertion, the proposition remains, that youth ministry is in trouble, not all it’s cracked up to be and largely unproductive. What many missiologists and church leaders have failed to recognize that the failure or inconsistency of youth ministry can be attributable to the fact that there is little or no warrant or biblical justification for it’s very existence in church life.

    The principles, patterns and practices of Old Testament thru New Testament congregational life and discipleship methodology, all point to family-integrated, rather than family-segregated worship and discileship because God’s people would have thought of no other alternative. This simple truth has been verfied over the first 1,900 plus years of church history where the very idea of segregated and programmatic Bible teaching and worship in a community of faith would have been pronounced as ‘anathema.’

    Putting statisical questions of modern-ministry failure aside, who is bothering to analyze whether or not there is even a scriptural argument for such ministry to begin with?

  • Grace

    Bernie 11

    “What many missiologists and church leaders have failed to recognize that the failure or inconsistency of youth ministry can be attributable to the fact that there is little or no warrant or biblical justification for it’s very existence in church life

    I strongly disagree with you. Because it doesn’t turn out well in some churches, doesn’t mean it has no value. Christ told us to tell others about HIM, that includes the ‘young people in our churches. If we don’t reach them, they will one day walk out, and may not return again. One of the biggest problems is; allowing very young ‘youth ministers to lead the young people. In essence, they have no experience raising teens or those in their mid twenties or below. What is sorely needed is OVERSIGHT by a couple, who have real hands on experience, who have raise their own children, proving they know what their doing – with that in mind, this couple can then help the young youth pastor as he learns ‘hands on’ what must be done.

    The Word of God, doesn’t explicitly tell us to start “youth groups” but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.

    “This simple truth has been verfied over the first 1,900 plus years of church history where the very idea of segregated and programmatic Bible teaching and worship in a community of faith would have been pronounced as ‘anathema.’”

    Again I disagree with you. We have no idea how many groups of young people and children were taught in groups, according to their age, centuries ago.

    I’m a pastors daughter, I have had lots of experience being a teen, going to several youth groups at a time, in high school, wonderful Christian camps – all the Bible study under the trees, swimming in the lake, chapel service after dinner, and then a big campfire, and singing. The fellowship and joy, being with others who were Christians, with morals, left a big impression on me. The youth leaders at our own church were mature, with 4 children of their own.

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