How Can Churches Retain Their Youth?

How Can Churches Retain Their Youth? April 11, 2018

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has sponsored two research projects on the retention of young people in the church, as they move from confirmation to adulthood.  The findings were interesting–with some surprises and facts in need of interpretation–and I suspect they are applicable to other church bodies as well.

One survey was of congregations; the other was a survey of some 2000 young adults, aged 18-35, who have had a connection with the LCMS.  The information was discussed at a Youth Ministry Symposium in January.

The studies found that the LCMS retains about one out of every three confirmands, which is about the same rate as in other churches.  That rate is actually higher than with previous generations.

[Other churches don’t necessarily have confirmation classes, as Lutherans do, in which young people are catechized–usually in their middle school years–after which they are invited to confess their faith in Christ and become full communicant members.  If the Lutheran youth retention rate is the same as the retention rate in churches that don’t have confirmation classes, that would suggest that our confirmation classes are not as effective as they should be.]

The studies also found that this age group tends to resist “programs” and can best be reached by means of “relationships.”

It is often said that young people who leave the church will come back when they are older, but the researchers noted that the surveys found only one respondent saying that this was his intention.

[But that misses the point.  Young people are generally not intending to come back when they leave.  Eager to find acceptance in the world and eager to break away from their parents’ restrictions, young adults tend to leave the church when they leave home.  But when they grow up more and have families of their own, they often do come back.  Other research confirms this.  I’d like to see research that digs into more specifics.  For example, I suspect that more young people leave the church because of their desire to have sex–to the point of rejecting any belief system that tells them they should wait for marriage–than because of any leftist professor or book by a new atheist, both of whom can provide them rationalizations for what they want to do anyway.  Someone should survey both young people and people who have come back to the church to see how prevalent this is.]

Here is a summary of the other findings, with my bracketed comments.  From Cheryl Magness, “‘Relationships, not Programs’:  ‘Youth Ministry Shares Research On Young Adults, in the Lutheran Reporter.

Factors in Retention

from Young Adult survey:

  • parents who actively practice the faith;
  • healthy relationships in which they were comfortable talking with parents about faith and doubts;
  • a pastor who showed personal care for them;
  • attendance at an LCMS Gathering and/or Lutheran camps;
  • remaining geographically close to their home church; and
  • involvement in LCMS campus ministry (either a Concordia or another LCMS congregation or campus ministry) during college.

[Parents are indeed the key factor in transmitting the faith from generation to generation.  Specifically, according to one study, fathers are the key, to the point that if the father so much as attends church regularly, the children will be extremely likely to do so when they grow up.  I’ve blogged about this  and we’ve discussed it in our book Family Vocation.  That was a European study from some years ago, so it desperately needs to be replicated in America today.  Our problem today is that in many households fathers are absent.  And when they are present, the father often doesn’t go to church, so that the mother takes the kids on Sunday mornings.

Perhaps in order for churches to retain their youth, they need to find ways to retain fathers!]

from the Congregation survey:

  • having adults on staff who work with youth (not necessarily paid);
  • having a Lutheran school;
  • having the same pastor over a long time; and
  • involving young people in church leadership.

[It would never have occurred to me that having a pastor who stayed in his call for a long time would be a factor in retaining young people.  But it makes sense.  Growing up with a pastor increases his influence.  Perhaps in order for churches to retain their youth, they need to find ways to retain their pastors!]

Why Young People Leave the Church

  • lack of care for them by their church at a time of crisis;
  • feeling that the LCMS is exclusionary, unwelcoming or dismissive, including to them personally;
  • disagreeing with the LCMS on social issues;
  • lack of support/opportunities for them to get involved;
  • preferring a different kind of worship; and
  • finding people in the LCMS to be “inauthentic.”

[Not “wanting to have sex”?  Some surveys offer options to check, thus excluding other possible reasons and putting words into the subject’s mouth.  What does being “inauthentic” mean?  And if those who leave the church prefer a different kind of worship, what kind of worship do they want?  I’d like more details and more probing.

These responses, while indicating that churches need to do a better job of pastoral care for their youth, do reflect a legitimate reason for leaving a church.  If you no longer believe in what the church believes, you should leave.  Above all, don’t stay in that church and try to change it.]

Factors that Don’t Affect Retention

  • the age of the senior/sole pastor;
  • having a large proportion of young adults in worship; and
  • the presence of a local college or university.

[It’s just not true that having a young pastor is necessary to attract and keep young people.  Many of those, again, yearn for a father figure.]

Greatest Spiritual Influences on Youth

  • 29 percent – parents;
  • 13 percent – pastor of home church;
  • 12 percent – other family members;
  • 12 percent – teacher;
  • 11 percent – another pastor; and
  • 10 percent – youth minister.

[Again, parents.  And notice that when you add some of these categories together, pastors have more influence on their young people than they perhaps realize.

But no one listed their peers?  A friend?  Social Media?  Music?  The Internet?   I’d like to see research that digs into these factors.  And yet, this question deals with the “greatest” spiritual influences, so it’s significant that parents and pastors hold the top spots.]

Factors that Don’t Mean as Much as They Seem To

  • 18 percent are still regularly attending the church in which they were confirmed;
  • 10 percent have moved away but are still LCMS;
  • 3 percent attend a different LCMS church near the one in which they were confirmed;
  • 15 percent “occasionally” attend their home church;
  • 11 percent attend a church in another denomination;
  • 11 percent are no longer attending any church; and
  • 30 percent are of unknown status regarding worship practice.

[I’m astonished that as many as 18% still attend the church in which they were confirmed!  Few high school and college graduates can stay in the community in which they grew up, due to the need to go where the jobs are.  This is especially true of small towns.  This is not the fault of churches, nor is it a factor they can control.

And if you don’t know the status of 30% of your former confirmands, you can’t conclude anything about them!  This 30% seems to be counted as if they are not among the “retained,” but we don’t know that.  The one-out-of-three retention rate seems to come from adding up the still-LCMS numbers given here, but that counts the “unknown” as if all of them are not “retained.”  Maybe the true rate is 60%!   The story about the study noted the problem of poor record keeping and lack of knowledge about what happens to former members.  This is something congregations should definitely work on, including a practice of “handing off” former members, including young adults, off to other congregations and other pastors when they move elsewhere.]


Photo:  LCMS National Youth Gathering, New Orleans, 2001, by Runner1928 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons


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