Barna Survey on Young Adults Leaving the Church

Barna Survey on Young Adults Leaving the Church December 23, 2011

Have you seen the 2011 Barna survey on American Christianity?  Below are the six primary reasons why young adults leave the church.

With Christmas upon us, I may have to hold off on making some comments (though I have highlighted some things that struck me). All of these reasons resonate with me on some level as I have interacted with college students over the years. The question is, how should these issues be addressed?

I have written a fair amount on #s 3 and 6–the latter in blog posts and the former in blog posts and my upcoming book, The Evolution of Adam, where I try to address this very problem.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective. A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).

Reason #2 – Teens’ and twenty-somethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow. A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).

Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science. One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.

Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental. With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”

Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity. Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).

Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt. Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).



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  • jehu

    Yeah, you are true..

  • Neil

    I can definitly see where some of these need to change. However, some of them cannot change. Number 5 simply is. People will always struggle with it. Number 2 is something that is simply a struggle of the generation itself. I cannot expect to fully “experience” God by trying to sample Him, in the same way that going through the drive through at McDonald’s to get a cup of coffee is the same experience as growing, harvesting, roasting, brewing and savoring the coffee beans would be. The difference being that we want our coffee to be a shallow experience. However, something as big as God cannot be obtained in this way. Numbers 1,4,and 6 need to be worked on. Number 3 I cannot comment on, due to my horrible scientific education. My High school science was a joke, which kept me out of college classes.
    I wonder, over all, how much the church has struggle with popular culture throughout its history (I am thinking the copernican revolution, reformation…. etc.).

    • Kenny Johnson

      People may always struggle with doubt, but the church can change with how it relates and ministers to those people.

      Number 2 is NOT generational. It is perpetuated by churches that are busier teaching 10 ways to make your life better now than preaching the Gospel and teaching people prayer and worship.

  • I posted about this a while back on my blog, and it seems we found almost the exact same phrases to highlight out of that report. Thank goodness for voices like yours, which have helped many, including me, find a way that allows for an intellectually honest faith.

  • jon hughes

    I know it sounds simplistic, but kids need to be born again. With competing worldviews and ‘pleasures of sin’ all around they’ve got no chance if they remain unregenerate. Kids in the past may have grown up in a ‘Christianized’ culture, but that is not the case today. We simply cannot expect them to behave like Christians if they are in fact not regenerate. That would be unfair!

    We need to pray, live out the gospel in our own lives, give them freedom to make mistakes, and equip them with everything they need to seek and find the Lord by God’s grace. At the very least, our own Christian witness should be attractive and vibrant.

  • jon hughes

    Kids today are no longer growing up in a ‘Christianized’ culture. The competing worldviews are more aggressively set forth, and the temptations facing young people far more more overt.

    I don’t know what the answer is beyond praying harder, seeking to live out the gospel better in our own lives – and equipping young people with a robust BIBLICAL worldview.

    Young people can smell perceived compromise a mile off, so I think we have to be a bit careful there too.

  • Interesting thought experiment for Catholics: which of these resonate for us, too?

  • Philip Tachin

    I think young people should be appreciated for how they feel. But the whole thing is about whether Christianity or the church should yield to their orientation or they should be the ones to yield to the Christian life system. There may be some problems with some churches’ manner of handling the truth of Scripture to their members, especially young people but generally, I think many of those young people would rather have a Christianity that has no distinction, no special message and no required life system. This would, however, be contrary to the character of the kind of church that Christ has born which the apostles too followed. If this turns out to be the case then we have no Christianity but something different that is forged around popular culture as the standard measurement for everything else including Christianity. I am assuming that this is another form of religion coming up from culture to challenge Christianity.

  • eric kunkel

    I think reason 6 is the fulcrum. Outside the Church stands a deconstructed, post-Derrida, post-Foucault, reconstructed world.

    Their is Rollins Doubt, with the Irish brogue. And there was even Darwin’s Doubt that I alluded to in another post.

    Doubting Thomas, Denying Peter (Simon Peter, I mean), Running Jonah: we make passing reference to them, but these are heroes of the faith.

    We could add Drunken Noah, Adulterous David, Lying Abraham, etc, etc.

    These were those “after God’s own heart.”


  • Ryan

    I wonder if there is not really one underlining problem that encompasses all of this. It is something that I have been thinking a lot about since I read James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World (I recommend anyone interested in the intersection of faith and culture to read this book). The reality is that Christianity in America, Evangelicalism especially, is culturally weak. I don’t mean it lacks cultural power in society (it does, but I don’t think should bother us). I mean that the cultural of Evangelicalism is weak. The Church in America fails to capture the hearts of Christians with the vision of the gospel. Christians doubt mainly because non-Christians present a more powerful vision of their beliefs in culturally stronger ways. Look at the movies that win Oscars or contemporary art and music or prize winning literature. Non-Christians embrace these forms of culture use them effectively. The best that Evangelicals can do is sentimental junk like Facing the Giants or Thomas Kinkade. Christianity simply cannot compete. People are cultural. Human beings are meant to flourish culturally. People need cultural forms to communicate and reinforce sublime ideas. Christians have the greatest vision of all – the blessed vision of God and His love for us displayed on the cross – yet we constantly fail to communicate it. When Christianity is about politics, praise songs, managing your finances, or therapeutic feel-goodery, we are being culturally impotent. People are right to not feel close to God in church when this happens. People are right to be tempted by our sexed culture when the Church does not present any other compelling vision of human sexuality (my church’s library has a section of Amish romance novels. What the…?) When the Church fails to cultivate intellectual activity, people are right to think that it is anti-science. Christians are right to doubt the exclusivity of Christianity when there seems to be little exclusively sublime about it. I would go on to talk about how the Church should recover traditional liturgy and the liturgical calendar for starters, but I think I am being over-indulgent with my comment as is.

    • J. Johnson

      Ryan, the Church has a very compelling vision of sexuality and what our bodies mean. Check out Theology of the Body. I have a totally different view of my body and now can see it as a gift given to me by God. I now see my body as something to respect and realize it is of value to be taken care of. Also I believe you are correct when you talk about living out the liturgical calendar. I have been showing my kids how to use it and why it matters in my elementary youth groups. The main problem is that the parents of my youth are clueless to it and its value. I am having to teach it to them as well. I think first we must take it to the adults then the youth. I have only been a youth minister since this past summer but so far in my findings the adults are in desperate need as well. I am very much convinced that if I want to hold on to my youth I must first capture the adults. The other major thing I am consantly encountering is the Church this, the Church that…..WE ARE THE CHURCH. It is WE who are not. It is WE who should. I would like to admit that I am TOTALLY guilty of this and am trying to recover from it since reading Rediscovering Catholism by Matthew Kelly. – great read!

      • Ryan

        I will have to check Theology of the Body out. Thanks! I guess all I can say is that the churches I attend have never presented a Christian view of sexuality that I thought was very helpful. Nor has any of the Christian culture out there that I have encountered.

        • J. Johnson

          I just realized that maybe I should direct you to Christopher West. Theology of the Body comes from Pope John Pauls encylicals from Sept. of 1979 to Nov. of 1984. Christopher West has studied them and wrote many comentaries on them which allows for the commen lay person like me to understand them. There is a great program for teens as well. Also Given the fact that JP II’s sexual revolution was given to us in the early 80s and that it is amazing and totally rocks your world and the way you veiw the amazing gift of your body given to you from God. I would say perhaps there are things out there but we are not seeing them. I believe that there is a tremendous fight for the soul going on right now and that the devil will do every thing that he can in his power to blind us.
          p.s. I am a revert and it was the liturgical calender that brought me back. I have been back home in the Church for three years now. I think you are on to something.

          • If you find this reply regarding sexuality (#4) somewhat offensive, then you are, in my opinion, part of the problem. News flash: Teenage boys masterbate. Yet when, if ever, have you heard anyone in authority discuss that openly within the context of religion. The official doctrine of traditional Christianity is that premarital sexual activity of any kind is a sin, but anyone who believes religious rules or guidance will prevent masterbation is naive, ignorant, or doesn’t have a penis. And such topics are so taboo that parents would freak if a youth director discussed it with teenagers. So, my question: What is a reasonable, progressive solution to improving the traditional mindset about premartial sexuality?

  • J. Johnson

    This survey for me as a youth minister is a hard one to read. It is very hard to reach the youth today. They are very distrusting. I have been praying a lot on what to do and how to help them. One thing that I have found is that they want the raw truth. They also want to know the reason why and how it matters to them. I have found that they are tired of feelings and fluff. Our youth are hungery for the trueth. The problem is they are tired of watching people live contrary to it. They need to see what an authentic life looks like. What true holiness is. They want to see other Christians living life to the fullness in the way God called them to and loving it!. They want to encounter it first hand so that they can trust that it is true and possible. Not just another sounds good pipe dream that is a waste of their time. A great resource for Catholics is Matthew kelly’s book Rediscovering Catholism. Another great resource is Theology of the Body by J.P.II. Both are amazing at helping with 1-6. ( They have been increadible and totally earth shaking bring to my knees completely rock my world books. They aren’t for teens they are for adults. After reading them you aren’t the same unless you choose to turn away from Gods amazing call.) When you encounter a person living out an authentic christian life (even if it doesn’t look fun) it is hard to keep walking by you are captivated by them. A prime example of that in our recent history is Mother Theresa. She caught the attention of the world by completely loving each and every person that she encountered as if there was no one else in the world. I struggle to find adult volunteers to help out at youth events. Mother Theresa has insipred thousands to voluntarily give of themselves to help others in horrible situations. Authentically lived out Christian lives change lives for the better. I pray that I will be able to also totally let go and give my will to God so “I” stop getting in the way of God’s work. Please pray that the Holy Spirit will work in me. Thanks J.

  • eric kunkel

    I agree with Ryan and so much of what is said above. But there I go, postulating –because so much of Christianity is propositional today. And many, especially they young can either take it or leave it when it comes to truth claims these postmodern days.

    Not that truth does not matter. But we need truth incarnate, that digs deep, past the information overload. Truth that hits people in the guts, splanchnologia.

    What if we fed the poor and took care of the sick? What if we did this so radically that the Libertarians and small government Conservatives really had nothing to say about big government, because it was rendered irrelevant? “Who is thy neighbor?”

    What if we accepted and nourished the Samaritans, young and old, who were heterodox? When will we, like Luther said “clothe ourselves in our neighbor’s flesh?”

    Dr. Enns, isn’t that what Innerancy and Incarnation should bring about?

    Merry Christmas,

    Eric Kunkel

  • Nan Bush

    I recently came across the phrase, “living in the Christian ghetto.” What shocked me was its truth.

    The school system my kids attended was WASP and Jewish; today it is made up of families speaking 66 different languages, observing more religious beliefs than I ever knew existed. Yet the majority of Christian churches are still saying, “We’re the only way.” Do we engage with this larger world of God’s creation, or do we home school our kids? Does the word “disconnect” mean nothing?

    Ditto with science. The technology that runs Christian cars, lights Christian homes and churches, creates the medications Christians take, makes the iPhones Christians talk on, and sends Hubble photos back to Earth for Christian eyes to see–that’s science. Yet we are told that God’s creation can be described only as it was understood two millenia ago. Disconnect big time. Also hypocrisy and intellectual sterility.

    It’s too bad that more young people aren’t leaving the ghetto. There’s a vibrant, meaningful Christianity outside those walls.

  • Jim

    This saddens me, because Christianity is so real to me and long for people to see the beauty of Christ. God made the world and said it was “good”. Pursuing a relationship with God enriches our understanding of science and the world we live in. When I read these things I feel at such a loss as to how to communicate this to my fellow human beings who seem to be running from the God that loves them.

  • Eugene Kersting

    The problem with religion is that it tries to convince educated people
    that spirits are responsible for what takes place in the world and that
    explaination no longer resolves the anxieties that our world generates.
    It is trying to resolve problems through magic when what is needed is
    knowledge and that knowledge has yet to be attained ,since
    it takes time to acquire knowledge,while what is professed, by the church ,
    is an immediate resolution of all things possible without all the complications .
    God is a synonym for knowledge . It once answered all the questions
    now it does not and the kids know this.

    • Ryan

      Do you understand anything about religion? Religion as a pre-scientific explanation of the world was popular in early 20th century studies of religion, but is realized today that this is an inadequate theory for many reasons. Buddhism and (philosophical) Hinduism think that the world that is described by science is an illusion, so they can hardly be described as religions that explain what goes on in this world. Even polytheistic and animist religions aren’t primarily about explaining scientific phenomena. My favorite example is the Polynesian farmer who performs rituals to his agricultural god, yet still understands that his crops grow naturally. He makes sure the soil is fertile, that it gets enough water, etc. His god is not a theory that is meant to explain a set of data. To go back to comments on magic, magic does not explain why things happen. Magic, anthropologist agree, explains misfortune. It is the way many cultures answer to the problem of evil. Bad things happen to good people because there are evil shamans who use magic to cause bad things to happen. These people aren’t stupid; they know that houses collapse naturally. What they want to explain is why a house collapses with a good person in it, say the greatest warrior in the village.

      Christianity certainly is not a religion that seeks to explain scientific phenomena with religion. Like most theistic religions, its concerns are ethical, teleological, and ontological – hardly scientific concerns. Science and religious claims (at least in Christianity) are not mutually exclusive because they are answers to different questions. Christianity answers why anything exists at all and what purpose it serves. Science answers how the physical things that exist operate and interact with one another. To say “God created man” does not exclude the proposition “man evolved.” You might as well as that “humans make cars” and “cars are made by robots in Japan” are mutually exclusive. The difference is between a first cause (or a teleological view) and secondary causes. God is the source of all being. Read Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth. Little or nothing of what they say is about “explaining the world with magic.”

  • Lou G.

    A lot of good discussion here. But I always remain tremendously suspect of any Barna survey, especially after reading Piper’s “Finally Alive”. In the beginning of the book Piper criticizes Barna’s studies for casting the net too wide and producing fairly unreliable statistics. Not only that, but his questions tend to be pre-loaded with already presuppositions and answers that belong to the Barna group, rather than uncovering any new trends per se.

    Even with that said, there is quite a bit of good stuff here for discussion within our own circles.

  • This is one of the best dialogues I have seen on a blog in awhile. In particular, I resonate with the comments of Eric Kunkel, Ryan, J. Johnson and Nan.

    You asked how should the issue be addressed. When I reflect on this a few things come to mind. But before I drone on with my ideas, I think Carol Stoner’s response on your other blog post says it all. When a little boy repeatedly asks, “Did you know that David cheated on his wife?” and we as adults can be curious and compassionate about why the question interests the child, we just might be able to keep young people in the church. We need to be unflinchingly real and authentic with questions such as these.

    But for what it is worth, here are some thoughts that others have alluded to as well.

    1) There is something powerful in Ryan’s comment: “People need cultural forms to communicate and reinforce sublime ideas. Christians have the greatest vision of all – the blessed vision of God and his love for us displayed on the cross yet we constantly fail to communicate it.” Great art, literature and cinema have the power to influence the world in profound ways and it is the role of any socially and morally conscious artist to use their gifts accordingly. Christians must find vehicles that express God’s word eloquently, intelligently and piercingly rather than serve people a cram-it-in-your mouth and eat it message.

    2) Nan mentioned the importance of getting out of the Christian Ghetto and actually walking in the world amongst people. This is critical. I found God working in nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, prison re-entry programs and schools where I witnessed God’s love in and among Christ centered people who didn’t necessarily call themselves Christians. Some called themselves Muslims or Jews yet they were living out the heart of the gospel. Consequently, God’s love was ever present with some of the most marginalized in our society.

    3) While we must speak the Good News sometimes I think it is more important to simply “be the vision.” We must open our eyes and see who is right in front of us and then act accordingly with love.

    4) We must learn to not be afraid of the body. “Theology of the Body” is a great start but there is much much more that can be done in this area.

    5) I’m not certain youth should have so much separate programming from the rest of the body.

    6) We must think critically. Otherwise, religion can become dangerous and used as a tool of destruction.

  • Joe Rutherford

    In the gospel of John we read about the Lord telling people about drinking His blood and eating His flesh. Then most of His diciples left. Next Jesus looked at the few remaining and said,”Will you leave also?” The ones who left did not believe in Jesus in the first place. The modern Church is in effect a shadow at best of what the Church should be. It would perhaps intrest no one as to why I would say this. But a good thing is that God never changes. So I still look with faith to the Lord that He will purify His people and make us His temple filled with His glory and the light shinning brightly of the Lord Jesus out for all the world to see.

  • AHH

    As somebody mentioned, this isn’t just generational.
    I’m in my late 40s, and especially #s 2, 3, and 6 resonate with my frustration with the church. As somebody said, “evangelical ghetto” is a pretty good description of the intellectual landscape in many churches.

  • J. Johnson

    I have been reflecting on this a lot over the Christmas Holiday <- please note I said Holiday.

    I spent a great deal of time with my two nieces and nephew. What I got from them is that they are getting a lot of pressure to sweep this whole church/ God thing into the trash. I heard a lot of holiday and winter break/vacation used to describe our time together instead of Christmas. (Two of them are in college and one is in highschool.) All three were never very far from their phones consantly texting and searching things on the web, even at supper. They were so plugged in and plugged out all at the same time. When I asked them why they said that they were apart of different groups and wanted to keep up. To them belonging to something was very important. They all expressed that they wanted to be apart of something that mattered, that was going to make a difference. BUT at the same time they didn't want to do a whole lot as they are very busy with school.

    The other totally horrible fact that I realized was that they arn't completely conecting the fact that the person on T.V. or that they are texting is one hundred percent real and of value not just some expendible item that can be tossed out or put aside when they aren't being of use to them. It greatly concerns me that as I read different responses to news reports or really listenned to people talk I found in genral there is a HUGE disrespect for life in all stages not just in the womb. The lack of respect and love that we show one another is shameful.

    Why would we expect a young person to come to the church when it is totally contrary to how we as a society acts. They don't see the Church as a safe place where they can rest. They don't know that they will be loved, and valued there, that their life has great value. Our young people see it as another pull on their already over loaded scheduals. To them the Church is a bunch of two faced people who are just pretending to be "good nice Christians" who are just waiting for great juicey gossip that they spread around as they judge others to build them selves up. All I could say to that comment was ouch. Our young people don't see that the Church is a tool to help them live the great life that God has called them to. They just see the failings of man as the Church.

    They don't realize that they will have to answer someday to God for their actions. To them even though death is constantly around them they are so desensitized to it that they don't see how it will affect them or their need to choose between heaven or hell. Death is something that happens that scienetist are working on right now. The greatest concern about death being stopped is that there would be too much life and what if the loosers where the ones left living. That is from an actual conversation started from an add for makeup.

    Our young people and adults need to learn that they are of value and that the lives of other people are of value as well. If they don't respect life then the message that God has for them will have zero meaning.

    I am not sure that the problem lies in the Churches disconnect from modern society. The Church can never be "intouch" with that. I am very certin that the disrepect for life devalues the call, teachings , and trueth of the Church.

    I think we need to show complete and total love for each other if we want to capture the heart of our youth. They do want it they just need to experience it to trust it is real. I believe that once they experience true authentic self giving love not selfish self serving love and realize it then and only then will they value life.

  • I post at length on this on my blog:

    In a nutshell: For most of the 19th century, community churches served not just a theological purpose but a social / cultural one as well. As the need for that cultural vanished, so did church members.

  • Anonymous

    Jesus used cultural examples to illustrate spiritual truths. There is nothing wrong with being relevant concerning culture; in my opinion, it’s not a sin. I think it is a sin when you substitute that for the truth instead of using it to convey truth.

  • BC

    God never passes on an opportunity to do what is best for every human being. That’s the standard for a godly person. God participates with Christians who go for it. A church that teaches anything less misses the point and has an adulterated message.