The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church
Some striking mile markers appear on the road through young adulthood: leaving for college, getting the first job and apartment, starting a career, getting married—and, for many people today, walking away from the Christian faith.
A few years ago, shortly after college, I was in my studio apartment with a friend and fellow pastor’s kid. After some small talk over dinner, he announced, “I’m not a Christian anymore. I don’t know what happened. I just left it.”
An image flashed into my mind from the last time I had seen him. It was at a Promise Keepers rally. I remembered watching him worship, eyes pinched shut with one slender arm skyward.
How did his family react to his decision? I asked. His eyes turned to the ground. “Growing up I had an uncle who wasn’t a Christian, and we prayed for him all the time,” he said wistfully. “I’m sure they pray for me like that.”
About that time, I began encountering many other “leavers”: a basketball buddy, a soft-spoken young woman from my church’s worship team, a friend from youth group. In addition to the more vocal ex-Christians were a slew of others who had simply drifted away. Now that I’m in my early 30s, the stories of apostasy have slowed, but only slightly. Recently I learned that a former colleague in Christian publishing started a blog to share his “post-faith musings.”
These anecdotes may be part of a larger trend. Among young adults in the U.S., sociologists are seeing a major shift taking place away from Christianity. A faithful response requires that we examine the exodus and ask ourselves some honest questions about why.
Sons of ‘None’
Recent studies have brought the trend to light. Among the findings released in 2009 from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), one stood out. The percentage of Americans claiming “no religion” almost doubled in about two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend wasn’t confined to one region. Those marking “no religion,” called the “Nones,” made up the only group to have grown in every state, from the secular Northeast to the conservative Bible Belt. The Nones were most numerous among the young: a whopping 22 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds claimed no religion, up from 11 percent in 1990. The study also found that 73 percent of Nones came from religious homes; 66 percent were described by the study as “de-converts.”
Other survey results have been grimmer. At the May 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, top political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell presented research from their book American Grace, released last month. They reported that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”
There has been a corresponding drop in church involvement. According to Rainer Research, approximately 70 percent of American youth drop out of church between the age of 18 and 22. The Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29. Barna Group president David Kinnaman described the reality in stark terms:
“Imagine a group photo of all the students who come to your church (or live within your community of believers) in a typical year. Take a big fat marker and cross out three out of every four faces. That’s the probable toll of spiritual disengagement as students navigate through their faith during the next two decades.”
In his book unChristian, Kinnaman relayed his findings from thousands of interviews with young adults. Among his many conclusions was this: “The vast majority of outsiders [to the Christian faith] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals.” He reports that 65 percent of all American young people report having made a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point. In other words, most unbelieving outsiders are old friends, yesterday’s worshipers, children who once prayed to Jesus.
To tweak Kinnaman’s language, the problem today isn’t those who are unchristian, but that so many are ex-Christian. Strictly speaking, they are not an “unreached people group.” They are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and friends. They have dwelt among us.
Won’t They Just Come Back?
A handful of researchers insists that the dramatic drop-off in 20-something spirituality is not cause for alarm. They view the exodus from the church as a hiatus, a matter of many post-collegiate Americans “slapping the snooze” on Sunday mornings.
In his recent book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, sociologist Bradley Wright says the trend of young people leaving the faith in record numbers is “one of the myths” of contemporary Christianity. Wright, a shrewd contrarian, says members of every generation are regarded with suspicion by their older counterparts. He describes himself as a youth sporting “longish hair and a disco-print shirt,” and asks readers, “Do you think the adults of that generation had any faith in the future based on teens like us?” Though he acknowledges that “we can’t know for sure what will happen,” Wright believes the best bet is that history will repeat itself: “… young people commonly leave organized religion as they separate from their families, but then rejoin when they start families of their own.”
Rodney Stark also calls for calm. The Baylor University sociologist concedes that data from his school’s research mirror that of the above studies, but Stark isn’t shaken. “Young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than are older people,” he writes. Stark is confident that the youngsters will return. “A bit later in life when they have married, and especially after children arrive, they become more regular [church] attendees. This happens in every generation.”
There is something to these arguments. Scholars like Wright and Stark expose the folly of breathless predictions of Christianity’s imminent demise. The North American church does not teeter on the brink of extinction. But, in my view, the crisis of people leaving the faith has taken on new gravity.
First, young adults today are dropping religion at a greater rate than young adults of yesteryear—”five to six times the historic rate,” say Putnam and Campbell.
Second, the life-phase argument may no longer pertain. Young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it’s much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely.
Third, a tectonic shift has occurred in the broader culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. For those reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity that has pulled previous generations back to the faith has weakened or dissipated altogether.
So 20- and 30-somethings are leaving—but why? When I ask church people, I receive some variation of this answer: moral compromise. A teenage girl goes off to college and starts to party. A young man moves in with his girlfriend. Soon the conflict between belief and behavior becomes unbearable. Tired of dealing with a guilty conscience and unwilling to abandon their sinful lifestyles, they drop their Christian commitment. They may cite intellectual skepticism or disappointments with the church, but these are smokescreens designed to hide the reason. “They change their creed to match their deeds,” as my parents would say.
I think there’s some truth to this—more than most young leavers would care to admit. The Christian life is hard to sustain in the face of so many temptations. Over the past year, I’ve conducted in-depth interviews with scores of ex-Christians. Only two were honest enough to cite moral compromise as the primary reason for their departures. Many experienced intellectual crises that seemed to conveniently coincide with the adoption of a lifestyle that fell outside the bounds of Christian morality.
The Rest Of The Story
However, in many cases, moral compromise wasn’t the whole story. For example, one friend has had distinctly postmodern misgivings. When his father learned of his decision to leave the faith, he rushed his son a copy of Mere Christianity, hoping the book would bring him back. But C. S. Lewis’s logical style left him cold. “All that rationality comes from the Western philosophical tradition,” he told me. “I don’t think that’s the only way to find truth.”
I also met leavers who felt Christianity failed to measure up intellectually. Shane, a 27-year-old father of three, was swept away by the tide of New Atheist literature. He described growing up a “sheltered Lutheran” who was “into Jesus” and active in youth group. Now he spoke slowly and deliberately, as if testifying in court. “I’m an atheist and an empiricist. I don’t believe religion or psychics or astrology or anything supernatural.”
Others have been hurt by Christians. Katie, a former believer in her early 30s, had been molested by two members of her childhood church. Her mother occasionally still drags her to church. Once, one of her mother’s friends approached Katie with an intense look of concern. She grabbed Katie by the shoulders: “Katie, you’ve become so hard,” she said.
Katie’s voice faltered as she recalled the encounter. “That affected me,” she said. “I don’t want to be hard.” She paused to regain her poise. “But you have to be hard, or else life will hurt you.”
A sizable minority of leavers have adopted alternative spiritualities. A popular choice is Wicca. Morninghawk Apollo (who renamed himself as is common in Wiccan practice) discussed his rejection of Christianity with candor. “Ultimately why I left is that the Christian God demands that you submit to his will. In Wicca, it’s just the other way around. Your will is paramount. We believe in gods and goddesses, but the deities we choose to serve are based on our wills.” That Morninghawk had a Christian past was hardly unique among his friends. “It is rare to meet a new Wiccan who wasn’t raised in the church,” he told me.
In my interviews, I was struck by the diversity of the stories—one can hardly lump them together and chalk up all departures to “youthful rebellion.” Yet there were commonalities. Many de-conversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. Even those who adopted materialist worldviews or voguish spiritualities traced their departures back to what happened in church.
What pushed them out? Again, the reasons for departing in each case were unique, but I realized that most leavers had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith. When sociologist Christian Smith and his fellow researchers examined the spiritual lives of American teenagers, they found most teens practicing a religion best called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which casts God as a distant Creator who blesses people who are “good, nice, and fair.” Its central goal is to help believers “be happy and feel good about oneself.”
Where did teenagers learn this faith? Unfortunately, it’s one taught, implicitly and sometimes explicitly, at every age level in many churches. It’s in the air that many churchgoers breathe, from seeker-friendly worship services to low-commitment small groups. When this nave and coldly utilitarian view of God crashes on the hard rocks of reality, we shouldn’t be surprised to see people of any age walk away.
The Christian Response
The reasons that 20- and 30-somethings are leaving are complex. A significant part of leaving has to do with the new culture we live in, and there is only so much to be done about that. But we in the church have control over at least one part of the equation: how we respond.
While we feel rightly perplexed, if not devastated, when loved ones leave, we should not let grief carry us away. I talked with one parent who was despondent over his grown son’s loss of faith. He said his son was “into satanic stuff.” After a little probing, I found that the son was really a garden variety pluralist. He loved Jesus but saw him as one figure in a pantheon of spiritual luminaries. This is a far cry from his father’s assessment. I cringed inwardly when I imagined them discussing matters of faith.
Christians often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions when they talk with someone who has left the faith: they go on the offensive, delivering a homespun, judgmental sermon, or they freeze in a defensive crouch and fail to engage at all.
Another unsettling pattern emerged during my interviews. Almost to a person, the leavers with whom I spoke recalled that, before leaving the faith, they were regularly shut down when they expressed doubts. Some were ridiculed in front of peers for asking “insolent questions.” Others reported receiving trite answers to vexing questions and being scolded for not accepting them. One was slapped across the face, literally.
At the 2008 American Sociological Association meeting, scholars from the University of Connecticut and Oregon State University reported that “the most frequently mentioned role of Christians in de-conversion was in amplifying existing doubt.” De-converts reported “sharing their burgeoning doubts with a Christian friend or family member only to receive trite, unhelpful answers.”
Churches often lack the appropriate resources. We have programs geared for gender- and age-groups and for those struggling with addictions or exploring the faith. But there’s precious little for Christians struggling with the faith. But two recent books suggest this may be changing: Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts, by Thom and Sam Rainer, and Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them, by Ed Stetzer. Both of these equip churches to reach disaffected people.
The answer, of course, lies in more than offering another program. Nor should we overestimate the efficacy of slicker services or edgy outreach. Only with prayer and thoughtful engagement will at least some of the current exodus be stemmed.
One place to begin is by rethinking how we minister to those from youth to old age. There’s nothing wrong with pizza and video games, nor with seeker-sensitive services, nor with low-commitment small groups that introduce people to the Christian faith. But these cannot replace serious programs of discipleship and catechism. The temptation to wander from the faith is not a new one. The apostle Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus to strive to mature every believer, so that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14, ESV).
Ultimately we will have to undertake the slow but fruitful work of building relationships with those who have left the faith. This means viewing their skepticism for what it often is: the tortured language of spiritual longing. And once we’ve listened long and hard to their stories, and built bridges of trust, we will be ready to light the way back home.
Drew Dyck, manager in the Church Ministry Media Group at Christianity Today International, and author of Generation Ex-Christian (Moody).