Sep

18

2013

Andrew Hess|12:01 AM CT

Who is Really Leaving the Faith and Why?

It's likely you've heard the news: the sky is falling. Reports have been circulating for a while now that our churches are on the decline and it's the young people who are to blame. Articles, blogs and even books have been written warning ministry leaders and parents alike, the Millennials are leaving our churches in droves of hundreds and thousands.

Intrigued by the implications of a generation giving up on organized religion, we set out to understand who is leaving and why. And what we found was surprising. Many of the most significant and encouraging findings are largely being ignored, while the less accurate and discouraging ones are being emphasized.

Focus on the Family talked to respected sociologists of religion and studied the best, nationally-representative studies and found the bad news is not as bad as you might have heard. Our new report, "Millennial Religious Participation and Retention" draws out some very important research for those who are raising and ministering to the next generation

Pew Research recently found that 18% of young adults leaving their faith altogether and another 20% are switching from one faith to another. This latter cohort, while leaving individual churches, are not leaving their individual faith. They might be switching to a church across town or to one near their college campus. With more young adults switching than leaving, it's odd very few are talking about those switching. In fact, many, we suspect, have been counting them along with those who are leaving.

Also interesting is the huge difference between conservative, Bible-teaching churches and mainline Protestant churches. The General Social Survey, perhaps the most academically-trusted source for demographic data back through 1972, recently noted a 2.2% decline in mainline churches and a slight 0.6% increase among conservative churches (from 1991 to 2012).

Perhaps most interesting is what Pew learned about those leaving their faith. Pew asked those leaving if they ever had a strong faith as a child. Only 11% said they did. The other 89% said they never had a strong faith in the first place. As our report says:

Not surprisingly, homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children. Homes modeling vibrant faith do. So these young adults are leaving something they never had a good grasp of in the first place. This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting.

Young adults are not developing a strong faith as children and walking away as they enter adulthood. Instead, the majority are failing to develop strong faith in the first place and then walking away. As Notre Dame Sociology Professor Christian Smith writes,

Religious outcomes in emerging adulthood ... flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape persons' lives in early years ... religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter - they make a difference.

This has huge implications for those working to instill faith in our children. First, it's encouraging that those children who develop a deep faith early on will likely hold onto that faith throughout their lives. But secondly, this shows being in and around church is simply insufficient to develop strong faith for many children. Taking children to church and Sunday school, while important, should not be seen as the only, or even best, way to instill strong faith in our children.

Parents should be intentional about creating homes where their children learn a vibrant faith from God-fearing parents, relatives and other adults. Parents should teach personal habits of prayer and Bible reading in their children, which makes them much more likely to hold onto their faith.

Christian Smith doesn't mince words: "Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition" for a child to remain strong in their faith into young adulthood. He concludes "without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent."

There are many reasons why young adults leave their faith, but perhaps the most significant is that they never developed a strong faith in the first place. Instead of trying to appeal to those with lukewarm faith, perhaps we should back up and consider how we can teach parents to cultivate strong, lasting faith long before our children enter adulthood.

For more of our findings, read the complete report at Focus Findings, a ministry of Focus on the Family.

Andrew Hess is the Manager of Church Outreach at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Adjunct Professor of Humanities and Theology at Colorado Christian University. He is passionate about equipping pastors and ministry leaders to lead thoughtful, thriving ministries.

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  • Johnny

    My observation is that many of those "leaving the faith" were never really of the faith in the first place. I can think of a friend of mine who claimed to be a Christian yet never went to church, read/watching very questionable material and raged with unforgiveness and hate as his father. And yet he likes to boast today on hatetheist blogs about how he "left being a Christian". Yah right.

    It's hard to know how to read data is studies like that. I mean, are those who "leave the faith" including the Joel Osteen followers? Right there is a dubious testimony...

  • Clayton

    One very interesting aspect of this issue is the impact that fathers have on whether or not their children will remain in church after they leave home. Here is an article dealing with that issue, and it presents some telling statistics:

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-05-024-v

  • Raquel

    Does it seem odd to anyone else that the responsibility of the Holy Spirit and the personal choice of the children is being laden on the backs of the parents?

    Truth: Parents can do everything right/wrong and it won't make a difference in the child's beliefs. They are not God. They are not their children. Yes, parents ought to be doers but not motivated by controlling their children's paths. Rather, those of the faith will be motivated by their love for God.

    • Nancy

      Well said!

    • JohnM

      I agree. This article in as far as is posted above implies, but doesn't really demonstrate, even a correlation between "they never had a strong faith in the first place" and some deficiency on the part of parents, much less does it demonstrate proof.

      • Ryan

        Absolutely, and unfortunately I feel as though this will only reinforce the whole "Proverbs 22:6-as-promise" mentality that causes churches to view the abandonment of faith as the result of bad parenting, which is both abusive towards the parents and insulting of their son/daughter's intelligence and ability to take responsibility for their own decisions.

        I don't think anyone's arguing that parenting is a non-factor or even a small factor in a person's faith, but if we pin the results, good and bad, entirely on them, we're doing everyone involved a huge disservice.

    • http://www.choosinghats.com/ Matthias

      While I appreciate what you're trying to say, I don't believe it's completely accurate.

      You said, "Truth: Parents can do everything right/wrong and it won't make a difference in the child's beliefs."

      However, if this is the case - if a parent's responsibility to his or her children has nothing to do with their eventual direction - what use is there for Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."

      While we lay salvation at God's feet, nevertheless, if we are theologically balanced we will not depreciate the means by which he causes this to take place.

  • Mike

    The article states: “The other 89% said they never had a strong faith in the first place. As our report says: Not surprisingly, homes modeling lukewarm faith do not create enduring faith in children. Homes modeling vibrant faith do. So these young adults are leaving something they never had a good grasp of in the first place. This is not a crisis of faith, per se, but of parenting.”

    I understand that many children with a lukewarm faith did not have it modeled in their home, but your article suggests it is almost completely a “crisis of parenting”. Broad/weak generalizations are not helpful and often hurtful to parents who have deep faith and imperfectly attempted to live it. Do we believe that our environment is the primary factor in faith, or is faith a response to God’s love and grace from a humble heart?

  • Amy

    While I really enjoyed this article, there is one distinction that I think would have been helpful to make. Parents can cultivate the faith in their children, but they cannot save their children. As Matt Chandler says (I'm paraphrasing), "Parents can lay kindling, but the Holy Spirit must ignite it." The Bible is clear that it is God who saves; not parents, not teachers, not pastors, etc. Only God has that power.

  • http://majorminorchrist.blogspot.com/ Solomon Tingsam Li

    This article substantiates the biggest problem with the church and young people... it's the lack of quality teaching and active parenting in the faith.

    Deuteronomy 6 should be a very big part of the household of faith, but today's society seem to wear against that grain in North America.

    This factor along with the fact that as churches we have opted to keep our people segregated by age groups for elementary, Jr. high, and high school only serve to promote this shifting of churches.

    People learn to gravitate towards the popular churches among their own groups, even in a subconscious way. It's unfortunate. Churches are dying out as they get older as there are no more generations to follow thereafter.

    Particularly in bilingual churches, this is a huge problem that the 1st generation are very open to point out. Subsequently a lot of 2nd generation pastors face a lot of pressure.

    No one likes to take any blame, though there is plenty to go around. It takes someone to stand up to say, "The buck stops here."

  • http://www.christianvagabond.com Christian Vagabond

    I'm not clear on the source of the data. Is this the survey being referenced?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/r/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2013/03/25/Editorial-Opinion/Graphics/Pew-Decline-of-Institutional-Religion.pdf

    I don't see the same numbers here the article gives, and the data at The General Social Survey website only goes up to 2006.

    Also, how is "lukewarm faith" being defined? Is this a self-defined term by the people surveyed, or is it an opinion offered by the pollsters? These results are interesting, but more information is necessary.

  • http://www.raisinggodlychildren.org Bryan

    this "research" (complete report bottom of article) fails to take into account the amount of "lukewarm" or nominal millennials who are "still in the faith" who attended terrible seeker-sensitive/ attractional churches or what this "research" referred to a "conservative churches". Many of whom cater more to the goats than sheep.

    This issue (compromised churches) amongst the professing American church is much worse then many realize. Look at the fabricated statistics and compare it to the fruit of our nation...Absolutely no way this country is made up of 31% of individuals who attend a so-called conservative evangelical church.

  • David Lohnes

    - - - - - -
    "Christian Smith doesn't mince words: 'Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition' for a child to remain strong in their faith into young adulthood. He concludes 'without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent.'

    There are many reasons why young adults leave their faith, but perhaps the most significant is that they never developed a strong faith in the first place. Instead of trying to appeal to those with lukewarm faith, perhaps we should back up and consider how we can teach parents to cultivate strong, lasting faith long before our children enter adulthood."
    - - - - - -

    Some thoughts:
    1) Is not the same true of every religion? Don't these findings say as much or more about human growth and development as they do about the supernatural basis of faith?

    2) I'm troubled by what these findings suggest about the current inability of Christian faith to reach unbelieving adults. Where is the power of the Spirit in all this? If you get them young enough, and isolate them from other views long enough, you can raise a child to believe almost anything. When they reach the late teens, they'll strap on explosive vests or crash airplanes into warships. Such effects don't necessarily have anything to do with the Spirit.

    3) If the Christian church has no hope of survival but incubating believers from birth, then maybe it doesn't deserve to survive. The promise of the Gospel and of the presence of the Spirit is a promise of much more power than simple biology and human psychology.

  • http://andyblanks.com Andy Blanks

    If you read the books that came out of the National Study of Youth And Religion ("Soul Searching," "Souls In Transition," and "Almost Christian") and "You Lost Me" by David Kinnaman, you would discover that almost the exact same findings have already been discovered and treated. In much more detail than this piece or this study has treated them. And in Kinnaman's book, he provides excellent thoughts on addressing the issue, most notably, that we have a discipleship problem in our churches. I would strongly suggest reading these books for a greater understanding of this issue. Also, Sticky Faith by Powell and Clark add some new and noteworthy findings and commentary to this subject. Again, a much more thorough and accurate treatment than it's given in this study or article.

  • Mrs. P

    Hey David,

    I don't think the point of the article is to cut out the workings of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel. At the end of the day, it is still the Power of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel that convicts sinner and draws them to repentance, even teeny tiny sinners in the most upright and Christ-like environment.

    Also, I would suggest that there is a stark difference between indoctrinating your children and discipling them.

    I think most people would agree that just because a parent is a righteous role model for the child doesn't mean that the child will come to Christ. That doesn't negate their responsibility to that child to show them an example of faith in action. Many parents, including me, forget how significant of a role we play in the development of our children, and that development doesn't come in great leaps and bounds but through the day to day life we lead. It's so important that we make daily, small, spiritual "deposits" into our children in hopes of a priceless "dividend" one day.

  • David Lohnes

    What I'm taking from this research is that at the end of the day, when it comes to the very young, it's often not simply the power of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel that is at work. It's the power of parental and cultural influence on young children.

    As a homeschool dad of three and former Christian school teacher, I appreciate the role and influence a parent and a teacher can have in a child's life as much as anyone. And the fact of the matter is, that influence is very great. It's not coincidence that my eldest son prefers baseball to football or that he prefers certain teams over others.

    How can you be so sure the driving force between many young conversions is actually supernatural?

  • http://www.providencebaptistfellowship.com Tom Agnew

    The point is there is a significant correlation between the role of parents and their focus on their faith and the retention of that faith in their children. To over analyze this article just shows we all have way too much time on our hands. Please, we are talking about an article on the "GOSPEL" coalition for crying out loud. No one here doubts the supreme role of the Holy Spirit in the work of Salvation.

  • http://kirstymcallister.blogspot.co.uk Kirsty

    "Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition"for a child to remain strong in their faith into young adulthood.

    Really? They're very important, but hardly essential. There are several mature adult Christians in my church who came to Christ as children/young teens from non-christian families.

  • Andrew

    Not sure if the author is checking these comments out, but if so, I have a couple of questions/thoughts about the .6% increase stat for conservative evangelical churches.
    First, how did you operationalize the group? Are you using religious tradition (the RELTRAD typology commonly used in the sociology of religion literature)? Some other way?
    Second, because the GSS is a survey of individuals, your interpretation that "conservative evangelical churches" are growing is incorrect. The GSS doesn't give us data on organizations. Rather, it gives us data on the religious tradition people are identifying with (if you did use a religious tradition measure). And as we all know, identifying with a religion is different from actually attending a congregation.
    Third, why the 1991 cut-point? The GSS spans 1972 on, and the measures used to create RELTRAD have been consistent since 1984. So you could have included those years, at least. To be honest, the 1991 cut-point seems a bit arbitrary and makes me wonder if it was chosen to ensure an increase was present.
    Finally, using the RELTRAD typology (which you may or may not have used in this study), I looked at the GSS from 1972-2012, and 1991-2012, and found no increase. In fact, I found that in 1991 about 29% of GSS respondents identified as Evangelical Protestant but in 2012 23% of respondents identified as such.
    For those interested, read more about RELTRAD and operationalizing religious tradition here: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&cad=rja&ved=0CFMQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.researchgate.net%2Fpublication%2F235918739_The_Measure_of_American_Religious_Traditions_Theoretical_and_Measurement_Considerations%2Ffile%2F3deec51c902450bc95.pdf&ei=U_A6Uq38Ocm2qQHm4YDoCQ&usg=AFQjCNHAsLRPAJqEGh2rbzshfoV41rmPuw&sig2=me5Lw-j4ui-Dnsnook8Rew
    Also, you can access all years of the GSS using an online tool here:
    http://sda.berkeley.edu/archive.htm

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  • Remain Undefined

    There is a correlation to faith in the home and young people leaving the faith. But there is a much bigger problem that people "in the faith" seemingly refuse to acknowledge. Young people are also leaving church regardless of their raising because of dogma, gossip, and hypocrisy.

    I was raised in church and had a praying Mother, one who did Bible studies with me, prayed with me, and church attendance was not up for debate. We drove an hour round trip to be in church every Sunday and every Wednesday. And yet today I claim no religion and will have nothing to do with church and that has absolutely nothing to do with how I was raised. Rather, it has everything to do with those people, including a pastor, who proclaim Christ with their mouths and show up every Sunday and yet in their inner cliques they ridicule people in their own church, gossip mercilessly, discuss ways to "get rid of" the church members they find less worthy, and express pleasure at the pain of others.

    Added to that is the self-righteous justification of their own actions while openly disparaging the actions of anyone who is not exactly like them. They boldly act as though they are the God appointed standard by which everyone else should live, and when someone falls short of that they make sure insider info-regardless of proof- spreads faster than the wildest wildfire.

    The hypocrisy of the church and the intentionally harmful gossip of far too many in the church drove me away, not a single thing my Mother did or did not do contributed to that decision.

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  • http://ChristianStock.com LindaB

    If someone 'leaves the faith' whether young or old, the question should be what faith. Are they leaving a church building they spent years sitting in only because it was what always has been done. Are they leaving their parents faith. Are they leaving a denomination.
    Anyone and I mean anyone who is a true believer in Jesus Christ, will not leave the one and only true faith.
    Anyone can leave a building, a sect, a religion, a family or a pew. A believer in Jesus Christ, growing in the knowledge of Him, the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, won't leave. A relationship with Christ isn't determined by family, pew sitting, charts or graphs. To blame gossip, backbiting,whatever for those that leave a church, sure. To blame the same issues for someone turning their back on Christ, ridiculous. If someone can kick Jesus to the curb because of anything, the relationship with Jesus is not there.

    This is ridiculous:
    "Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition"for a child to remain strong in their faith into young adulthood.

    Absolutely wrong. I became a Christian at 16 in a household full of an abusive alcoholic, and grew in faith in Jesus Christ apart from it and any influence in that home. I am now 49 and strong in the Lord Jesus Christ. No human intervention or influence can trump the continuing work of God.

    Someone said the point of the article wasn't to leave out the Holy Spirit in the work of God. Well the article did, how can this or any discussion regarding a relationship with Christ 'leave them out'?

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  • http://cheetosforbreakfast.com Ginny Barker

    This article kept me up last night. Here is my comment.
    http://www.cheetosforbreakfast.com/2013/10/matters-of-heart.html

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