Sunday, July 4, 2010

Young People Leaving the Church – Is it Really all that Alarming?

We recently attended Baker Publishing Group’s sales conference and one of the forthcoming books for Spring 2011 is You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church . . . and Rethinking Faith by David Kinnaman. This is understandable from a publishing standpoint since UnChristian has sold over 180,000 copies and still is the topic of many conversations. But I want to remind you of a book I think warrants a hearing and will probably get drowned out if more of us don’t draw attention to it. The book is by Bradley R. E. Wright called Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites . . . and Other Lies You’ve Been Told from Bethany House. Wright is associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut where he researches Christianity. Today I want to focus on chapter three of his book since it directly deals with this very prevalent thought of young people leaving the church at record levels.

Wright starts by acknowledging that this subject “probably more than any other covered in this book, generates overheated hyperbole.” (57) The “statistics” offered by some suggest that between sixty-nine and ninety-four percent are leaving the traditional church after graduation. Others say that only one in four members of youth groups will stay in the Christian community after they graduate. Yet another study says only four percent be evangelical believers by the time they become adults. (58) But once Wright starts to look at where some of these figures come from we realize the statistics are not much more than a house of cards. Let’s look at this last figure of only four percent. Where did that come from? Wright explains,
“Ten years ago a seminary professor did an informational survey of 211 young people interviewed in three states. The question was poorly worded, and the study probably used a convenience sample. In terms of quality, this statistic is about as valid as someone putting a survey question on their Facebook page and then having their friends and acquaintances answer it. There’s nothing wrong with doing it, it’s just not very trustworthy.” (58)
The problem, Wright says, with these dire predictions is that “every generation frets about the morals of their youth.” (60) He points out if there was ever a generation to worry about it would have been the young people of the 1960s. They rejected everything conventional but look at them now—“they are writing books and giving sermons about the problem of today’s youth.” (60) Previous generations expressed similar concerns: In 1976 a divinity professor expressed the same worries about the youth of his day. In the 1920s sociologists found parents routinely complaining about their youth and in 2800 BC an Assyrian stone tablet lamented that “our earth is degenerate in these later days . . . children no longer obey their parents.” (60) And Wright predicts (one of the few he dares to make) that in 100 years, “our great-great-grandchildren will be worried about the morals and religious behavior of our great-great-great-grandchildren.” (61)

But when we look closer at the statistics we find that they do show that young people are leaving but “we also see the same pattern with the other age groups. In fact, the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated just about tripled among people in their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. . . . Maybe we should be writing articles about how we’re ‘losing’ the middle aged.’” (62) We must also consider the relationship between age and religion. Wright observes that “Previous research has found that young people commonly leave organized religion as they separate from their families, but then they rejoin when they start families of their own. If this is the case, they the young people of any generation are less religious, but this changes as they age.” (69)

Wright cautions us all against forecasting the future based on linear projections. He uses this cartoon to illustrate the pitfalls of this type of reasoning:

(cartoon from
He asks us to think of it this way:
“Can you accurately predict who will win the Super Bowl next year? Do you know what will happen to a company’s stock price? Can you always pick the winner of the reality television shows that you watch? Frankly, if you can answer yes to any of these questions, you have much more profitable things to do than read this book, but I’m guessing not. If we can’t accurately forecast teams, companies, or shows, why do we think we can forecast religion, which is far larger and more complex?” (72)
I think Wright has the voice of reason in this conversation. You can visit his blog here.


Paul said...

Okay...need to chime in here after seeing Scot McKnight's post (here), as it relates to yours.

McKnight states (and you intimate) "young adults have always been less affiliated; when they get married and have children they return to their faith."

I don't doubt this. experience shows (granted I'm no sociologist/statistician) that many young people do not "get married" though many are having kids. I'm wondering what the stats are in relation to those not getting married but having kids. Or, what the stats are about those who co-habitate. In other words, does Wright's research offer any insights into this psychographic?

Louis said...

Hi Paul,

Thanks for "chiming in." I've not found much but he does address it briefly. He says the following:

"Acclaimed sociologist Robert Wuthnow points out that married young people today are just as likely to attend church as the married young people of the 1970s, but single young people are much less likely to attend church than single people of the previous generation. This problem is compounded by the trend that fewer people are getting married, and they are often older when they do. As a result, a key challenge for today's church is reaching young, single people." (72)

The book he refers to is "After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion." Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

I'll contiue to look to see if he says anything more about your question.