There is a lot of talk within the Christian community about young adults abandoning the faith. Most Christians have at least one friend or family member who put Christianity on the shelf before their thirtieth birthday. However, is this an overwhelming trend? Or is it just something that happens here and there?
Rather than speculate, let’s examine current research and see where it leads.
Research Regarding Religious Beliefs in the US
For several decades, both secular and Christian research groups have tracked the religious beliefs and involvement of the US population. For anyone even mildly aware of current events, it is no surprise that a decreasing percentage of Americans identify as Christian, while an increasing proportion of the population does not identify with any religious group.
According to a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, the percent of adults who identify as Christian is currently seventy percent. This is an eight percent decrease from 2007. While Christianity is on the decline, a recent Gallup poll reports that twenty-one percent of Americans have no religious affiliation. This figure reflects a six percent increase since 2008. Such numbers represent shifts across the population at large. However, a large portion of this shift is due to the changing religious beliefs of young adults.
Research Regarding Religious Beliefs of Teens and Young Adults
A 2016 study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that thirty-nine percent of young adults ages eighteen to twenty-nine consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. Sixty-two percent of these religiously unaffiliated young adults grew up in a religious tradition. However, they abandoned that religious faith by their eighteenth birthday. A 2018 study conducted by The Barna Group and Impact 360 found that atheism is on a dramatic rise among the religiously unaffiliated. Thirteen percent of teens now consider themselves atheists. This number is double the percentages of adults twenty and older who identify with atheism.
These statistics represent a dramatically changing religious landscape among young adults in the US. But are those leaving different religious traditions coming from our homes, churches, and Christian schools?
Research Regarding Young Adults and the Church
Several Christian research organizations have conducted studies specifically focused on young adults who grew up in the church. A 2002 study conducted by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Family Life Council reported that eighty-eight percent of children raised in evangelical homes leave the church upon graduating high school. Other studies have found more moderate, yet still alarming rates of abandonment. A 2007 Lifeway research study found that seventy percent of young adults stop attending church at some point between ages eighteen and twenty-two. Similarly, a 2011 Barna study found that sixty percent of young adults leave the church between the ages of fifteen and thirty.
Barna’s sixty percent statistic is less distressing than the SBC’s initial eighty-eight percent claim. However, taking this more conservative figure means that, at best, we are only forty percent successful at raising children who faithfully seek and serve Jesus. This is not a number that will satisfy any who seek to make disciples of the next generation.
These studies provide strong evidence that Christian young adults are walking away from the faith at an alarming rate. So, the question now becomes, is this just the way things are? Is this mass exodus of our youth inevitable? No. The good news is, researchers have begun digging into the why behind the exodus. In our next posts, we will explore the reasons young adults leave the faith and what Christians can do to combat this trend.