For some reason both the mainstream news and preachers love to talk about how the evangelical church is collapsing. I just did a quick google search, and on the front page I found two articles from the New York Times from the last six years about the collapse of the evangelical church: The Decline of Evangelical America, and The Evangelical Crackup. It’s pretty easy to understand their motives. Inherently the news is biased towards sensational stories. The collapse of a big influence certainly fits that category. Preachers do it for a completely different reason. They’re trying to establish a problem which their sermon can solve.
For that matter, one of the ways you know you’re getting old is when you look at the younger generations and believe they’re laziest, undisciplined, and faithless generation of all-time. Naturally, that means there’s countless books and articles about how teenagers have been abandoning the faith in record droves the last two decades.
Fortunately (or unfortunately if you write for the New York Times) actual research doesn’t actually support the idea that the evangelical church is collapsing or that everyone under 30 is leaving the faith. A couple months back I posted a review of a book called Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. The book tackles both of these claims, and clearly demonstrates their inaccuracy. More importantly it maps out the story of how some of these bogus statistics have gotten out there.
A few weeks back The Gospel Coalition ran an article titled, Who is Really Leaving the Faith and Why?, by Andress Hess, and it affirmed that perhaps things aren’t as bad as the news and preachers like me have been telling you.
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. – Andrew Hess
The article brings to life several points which seemed intuitive to me. First off, only 18% of teenagers who grew up going to church actually leave the faith with another 20% switching faiths. While those numbers seem high, the second insight is the one I think is the key. They specifically look at the background of the 18% who left the faith. Only 11% of those who left the faith self-identified as having a strong faith as a child.
Having graduated from a youth ministry and been in youth ministry for 10 years, this seems to match my experience. When my students graduate from my ministry, I have a pretty good idea which students are going to grow spiritually and which are going to crumble.
A few years back I read a book called Almost Christian about how youth ministries were graduating students who were “almost Christian” but left the faith after high school. The book argued students were graduating with the idea they need to believe in God and behave well. It was actually a very encouraging book for me because I knew my ministry didn’t fall into that category.
The research all seems to point in the same direction. If you don’t want your child to abandon the faith after high school have a strong faith you’re pouring into them and get them plugged into a church where they’re spending time in scripture with a community of believers pouring into them (that was a long sentence). If you want to increase the chances they will leave the faith, just drag them to church on Sundays and hope an hour of Jesus per week is enough to renew their mind.