Relationships key to 'dropouts' - Word&Way

Relationships key to ‘dropouts’

By Bill Webb, Word&Way Editor

LifeWay Research has released a study that shows more than two-thirds of young adults who attend a Protestant church for at least a year in high school will stop attending church regularly for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. Such findings are hardly news. The research corroborates findings from surveys conducted over the past 25 years or more.

But the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources is asking “why” to help churches, parents and others concerned about this trend to reverse it.

“Lots of alarming numbers have been tossed around regarding church dropouts,” said Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research’s director. “We wanted to get at the real situation  with clear research — and there is some bad news here, no question. But there are also some important solutions to be found in the research. When we know why people drop out, we can address how to help better connect them.”

The LifeWay research was conducted in April and May and involved more than 1,000 adults in the 18-30 age group. Each said he or she attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year in high school.

Here are a few of the results:

• As noted above, 70 percent of young adults ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22.

• Interestingly, only 20 percent said they planned to drop out — they “planned on taking a break from church once [they] finished high school.” Few told anyone about their desire to take time off from church.

• According to LifeWay Research, life changes or life situations caused the young people to walk away from church. A full 97 percent of dropouts gave such reasons for leaving.

• Six of the top 10 reasons given related to life changes. The most frequent reason — given by 27 percent — was, “I simply wanted a break from church.”

• Shifting to college or the workforce also were significant reasons for leaving the church. Twenty-five percent stopped when they began attending college; 23 percent indicated work responsibilities prevented them from attending.

• In addition, 22 percent said they moved too far from the church to continue attending, according to survey results.

• Twenty-two percent reported they became too busy even though they wanted to continue to attend, while 17 percent chose to spend more time with friends outside the church, the researchers said.

• Many cited the church or the pastor as a reason for dropping out. Twenty-six percent felt members seemed judgmental or hypocritical while 20 percent said they “didn’t feel connected to the people in my church.”

• Fifty-two percent cited reasons in the “religious, ethical or political beliefs” part of the survey.

What researchers surmised following three different studies — The Formerly Churched, Church Switchers and now the Teenage Dropout study — was the importance of relationships. Brad Waggoner, vice president of research and ministry development at LifeWay, noted: “Relationships are often the glue that keep people in church or serves as an attraction to begin attending again following a period of absenteeism. Many people are deeply influenced by friends and loved ones.”

The 30 percent of adults 18-22 who stayed in church gave specific reasons for their decisions. Sixty-five percent said, “Church was a vital part of my relationship with God,” and 58 percent said, “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life.” Half said, “I felt that church was helping me become a better person.”

The research suggests many of the dropouts return to church attendance at some level, usually because of encouragement from others like parents, other family members and friends. Thirty-four percent said they felt a desire to return, while 28 percent said they sensed God calling them to return.

Stetzer drew a significant conclusion: “There is no easy way to say it, but it must be said. Parents and churches are not passing on a robust Christian faith and an accompanying commitment to the church. We can take some solace in the fact that many do eventually return. But Christian parents and churches need to ask the hard question, ‘What is it about my faith commitment that does not find root in the lives of our children?’”

Apparently, relationships are the key — strong relationships with our young adults and a mature relationship with God.