By Michael Bell
I recently published this post at InternetMonk.com
In my previous post at Internet Monk, I looked at two surveys conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. that was released a few weeks ago, and which was a followup to their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that they released last year.
By working with the numbers of the surveys I was able to come up with a chart that showed how Americans have been changing from their childhood faith to their current faith. One of the key findings was that Christian denominations are losing adherents though the back door so to speak than they are gaining new believers through the front door. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, please check out the original post, as it will help you understand some of the ideas behind this post, as well us understand the magnitude of the changes.
Today I wanted to focus on the “when” and the “why” this hemorrhaging was occurring, but as I have been pondering the data, the “when” seemed to really stand out as being important. I was reminded of my preaching classes back in seminary, when our professor, Dr. Peter Ralph, would constantly remind us to find the “big idea” that needed to be communicated from the biblical text. I think the same holds true when looking at survey data. Here is the “big idea” that jumped out at me when going through the Flux survey data and reports:
Most religious life decisions, even among those who have been open to change, has been set by age 23.
Of those who were raised Protestant (Evangelical, Mainline, and Historical Black), and are now “unaffiliated with any religious group”, 85% left their childhood faith before the age of 24. Of those who were raised Catholic and were now unaffiliated, 79% left before the age of 24. The same holds true for those coming back the other way. Of those raised unaffiliated, but who are now affiliated with a religious group, 72% left the ranks of the unaffiliated before the age of 24.
I can’t emphasize enough how huge this is. I will state this again: Most religious life decisions, even among those who have been open to change, has been set by age 23. There is another much smaller group that will leave their Christian faith group between the ages of 24 and 35, but only 3-4% who will make the change after they turn 36.
Before I look at the implications of this, I would like us to consider some related statistics that also come from the Flux survey. Of those who were raised Protestant but are now unaffiliated, 64% attended weekly worship as a child, but only 29% attended as a teen. This too is huge. When we relate this back to our first set of numbers we can see that of those who left the faith before age 24, a large percentage had already made that decision by their teenage years. For Catholics, the decision to leave is somewhat delayed. Of those from Catholic backgrounds who become unaffiliated, 44% are still attending regularly as teens (down from 74% as children). As noted earlier, before the age of 24, most of those who will leave have already left, whether they be Catholic or Protestant.
So what does all this mean for us?
These numbers have significant implications for both discipleship and evangelism. While I have focused primarily on those leaving, it works both way. Those coming to faith make the decision when they are young as well. Let us look at the discipleship aspect first.
A friend of mine, Mitch, became a Youth Pastor of an Evangelical Presbyterian church a number of years ago. While the Church was of quite a decent size (about 300 attendance), they had no youth group, and almost no youth attending. I believe Mitch was hired as the church’s first ever Youth Pastor because the church knew that they had potentially lost one complement of youth, and were afraid of losing those who were approaching that age as well. As hard as Mitch tried, he could not get those youth who had left to come back, even though their parents will still attending the church. So instead he focused his energies on the kids in Sunday School and Junior High. By building into those kids lives, they had gone through significant discipleship well before they hit high school, and Mitch had the joy of working with them all the way through high school. Even after Mitch moved on to another church in a distant community as a senior pastor, he was invited back to participate in their weddings. It was wonderful to see those teens move into adulthood, still actively engaged in the church.
My point is that if we are not serious and intentional about engaging our young people before they hit their teens, then we may have left it too late.
After the teenage years comes young adulthood, and College and/or University have often been fingered as being culprits in the move away from the faith in young adults. Steven James Henderson in his 2003 study entitled “The Impact of Student Religion and College Affiliation on Student Religiosity” writes:
Railsback’s 1994 study of “born-again” Christian students… found that the vast majority of Christian students attend non-Christian colleges. As previously mentioned, of the group that attended public universities, approximately 52% either no longer called themselves “born again” or had not attended any religious services or meetings in over a year by the end of their college experience.
However it has been shown that those who do not attend College fall away from the faith in ever greater percentages than those who do attend. Regnerus and Uecker write:
The assumption that the religious involvement of young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits. Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.
So what do we do?
In Henderson’s more readable summary article, he points out that:
Students who attend institutions that are members of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU) showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religious commitment as well as an overall increase in that commitment compared to those who attended non-member institutions.
These numbers may be misleading because if I want to become and Engineer, I am going to go to a school that specializing in producing Engineers. If I want to become a Pastor, I am going to go to a school that specializes in producing Pastors. So it may be that those who enter CCCU schools are more intentional about their future Christian involvement, and as such score much higher in the surveys.
Even if the numbers are not misleading, this still gives me a bit of a problem, primarily I believe that Christians cocoon themselves far too much, and secondly, because as pointed out by George Wood, a leader in the Assemblies of God, only 15% of their students choose schools affiliated with the CCCU. His figures, based on the 2005 Church Ministries Report for the Assemblies of God show that there are:
315,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 17 in the 12,301 Assemblies of God churches in the U.S.
210,000 (two-thirds) will enter one of the 4,000 colleges or universities in America.
178,500 will enter a non-Christian college or university, while
31,500 (15 percent) will enter one of the 102 CCCU schools, including those affiliated with the Assemblies of God.
In nine years, after these 13- to 17-year-olds have been in college for four years (and if the same percentages hold true for those who don’t go to college) up to 189,000 of Assemblies of God youth – out of 315,000 – may no longer be following Christ.
So, while giving additional consideration to a Christian College may be of benefit to our students, we need to consider the large majority who are not going to go that route.
This is why I am such a large supporter of Christian Campus ministries like Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and what was formerly know and Campus Crusade. Church “College & Career” ministries are very important too. My wife and I were involved in three different Campus ministries while at University, and one significant Church College ministries. All four had a huge impact on our spiritual growth, as well as in establishing life long relationships with like minded Christians. I look at those I was involved with and so many of them went on to become Pastors, Missionaries, and leaders in their respective churches. It is for that reason that my wife and I give 25% of our tithe to Campus ministries, spreading it out over four campuses. Being able to contribute to the spiritual well being of University students is something I believe will have a lasting impact on both their lives and the future health of the church.
Henderson has a number of excellent suggestions for students, parents, and Pastors, for ways that students can remain strong in their faith during their college years. It is well worth reading.
I would like to add a couple of other thoughts to his list as well as tie back to some of my original comments about teens.
I realize that I am about to pick on Pastors here, but I see Pastors as the key implementer of change withing churches. Pastors, how intentional are you at engaging youth and young adults in your sermons? Go over your last 10 sermons. How many of the sermon illustrations were ones that young people could really relate too? Have you ever alluded to a group like “Cold Play”? Do you have a visitation schedule? If so, have you ever included a teen or a young adult in that schedule? Have you ever taken a teen in your church out for a baseball game or even a cheese burger? When was the last time someone under the age of 18 did a Bible reading in the service? Ushered? Ran the sound board, or video system? Joined the worship team? Let a Bible Study? My son who is 14, does all kinds of complex presentations at school on all kinds of subjects that he has researched. Why doesn’t he get the same kind of opportunity at church?
My point is that many of our people have become disengaged from their faith at a very young age. It isn’t enough to tread water, but we need to become intentional at engaging them. You should note that I am not advocating that we become youth focused in our churches, but that we should at least become much more youth aware and youth inclusive. We need to engage them beyond the time spent in their Sunday School class or youth group, and make sure that they are an integral part in this bigger thing we call “church”
My final note has to do with Evangelism. As noted earlier in the post, of those raised unaffiliated, but who are now affiliated with a religious group, 72% left the ranks of the unaffiliated before the age of 24. My friend Tim immediately came to mind when I read this. When I was at University, he amazed all of us in our Christian campus group by leading his entire residence floor to Christ. One of the guys who became a Christian went on to become the President of our group three years later. Yet this is something that should not surprise us, because this is a stage of life when people are seeking, learning, and discovering so many new and amazing things about the world around them. We need to take the opportunity to introduce them to the most amazing person of all: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.<i