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Studies and Statistics

So why are most emerging adults so morally unmoored and religiously alienated? Mr. Smith suggests that religious institutions haven't done a very good job at educating kids in even the most basic tenets of their faiths. And religious parents often shirk their duties, too, perhaps believing the "cultural myth" that they have no influence over their children once they hit puberty. ~ l Street Journal Book Review: Souls in Transition

Featured Resources

Cultural Captives: The Beliefs and Behavior of American Young Adults by Steven Cable (2013) - There are many studies on the religious lives of youth and depending on the target group, method of research, and assumptions of the assessment team the results can be confusing. Often the studies seem to contradict one another, at least in the minor points. Probe Ministries set out to investigate the discrepancies, commission their own professional survey, and find where the clues are leading. The resulting book, Cultural Captives, is a very good summary of the many studies and how they relate to each other. It also demonstrates that there isn't as much disagreement as appears on the surface. The finding: "It's worse than we thought." Even the youth who stay in, or return to, the church are largely ignorant of the Christian faith and are being swept up in a cultural tide they are little equipped to counter. If you want to sort out the data and look toward some solutions get this book.

Once Captive - This is a set of fully integrated church-based resources to introduce churches and small groups unfamiliar with the problem of youth being "culturally captive" and provides introductory video based material for an integrated learning experience. Includes video, workbooks, leader guides, sermon outlines, church assessment tools, and more.

For another video based review of the problem we also highly recommend that you get a free copy of the Toughest Test in College by filling out an online form.  This documentary produced by Focus on the Family discusses the faith challenges most students face when they go to college – regardless of the institution being Christian or not. 

Important books on the topic:

Short List: Studies, Reports, Surveys

Thank you to Ryan Huxley of the IDEA Center for providing the following outline and much of the material on this page. (c) Ryan Huxley

  1. BARNA  surveys and books
    1. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church...and Rethinking Faith  by David Kinnaman (abbreviated: YLM)
    2. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... and Why it Matters by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman
    3. Many articles available at Barna  
  2. Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it by Ken Ham and Brit Beemer (abbrevieated: AG)
  3. Lifeway Christian Resources surveys/reports (abbreviated: LCR)
  4. Spirituality in Higher Education surveys/reports by UCLA Higher Education Research Institute (abbreviated: SHE)
  5. Cooperative Institutional Research Program (abbreviated CIRP) by UCLA Higher Education Research Institute
    1. The American Freshman National Norms Fall 2014: http://www.heri.ucla.edu/monographs/TheAmericanFreshman2014.pdf
  6. National Study of Youth & Religion reports (abbreviated: NSYR) from the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    1. Past studies provide baseline (from 1976-1996 via 2004 NSYR “Are American Youth Alienated From Organized Religion?” indicate numbers hadn’t changed much over 20 years (study focused on 12th graders):
  7. Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project
    1. 'Nones' on the Rise: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
    2. Faith in Flux: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/
    3. America's Changing Religious Landscape: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/
    4. A Closer Look at America's Rapidly Growing Religious 'Nones:' http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/05/13/a-closer-look-at-americas-rapidly-growing-religious-nones/
  8. State of Theology by Ligonier Ministries (who commissioned LifeWay Research)
    1. YouTube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu4thojp-sY
    2. Infographic: http://ligonier-static-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/thestateoftheology/TheStateOfTheology-Infographic.pdf
    3. Full Survey & Key Findings: http://ligonier-static-media.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/thestateoftheology/TheStateOfTheology-FullSurveyKeyFindings.pdf
    4. Whitepaper: http://gpts.edu/resources/documents/TheStateOfTheology-Whitepaper.pdf
  9. Notes based on a presentation by Dr. Norman Geisler (College Bound Where Have All Our Teenagers Gone? 2010).
  10. Los Angeles Times
    1. http://articles.latimes.com/2010/oct/17/opinion/la-oe-1017-putnam-religion-20101017 
    2. http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/28/opinion/la-oe-nicolaou-religion-undeclared-20121228
  11. USA Today
    1. http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/life/20070807/d_churchdropout07.art.htm
    2. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-04-27-1Amillfaith27_ST_N.htm 
  12. CNN
    1. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/07/27/why-millennials-are-leaving-the-church/ 
  13. TIME
    1. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2108027,00.html

Other Articles, Links, etc.

Crossexamined.org - Youth Exodus Problem

Answers in Genesis Survey Data (AG)

Barna - Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

WSJ - The Fate of the Spirit: The Wobbly Religious Lives of Young People Emerging Into Adulthood

Interview in Christianity Today with Dr. Christian Smith (author of SIT)

Helping Kids Keep the Faith by Fuller Youth Institute: 

Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations

5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church

Christian Post  - Survey: Churches Losing Youths Long Before College  

Teenagers adopt a common mainstream version of faith – Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD): a faith in a moralistic deity who expects his human creatures to behave, to feel good about themselves, and to run their own lives without too much divine interference or intervention. Summary by Al Mohler on MTD

WSJ book review "The Fate of the Spirit: The wobbly religious lives of young people emerging into adulthood.” (10/2/2009) 

Christianity Today interviews Dr. Smith about this book in “Lost in Transition” (10/9/2009)

Albert Mohler’s book review “Young Souls in Transition — Emerging Adults and the Church” 

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in After the Baby Boomers (2011)

National Center for Family Integrated Churches.  They have a free short film you can watch that covers some of the key points in about an hour.

The "Nones"

The last two decades have seen a substantial increase, and largest growth rate, in those without any religious affiliation, with the most prominent in younger adults.

  • Pew Forum - "Nones on the Rise"
  • Time Magazine Article - "There seems to be almost a one-to-one correlation with church loss and gains in “nones.”
  • “[In 2009] [o]nly about 20% [of emerging adults] attend[ed] religious services at least once a week, a 22% decline from Mr. Smith's survey, five years ago [in 2004], of the same group of young people.”  WSJ book review of SIT
  • Based on studies by Putnam, the most significant indicator was political views.
    • Some Americans brought their religion and their politics into alignment by adjusting their political views to their religious faith. But, surprisingly, more of them adjusted their religion to fit their politics.  We were initially skeptical about that proposition because it seemed implausible that people would make choices that might affect their eternal fate based on how they felt about George W. Bush. But the evidence convinced us that many Americans now are sorting themselves out on Sunday morning on the basis of their political views. For example, in our Faith Matters national survey of 3,000  Americans, we observed this sorting process in real time, when we interviewed the same people twice about one year apart.
    • “Increasingly, young people saw religion as intolerant, hypocritical, judgmental and homophobic. If being religious entailed political conservatism, they concluded, religion was not for them.”
      • i. These same reasons for the backlash are seen in other studies.
      • ii. Huxley: "Relativism and distorted understandings of tolerance have fueled much of this backlash."
    • “Continuing to sound the trumpet for conservative social policy on issues such as homosexuality may or may not be the right thing to do from a theological point of view, but it is likely to mean saving fewer souls.” - according to Putnam. Of course, this ignores the biblical teaching on the topic.

Select Statistics

LCR  - 70% stopped attending by age 23 USA Today

AG  - Age group now early 20s-30s (millennials): 2/3 of those used to go regularly

Unexpected results of some studies (AG):

i. Going to Sunday school more often actually resulted in less Biblical worldview (on topics related to marriage, sex, abortion) than if only attended a few times! 
ii. When did they start leaving?

1. Grade School—4%
2. Middle School—40%
3. High School—44%
4. College—Only 11%

iii. LCR survey - Asked if they plan to return: 

1. Yes – 38%
2. Don’t know – 30%
3. No – 32%
4. Of those 38% who do return, they often return with the doubts motivated them to leave

a. 24% don’t believe Bible inspired
b. 42% don’t believe Biblically accounts

1. ~2/3 generally not alienated by organized religion (Baptist, Protestant, Catholic/Orthodox, Jewish, Mormon, Other Religion & None).

2. ~1/3 feel alienated (about half of the 1/3) or indifferent (the other half)

5 Myths

[from Barna Survey

Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.

About 3/4 leave, but it's a nuanced landscape (YLM)

  1. 1/9 lose their faith long term (i.e., "prodigals")
  2. 4/10 wander; (i.e., "nomads") They may or may not "lose" faith altogether
  3. 2/10 are not connected to church but remain Christian (i.e., "exiles")
  4. Only 3/10 stay in church

Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults' maturation.


  • Many do stay
  • In first half of the 1900s, churches had roughly the same number of young and old in the church

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.

  • Many youth “leave” well before college (consider AG information)

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly "biblically illiterate."

  • Similar “illiteracy” in young and old Christians – difference is more young non-Christians are significantly “illiterate.”
  • More anti-Christian hostility present in the culture, especially younger age groups.

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.

Research suggests otherwise

  • Youth are generally holding off until much later in life before they return; many typical “milestones”
  • Also, consider rise of the “nones”
    • Consider an atheist's “hopeful” blog commenting how some western cultures became primarily secular in just a generation or two (e.g., Quebec or northern Europe). He also opines that religion is a significant factor in America often falling behind in science to other western industrialized nations – mainly due to “creationist-evangelical influence on our culture.”

Key Quotes

Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in After the Baby Boomers (2011) in USA Today book review

“Unless religious leaders take younger adults more seriously, the future of American religion is in doubt” because the proportion of young adults identifying with mainline churches is “about half the size it was a generation ago. Evangelical Protestants have barely held their own.”

Larry Taunton's article Listening to Young Atheists in The Atlantic

“When our participants were asked to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism--people, books, seminars, etc. -- we expected to hear frequent references to the names of the "New Atheists." We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums.” (emphasis added)

Charles Malik's 1980 speech at Wheaton College for the Dedication Ceremony of the Billy Graham Center (PDF of his talk)

“What can the poor Church even at its best do, what can evangelization even at its most inspired do, what can the poor family even at its purest and noblest do, if the children spend between fifteen and twenty years of their life--and indeed the most formative years of their life--in school and college in an atmosphere of formal denial of any relevance of God and spirit and soul and faith to the formation of their mind? The enormity of what is happening is beyond words.” (emphasis added) ...
“The Church and the family, each already encumbered with its own strains and ordeals, are fighting a losing battle so far as the bearing of the university on the spiritual health and wholeness of youth is concerned. All the preaching in the world, and all the loving care of even the best parents between whom there are no problems whatever, will amount to little, if not to nothing, so long as what the children are exposed to day in and day out for fifteen to twenty years in the school and university virtually cancels out morally and spiritually whatever they hear and see and learn at home and in the church. Therefore the problem of the school and university is the most critical problem afflicting western civilization. And here we meet – laughing and relaxing and enjoying ourselves and celebrating, as though nothing of this order of gravity were happening!” (emphasis added)

Dr. Christian Smith in Christianity Today interview (2009)

“The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children's faith trajectories. … But again, we emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.” (emphasis added)

Download Report Below

Outline by: Ryan Huxley, BS, MS in Structural Engineering, UCSD; Certificate of Study in Christian Apologetics, BIOLA; Diploma in Christian Apologetics, Veritas International Institute of Christian Apologetics
© 2014 All rights reserved. This outline may be stored for non-commercial, individual or group educational use. It may be reproduced provided prior approval is given by the author, it is reproduced or stored in its entirety, and full credit is given to its original source.

  • Christian Youth Exodus & Suggested Solutions Resources - Notes PDF File
    Resources - Notes
    PDF File
    (c) Ryan Huxley ​This outline is a “work-in-progress.” We hope this information will reach far and wide given how important this topic is to the future of Christianity. Contact ryanhuxley@ratiochristi.org about making use of this outline based on the copyright notice.