Christianity Today recently documented the fact that America’s churches are not only “failing to attract younger worshipers,” but they are also “not holding on to the ones” raised in the church. Research studies indicate that “70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22” and that figure “increases to 80 percent by age 30.” The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) revealed that the “percentage of Americans claiming ‘no religion’ almost doubled in about two decades” (8.1 percent in 1990 and 15 percent in 2008). Among the young (18 to 29 years old) the number doubled (11 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2008), with 73 percent coming from religious homes and 66 percent describing themselves as “de-converts.” Consequently, according to the Southern Baptist Convention (America’s largest Protestant denomination), church growth is not keeping up with the birth rate.
According to Christianity Today, most current unbelievers are, in fact, church dropouts; the “vast majority” are former believers who have quit going to church. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in May 2009 that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at a disturbing rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 to 10 percent a generation ago).”
Church historians explain the youth dropout rates as a “phase” that young people frequently go through — they go to college and quit going to church, but return when they marry and have children. Others have trouble accepting that argument because the current trend to later marriage means a decade-long hiatus that, along with a more pluralistic culture means less “gravitational pull” back to Judeo-Christian values and habits. Others insist that colleges “deprogram” young people; still others blame the cognitive dissonance that occurs when students behave in ways inconsistent with their professed Christianity.
In his Weekly Standard review of Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell’s “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” Joseph Bottum finds that the “massive increase” — from five percent to 25 percent — of those with “no religion” is because of a “fear of religion’s apparent lack of tolerance.” In Bottum’s view, Putnam and Campbell see the source of intolerance as sex: “[T]he percentage of Americans who held that premarital sex was not wrong leapt from 24 percent to 47 percent” in the early 70s and “has continued upward ever since.” Indeed, the divisiveness of “libertines and prudes” fighting over sexual morality is what prevents the Putnam and Campbell ideal of a “gentle, get-along religion” that would attract and keep young people in the fold.