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The Tribe of Young Unbelievers Increases

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

Actually, as Bottum points out, “America needs its believers to believe something …” and the lack of deeply held beliefs is behind the drop in church membership.

Drew Dyck, author of the Christianity Today article, concluded that most young people leaving the church “had been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculated them against authentic faith.”

In her book, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church,” Kenda Creasy Dean describes her assessment of the data from the first wave of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR): “It is hard to read the data from the NSYR without the impression that many American congregations (not to mention teenagers themselves) are ‘almost Christian’ — but perhaps not fully, at least not in terms of theology or practice.” She writes, “American young people are, theoretically, fine with religious faith — but it does not concern them very much, and it is not durable enough to survive long after they graduate from high school.” Dean places the blame squarely with teens’ parents and those of us who call ourselves “Christian.” She writes, “Since the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo, with astonishing clarity, the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them, lackadaisical faith is not young people’s issue, but ours.” Lest we miss her point, Dean adds that the secret to young people keeping the faith is for them to see modeled “the kind of mature, passionate faith we say we want young people to have.”

The NSYR pictures the spiritual life of teenagers as one of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” — a religion to make people “be happy and feel good about oneself.” Such lukewarm goals and lackluster faith lack the vitality to challenge young people. Dean declared that many adolescents “harbor no ill will toward religion;” they just see it as a “good, well-rounded thing to do.” She added, “American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship.”

Three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christians and most belong to a church, but only half of them consider their faith as very important. If we are to bring our young people back to authentic Christianity, we must acknowledge:

“Teenagers with consequential Christian faith share a profound and personal sense of God’s love and forgiveness on (their journey of faith). They know that the family stories the church tells along the way include them. They are confident that Christ has a part for them to play in bringing about God’s purposes, and that the journey they are on contributes to God’s good direction for the world. But such consequential faith — faith that grows by confessing a creed, belonging to a community, and pursuing God’s purpose and hope — is not the faith that most American teenagers seem to have.”

We have failed to “meaningfully share the core content of the Christian faith” with our young people; is it any wonder that they see the church as insignificant and our God as unimportant? No wonder they shrug off that insignificant faith and ignore that irrelevant God when they enter college. Such banal, faux Christianity is unlikely to bear up under scrutiny and highly unlikely to survive into adulthood. There is a tremendous price to be paid if we do not teach and model the “real thing” for our young people.

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