Monday, February 14, 2011

Yes, teenagers are graduating from the church

For those who have been in suspense for several years: Yes, teenagers are graduating from high school, and at the same time, ceasing to be regularly involved in churches. Of course there are different definitions of what that looks like, and the research tracking this shift is recent enough that no one is sure if the drop in church attendance will last in the lives of this group of people. What is confirmed by the research is that there is an overall decline in church attendance beyond graduation from high school.

Here are some of the various tidbits of research shamelessly pulled from my capstone paper.
  • In Souls in Transition, Christian Smith tracks the religious shifts from ages 13-17 to 18-23 and this research shows an “overall decline in professed importance of religious faith.”[1] Of the students who were Mainline Protestant or Conservative Protestant in high school, Smith reports that these categories lost 13 percent of their baseline totals over the five year period.[2] This includes religious switching or changing of religious affiliation, defined as “stated membership, association, or identification with different major religious traditions and organizations.”[3] Fifty percent of the Mainline Protestant and 36 percent of the Conservative Protestants switched to another religious affiliation, including switching between these two affiliations
  • Smith also notes a 24.7 percent loss in those who attended religious service two to three times a month or more, yet there was only an 8.5 percent loss in those who said that faith is “extremely important” or “very important” in daily life.[4] In these categories, Mainline Protestants had the biggest decrease with a loss of 16 percent, while Conservative Protestants lost 13 percent.
  • As part of the College Transition Project, Fuller Youth Institute tracked 400 college students who attended youth groups in high through their first three years of college in order to “to better understand the characteristics of youth groups that are associated with a healthy transition to college life and help youth workers develop those qualities in their youth groups.”[5] Some of their findings to date state that “29 percent of the students we’ve surveyed moderately or strongly agree that ‘it’s been difficult to find a church where I feel welcome.’  Although we are not yet finished with our study, this data (along with findings in parallel studies) seem to suggest that about 30-50 percent of students in youth groups struggle in their faith after graduation.”[6]

The numbers by themselves can be daunting. Yes, there is a decline in church attendance after graduation from high school, but these numbers are fleshed out and balanced out by increasing in religious interest, stories of young people who are deeply commited to their faith, and by exploration of the reasons and causes behind the behavior. I found a lot of encouraging material in the midst of this information. But, the purpose of this blog entry is to answer a question from 3 years ago: Around 30 percent of high school students who regularly attended either youth group or a church cease doing so after graduation.

This is a very real phenomena.
I think that we have an equally real challenge to do something about it.

[4] Ibid, 133.

[1] Smith, Souls in Transition, 113.
[2] Ibid, 105.
[3] Ibid, 103

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