Back to Barna: Myths about YA Church Dropouts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the Barna report on “Six Reasons Young Adults Leave Church.” Well, the Barna Group has come out with another tidbit, this one “Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts.”

Essentially what the new blurb says is that not every young adult who leaves church has lost his/her faith (so true), that leaving church is not necessarily normative (blame the Boomers!), that college doesn’t get all the credit for being a faith-killer (but it did turn me into a flaming liberal…), that this generation of Christians isn’t biblically illiterate—but the culture at large is less immersed in Bible stories and Christian theology, and that it’s wrong to assume young people who leave the church will boomerang back eventually—i.e. when they have kids.

To be honest, I didn’t find this information incredibly new or insightful, but it did raise an interesting point. David Kinnamen, who wrote You Lost Me, a book on the Barna study, thinks that at the root of the dropout rate is the church’s “inadequacy of preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group”—churches aren’t showing their young people how to think about the interaction of faith with vocation and culture, and youth and young adults lack meaningful relationships with adults in the church.

(Totally not true, by the way—I learned how to properly apply makeup and learned how to change diapers and perform CPR on babies in my church’s youth program. If that’s not preparation for life after youth group, I don’t know what is…)

I like Kinnamen’s emphasis on relationship, though. It’s something that came up in the other Barna bit, too—the importance of intergenerational relationships to church life. This sort of works in really nicely with my post on listening, because listening is vital to good relationships.

Listening is something I think Kinnamen starts to do (I say “starts” because I sort of have a problem with his “Here is why young adults are leaving and here is what we have to do about it” attitude). His website includes video narratives of young adults who’ve left church (he labels them “prodigals,” “nomads,” and “exiles”). These videos are really compelling. They’re stories—not instructions or truth claims, but open, honest, thoughtful stories. (I can’t seem to embed the video/s, so you’ll have to click to the site, but it’s worth it.)

One of the things that’s kept me posting on this blog are the stories I’ve heard because of it. Go back to the first Barna post and read the comments. Here’s a sample:

Lindsay: “Instead of saying, ‘How can we attract and keep more teens?’ we need to be asking, ‘What are the values that we are trying to practice, as a church?’ and focus on that. If a church focuses on values rather than outcomes and is successful at putting all of its values into practice, then can be content in its practice despite demographic shifts. If people continue to leave, well, either the message of Jesus isn’t as powerful as we’ve said, we’ve got the message wrong, or it doesn’t matter that they’re leaving.”


Joel: “Bottom line for me is that I want to be engaged in the world and I see the Church as often trying to pretend that the world isn’t there, acting very naively and failing to really engage the world on a meaningful level. I’m about doing. I spent the first 18-20 years of my life getting my head overloaded with theology and it didn’t do anything for me.”

Go read the rest. Seriously. Lindsay and Joel are friends of mine, and are both super-smart and really insightful. I have a lot to learn from both of them. In fact, I think I have more to learn from them (and everyone else who lets me listen to their stories—some of them elsewhere on this blog) than from David Kinnamen and his book, or from the Barna Group’s study findings.

I’m not saying these findings are uninteresting. On the contrary, I find data like this fascinating, and I’m really invested in the Barna Group material. It’s just, when it comes down to it, this is all about the people, right? The people who are leaving, and the ones who have stayed. The people who’ve been hurt, or bored, or humiliated, or ignored—and the ones who’ve been inspired, healed, moved, and loved. It’s about these people and their stories.

So I don’t want to really want to sit around hemming and hawing about where all the young people are going and how to lure them back and whether we should put drum sets and projectors in all the churches (though I’m a firm “no” on that one, if you hadn’t guessed). I want to start building relationships—even though I’m a rootless, nomadic Millennial, which means that the bitter taste of goodbyes is always looming in the shadows of my relationship-building. I want to build relationships because the Church isn’t about getting younger people to come to Sunday services and then start volunteering and filling out pledge cards, it’s about worshiping and experiencing God, telling Gospel stories, breaking bread together, and being empowered to do God’s work in the world.


What is your story about the Church in your life? What role do relationships play in that story? How might the Church go about “preparing young Christians for life beyond youth group”—or is this even the right question to be asking?


4 thoughts on “Back to Barna: Myths about YA Church Dropouts

  1. I really like Lindsey’s comment about focusing on values rather than outcomes. I think that’s what we should be doing not just in youth group, but in every moment of ministry. And I think that’s going to look different for each congregation.

  2. As a Gen X’er looking at folks in their twenties I might have some insight from my interactions with “mosaics”. In the end, if we are trying to answer the question as to why young people are not participating more (like we think they should), then here are a few observations about young folks.
    First, I think that young people are conditioned to be consumers and not contributors. We live in a consumerist “shopping mall” society where, if I don’t like what someone is selling me, I can move on to someone who will fulfill my needs….or I can just stay home with my various technologies to keep me entertained. I think that this leads to a lack of urgency to fulfill needs of a group or an organization (church, work, or otherwise). Instead, I see young people asking what can I get out of this interaction (with an organization) rather than what can I give. The ideas of “duty”, “obligation”, and “self-sacrifice” must seem foreign when the urge isn’t to give, but to get.
    Second, many young people I meet put much stock in “individuality”, which essentially means that I value my own self-concept more than being identified with a corporate body (like the church). Not that having an individual self-concept is a bad thing, but I think that if one is too strongly attached to the idea of an individual self then sitting in a room with others singing the same songs, praying the same prayers, and listening to the same homily as other people might be seen as a threat to the idea that I am an individual who thinks for himself/herself.
    Anyway, that’s enough rambling for one session. If my comments came off as harsh, then I apologize. I was once one of those who left the comfort and security of my youth group as a teen, lost my faith at a public university, spent the next 20 years as a spiritual nomad, then was re-introduced to the Gospel under the steeple of a very good (but flawed, like all are) church where I could connect, contribute, and grow. So the Barna report resonates with me. Thank you for your blog and keep up the good work. Keep the conversation going.

    • Thanks, Terry. I think these are valid (and not-too-harsh) observations, acknowledging that they come from an “outsider” — I think a lot of Millennials, myself included, are leery of accepting labels or typologies from other age groups (or, well, from anyone) — maybe part of the individualism, so I get defensive when folks try to tell me what I’m like. I guess that’s not a uniquely “Millennial” thing, though.

      It’s the flawed-but-good churches I’ve fallen in love with that keep me engaged with organized religion, and being able to contribute is what makes me feel a part of the church family, a community without which I really would feel lost.

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