Three Myths about Church Dropouts

Sam Rainer

December 16, 2007

I am putting the final touches on my first book (co-authored with my father). The tentative title is Essential Church. The bulk of the work is based upon a three-part research project on why 18-22 year-olds leave the church and how to get them back. The manuscript deadline is fast approaching, and the release date is planned for Fall 2008.

Before the book is released, however, I want to give you guys an opportunity to interact with some of the findings. We’ve found that 70% of those that leave the church do so between the ages of 18 and 22. While more is detailed in the book, let me introduce three myths about these dropouts:

The influence of the secular university has pushed them away. Wrong – State universities and colleges are not to blame. No significant difference exists between the dropout rates of those who attend at least a year of college and those who do not. For those that attend college, 69% of active churchgoing youth stop attending church for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22. Yet 71% of active youth who do not go to college stop attending church during the same period. It’s a statistical tie – the college itself is not prompting students to drop out of church.

High school students are planning to leave the church once they go to college. Wrong – Students are not planning to leave the church. Our research reveals that an overwhelming majority (80%) of high school students do not plan to leave their church once they graduate. Conversely, only 20% of high school students have preconceived notions to leave the fellowship once out of their parents’ nest. Students are not fleeing the church because of deep desires for personal freedom. Nor are they scheming to leave once out of the house.

The scandal-happy media has disenchanted our youth. Wrong – students are not leaving the church because of the attention given to recent scandals surrounding several well-known pastors and churches. While a media melee usually accompanies these large scale evangelical failures of church leadership, students do not leave the church because of them. In fact, only 15% of those who feel displeasure with the church say it’s because of a moral or ethical failure of the leadership.

What’s your take? What do you think about some of these research findings? Do any of you have any myths that you feel are prevalent in our churches surrounding this generation?

54 comments on “Three Myths about Church Dropouts”

  1. Sean McGever says:

    These three myths do not surprise me. The book sounds exciting, I’m looking forward to it. I would be interested if there is statistical data on dropout rates for those who “chose” the church while in high school. This could certainly mean “churched” teens, but the easiest way to evaluate this would be students whose parents do not go to church, or who never went to church.

    Looks like there is strong support that it is not the university or the media. Maybe it is just that they were a captive audience. Youth group attendance was expected and simply a habit for many teenagers. Their parents go to church and drop them off at Sunday school and Wednesday nights for better or for worse. For those whom it wasn’t expected or a long-term parentally encouraged habit, I would expect better retention. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see a correlation about small groups and especially one-on-one mentoring or discipleship strengthening the retention rate.

    I think awareness is also important. A friend of mine at Youth Transition Network ( told me you can predict with certainly the retention rate of college students within the first 72 hours of living in their dorm. They have some great videos targeted at graduates showing some of the issues.

    Looking forward to more comments on this. This is a much needed dialog.

  2. Jeremy Bussell says:

    These statistics do not surprise me at all. As a person who was not “raised in church,” I chose to start attending church while in high school due to the influence of a great friend of mine, who is now my wife. We did not attend church any less once we were in college. I think that for the most part when kids get out of high school they find other things to do on Sunday morning, like sleep in. Whether they are staying out later, or simply don’t want to get up on a day they don’t have to, I think they just choose not to.

    I vividly remember a teacher while I was in high school telling me that “we would all become more liberal, and not attend church as much once we got to college.” For some that was true for others it was not. I do not think it is some sort of conpsiracy by the secular colleges, the media, or the student to stop going to church once they are out or their parents house. I think they simply choose not to go. But then again, the research is telling us that already.

  3. Sam, very good stuff. Look forward to the book. What have you found regarding just the normal “coming of age” transition from teenager to young adult? My guess is that most of those who drop out or attend less are simply trying out their “wings.” Outside influences might be less significant than just “growing up.” I’d love to hear what you guys think. — Chuck

  4. Nico Mulder says:

    The numbers are interesting, though keep in mind that normal empirical mistakes can have an influence on the outcome as to how the questions were asked, how it was implemented, who was the target population etc. But I believe you had all these factors in place.
    Young adults tend to experiment and are willing to dare even towards the church. Religious experience is formed by upbringing, teachers, parents, friends, pastors, church experiences etc. Many will dropout because of this or will keep participating in Christian practice because of this, others will come to Christianity because of a lack of this.
    Young adults will dare to join where the practice of Christianity is fresh and in a new form and where the presence of God can be experienced.
    Keep in mind that we are working with Mosaics, who have their own kind of experience. If you reach somebody in their tribes(2-8 persons), you can win over the whole tribe if you you approach it good.
    Some student-oriented churches reach young adults going to College or University the week before the College or University starts with a well-planned “First-Year-Camp”.

  5. Sam Rainer says:

    Sean – I am working on some possible research surrounding those with parents who are not Christians…stay tuned.

    Many of the questions you raise are addressed in the book. In particular, we’ve found that ‘activity’ in the church is not the same as being ‘active.’ Programs, events, and activities are important, but they don’t necessarily assimilate our teens and young adults.

  6. Sam Rainer says:

    Jeremy – you’re exactly right. No vast academic conspiracy against the church is causing our students to drop out, though there are some in academia who have a distaste for the church. But we give them too much credit for keeping students away.

  7. Sam Rainer says:

    Chuck – honestly, the church is not helping these students through the major transitions in thier lives. They are crying out for help (not vocally, but a deep desire internally), but the church, in general, does not offer what they need at their particular life stage.

  8. Sam Rainer says:

    Nico – several studies have demonstrated that students enjoy a ‘sprititual journey.’ Conversations about faith do not scare them. The church should take advantage of this receptivity. We should not shy away from biblical truth – not all students will agree with every fundamental of the faith, but they will at least respect the church for telling the truth. The younger generation doesn’t want to be fooled into church (they know when you’re trying to ‘sell’ them something). They’d rather hear what you have to say plainly, with no fluff.

  9. The University findings surprised me a little… but it probably goes deeper than than considering only 3% of Busters and Mosiacs have what one would consider a Biblical worldview (according to Barna). I also would look at how we segment our church – how integrated are youth in the life of the church? That can be a stumbling block as well when kids find themselves too old to go to the youth group.

    Also, 18-22 years olds now are not the same as 18-22 year olds 10, 15, 20 years ago. Back then it was considered young adulthood, now it is late adolescents and the Church isn’t doing a good job reaching out to that population.

    I think a lot also has to do with how Christianity is perceived. I’m reading through UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… And Why It Matters by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. It has been pretty eyeopening. I’ve been blogging about it here.

    I’ll look forward to the book to come out.

  10. Sam Rainer says:

    Shane – good insights. One of the major problems with assimilating this generation is that they are segmented from the rest of the body. The more adults that help disciple them, the better they become integrated into the church. I’m reading through Kinnaman’s book as well – it is well done and worth picking up.

  11. You know, i belive that people that go to churchin drop out, they know what they are diong when the leve the church,it;s not so much the pastor or some of the other leader in the church, it;s that there tired of doing what right, and the world around them look as if it;s having all the fun doing wrong, and what they don;t see that it;s only a trap to pull them from there own salvation, we know or most of use know that the time is wineding down, in the devil has step up his game and he out to get every one he can.

    so what she know about your past, Is 43:25 says your for given for all your sins, on one can hold any thing over your head once God remove it.

    ps i dont konw you, but i do know that God love you,don;t stop. run your race and od bless you charles/F,S,H.

  12. sid says:

    Very interesting statistics. Some of the comments raise questions about the comparison with Amish youth (particularly males) who go out and “spread their wild oats” before chosing to return to the fold. There might be some things the church can learn about community and church from a very small sliver of religious life in the Amish community who seem at least to have a higher retention rate long term than most churches.

  13. kdb1411 says:

    Fascinating information Sam. I am anxious for the book to be released; I know it will be well received. This problem of dropouts is too common in the American church.

  14. joe says:

    As a 24 year old (who nearly didn’t finish college but is working towards the end of a degree) who happened to stay in the church, I think that these are very accurate findings. I spent 4 1/2 years at small Liberal Arts school in the music college and saw firsthand many of my friends taking leave of the faith or abandoning it altogether. I hope the book helps shed some light on what is a growing problem for the church.
    I think part of the answer may be that we 20-somethings are not willing to have a mundane life…we crave excitement…and the church, as it stands, is boring. The Gospel is not stirring action among the middle aged folk, who make Christianity look like a lame religion instead of a joyful life. And for us men, it looks like a game of “tame your temper and your language if you want to attend.”

    Let us reclaim my generation with the faithful preaching of the Gospel and let God, through his spirit, redeem his people.


  15. Sam Rainer says:

    Joe – “middle aged folk, who make Christianity look like a lame religion instead of a joyful life”

    Joy being replaced with lame religion is a huge problem in the church, though I do know several “middle-aged” folks who can still get excited about the gospel (my parents, for example). One cannot read through Philippians without soaking in the joy of the Christian life. And the last time I checked “living is Christ and dying is gain” is anything but lame! The church could certainly check all that is boring at the front door.

  16. Billy Cox says:

    I suspect that 18-22 year-olds have been dropping out of churches for roughly the same amount of time that ‘adult’ milestones like marriage and having a ‘real job’ have been delayed until after college, or just delayed for whatever reason.

    Churches make a very rational business decision to NOT program to NGU’s (non-giving units) like college students and 18-22 year olds still living with their parents. Is it a surprise that they drop out?

  17. Sam- I look forward to reading your book as well. Right now I am working with college / young marrieds in what I call the “sub30” group. It is an interesting group. While most are coming to church. I get they impression (as I did when I was there age) as if no one was really talking to me. I was no longer in youth and other people had there kids to talk about and being newly married we felt left out. One of the ways we are trying to keep them plugged in is that we feed the group, we talk about what is going on in their lives, relate it to what God is saying in scripture (as best as we can,) and pray together. Seems to be working, but I could always use more insight. I think it is important to have relationship. Relationship with God, relationship with each other and have a safe place for the Sub30 group to feel like they can talk and ask hard questions.

    Would you agree, with the method or is there something I am missing?

  18. joe says:

    Amen to that Sam. It is definitely a problem to see the older adults in the church living without knowing the joy that comes in Christ, as if they have never read Philippians (or any other book of the NT).

    Merry Christmas


  19. Sam Rainer says:

    Chris – the healthiest inward churches are those with an outward focus. One of the best tangible ways to assimilate the under-30 generation in the church is to encourage service, consistent giving, and missions. Coupled with a high priority of prayer and biblical depth, the church enlarges the front door and closes the back door.

  20. Josh H. says:

    This certainly has turned out to be a popular topic, and with good reason. Blaming others isn’t very constructive – looking at what we as the Church may be doing (or not doing) to nuture people of any age should be our primary focus. However, outside negative influences shouldn’t be ignored, either.

    Sam, when you go on your “book tour”, how about a stop by WFBR for an interview about it? Our reach has been decimated a bit by an outside influence (something I’ll fill you in on later)…but we still have some listeners…and we could archive it online at our website for people to listen to anytime.

    A very Merry Christmas to you and Erin!

  21. Sam Rainer says:

    Thanks Josh. Merry Christmas to you too! I would love to stop by WFBR – it’s been a while since I’ve been down there. The book should be out in early fall 2008, so I’ll make the Mount one of my first stops.

  22. John Byrne says:

    I don’t know what the book will say, but I have a theory. The reason they leave the church is simply because youth ministry has not done a good job of incorporating them into the church in the first place. Students have been given special programs their whole life. They have their own music, their own programs, and even their own language.

    Maybe if we start teaching theme to be part of the overall church they will stick around. That doesn’t mean we can’t help them through life changes, it means we should give them something stable and consistent that isn’t going to change every time they reach a new stage of life.

  23. Sam Rainer says:

    John – you’re dead on. Guide them through life changes, give them responsibilities in the church, listen to them, preach relevant sermons, and make sure that the church is a consistent and essential part of their lives.

  24. chuck says:


    The book looks very interesting. One reason I can think of:

    I think a lot of the problem is with the USA peer-groups.

    I was raised with all people my age group (grade 1-12 or even highschool is ages 15-19)

    After high school, most of my peers left to different areas. My social peer structure evaporated (except for a few who stayed home as I did).

    Some of life’s big choices and learning who you are all happens at this time- and most people’s social structure is gone.

    Most of my Christian friends went through a real tough the next couple of years. A few friends made it through relatively unscathed horrible actions/results. These friends still had their social structure. How? They had been raised in a Christian community foremost with really old, older, old, middle-aged, young, their peers, and younger peoples. So after high school- especially through their family- they still had most of their social-structure in tact. The only thing missing was a small section (their peers)

    My first recommended solution: I’m 25 now and recommend for high school kids to have a community of multi-aged folks. So when they face those tough questions, they have trusted people of all aged groups and wisdoms to lean on.

    What do you think Sam?

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  26. Sam Rainer says:

    Chuck – yes, part of successfully assimilating students into the church is connecting them with other members of the body. While difficult to maintain, a balance can be struck between reaching them where they are as teens and young adults while also showing them the importance of having connections to differing generations in the church. A great way to do this is through cooperative missions efforts.

  27. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Can’t help thinking a lot of these comments seem to echo the thesis of Why Men Quit Going to Church over at

    i.e. that “Church has become a place for little old ladies of both sexes”. Not newly-adult “youths”.

  28. Jim Jackson says:

    Sam, as a college age small group leader I am not surprised by these statistics. In my observations with college age young people (and having 5 of my own) I have watched a whole classes of high school seniors at our church graduate and not one of them move on to college age. Unfortunately, there in no one problem area that can be pointed out to correct this.

    One problem area I have noticed is the church as a whole places a major emphasis on children’s ministry. Much of the funding goes towards children. Almost all churches have a large teen component to them with a corresponding high visibility. When it comes to college age, many churches expect the young people to assimilate into the adult congregation or have a token college age group. Going from being important to practical invisibilty must be destabilizing and I have in fact heard this complaint from many christian college students. They are hurt by it and a percentage have stopped going to church because of it.

    Sam, has your research found the same?

  29. Caleb says:

    I’m a 21 year old college student, and have seen many people leave the church after high school. I agree that part of the problem lies with today’s youth ministries. Teens are separated from the rest of the church from the time they enter 7th grade until they graduate high school. After graduation, they feel they don’t have anywhere to do because they have been involved in the youth group for the past 6 years, but they have never been truly involved with the church. They come back when the church offers a ministry they can easily get into (for example, classes for married couples or their own children participating in children’s activities at the church). I don’t think that more programs marketed towards college students is the solution. I believe the that the answer lies in teaching believers the importance of fellowship with a local church. Too many Christians beleive that the church is unimportant, or at least unneccesary. The Biblical model, however, is one in which all believers are actively involved in the ministry of the church.

  30. Sam Rainer says:

    Jim – the “what do I do now?” question from those that are young adults is an indictment against the church for not assimilating them after high school. But it takes both sides – this generation has to work with the other adults in the church. Ignoring this generation is not the answer. Expecting them to become like the older generation is also ignorant. But dropping out isn’t the right response. Ministries in the church should be geared so that “high school” doesn’t shift immediately into “adulthood.” Each stage of life has unique priorities, needs, and levels of understanding.

  31. Tranette says:

    I’m looking forward to that book!

    I’m 21 and I’ve noticed that my generation is full of activist-minded people. For me personally, I’ve seen more hate-monger among “Church Folk” than anyone else, mostly thanks to Pres. Bush’s influence, and it is a huge turn off. The young are trying for social change and some tenants in the Bible seem outdated and there really aren’t older people that spend the time actually sharing the greatness of God with the youth, just what you shouldn’t do or else you’ll go to hell. That isn’t engaging and quite frankly, it’s more harmful and repulsive. It’d be nice to see more older Christians going out and doing and sharing some of that Christ-like love alongside us young’uns. I think that would have a profound impact on getting the youth back to the church.

  32. Just coming back says:

    I was one of those that “left” the church around 19 and remained a sporadic church attendee for 10 years. Today, I signed up for membership classes at the church I have been attending for 6 months.

    The reasons I disconnected from the church are fairly simple.
    1)Lack of relationships with people in the church.
    2)New found freedom led to bad behaviors. The guilt and the feeling of being a hypocrite held me back from going to church. I felt the church would condemn and did not trust them to forgive and disciple.

    Please befriend a college kid away from family. Even though I had many “friends” at college, someone from church befriending me would have had a immense impact on me and it wouldn’t have mattered if that someone was young or old.

  33. Sam Rainer says:

    Just coming back – praise God! And thanks so much for your words. If there is anyone else out there that has recently returned, your voice in this conversation is invaluable. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  34. Eddie says:


    As someone who has worked with college students for the last 20 years, I’d like to offer some thoughts about your post. The first is that while those stats are impressive, who did the research and where? I’ve worked on both a church staff and as a BCM (Baptist Collegiate Ministries Director) or the old Baptist Student Union at a state university and I can’t agree with that stat for those who were active their freshmen year at college. There are always some whose attendance wanes but that is also true of any other age group within the church. The vast majority of students who began at our church or BCM as Freshman graduate still attached to the church and/or their campus group. Some may be attending a BCM or FCA, Campus Crusade, or other campus group and not going to a local church when away at school, so I don’t know if that would affect your research numbers. For instance if you asked someone who was a CC member if they attended church more than once a month while in college, they might say “no” even though they were at a CC meeting once a week, a small group at the BCM, or involved in a FCA outreach on a weekly basis. I do appreciate your statements as myths and agree with each of them. I believe students are leaving before they graduate from high school in larger numbers because they are working to pay for their lifestyles and then when they go off to college, it’s just easier to sleep in and not be missed. Another factor is that more and more families are walking away from church, so the number of youth is also dropping in many of our churches, so the pool of committed youth coming to college is dropping as well. That’s not to say we are doing a great job getting them in college. It’s tough work due to the factors many have already listed in the responses. It’s an area that we as Southern Baptists must focus on or risk being irrelevant as a denomination in the very near future. Thanks for bringing the issue to light. Contact me if I can be of any help to your work.

  35. Sam Rainer says:

    Eddie – the data collection process was done by the team at LifeWay Research. Hundreds of students on a national scale were interviewed. Keep up the good work down there in gator nation.

  36. Laura says:

    I am one of the stats. I grew up in the northern mid-west with one parent who made sure we went to church and another who didn’t care. We moved to the “Bible Belt” and when I went to church, the only messages I heard were that if I wasn’t baptised in this church I was going to burn in Hell. Well, I didn’t need to be condemed or yelled at or told I was worthless. I had enough problems trying to deal with the culture shock of moving from a mixed metropolitan are to living in an all white neighborhood with people who had never been out of their own neighborhood, much less out of the state. I felt un-loved, no one was interested in me or my experiences and they only wanted quiet little copies of themselves. There was no individuality. So I left. Well years past, I now have a child, a divorce and wanted to make sure my daughter knew who Jesus was and what he did for us. I started checking things out, and found a lot of the same attitudes I found as an older teen. However, there was one person I worked with who was very different. He spoke freely about his church, what he was doing to help others and the absolute joy in his voice when he talked was something I’d never seen before. He lived quite a ways from me, but I found out the church he went to was very close to me. It surprised me that he was willing to get up early and drive his family to a service that started at 8:30 Sunday Morning. I checked it out and found a group that was not only welcoming, but joyful, full of life and real. The want to know about you and your interestes. I’m currently on my way to becoming a full member of the church.

    I think that when teens are in an environment that is loving, caring and genuinely interested in them and their opinions at church they stand a better chance of remaining within that church. I know that if I had felt more accepted, less like a stranger by not just my peers, but younger adults and singles, I might not have left when I did. I agree with Just Coming Back, become genuinely interested in the teens. Step outside your comfort zone and help your church plan events that include the teens with the adults. Definately make a point of finding out if there are any college students attending and inviting them to lunch out with your family, you pick up the tab. I am finding the by extending the hand of friendship and not being so quick to leave church when the service is over has some really good unexpected benefits.

    Find joy in everything around you…..

  37. w.mukhim says:

    I am not by church youth dropouts. Because they were not guided in the christian way that they should be. They dont know who a christian is. They think that after being born out of christian parents is a complete christian they are.They dont repent of their sins,they are not born out of the water and the Spirit- means that they dont receive water baptism and automatically receive the Holy spirit.After that which they should walk in the christian way of life.They dont know to pursue the goal of life, thats heaven.By persevering in studying the word of God.To sum it all they dont learn or do what the Word of God demands. They dont take the name of Christ,instead the manmade names were taken. It means that they dont obey what the Word of God said.The Word of God said that we should not minimise it or add to it as we shall be thrown in to the lake of fire along within the enemy of God that is satan.May God bless those who read this but dont treat it as perfect as I am just trying to show and defend the Word of God. Any corrections are invited so that I and we learn more about the will of God.

  38. Sam Rainer says:

    Laura – thanks so much for your comments. Stories like yours need to be heard by the church.

  39. go4jesus says:

    Hello there!
    We have a couple that pastors our church, they are in the early 60s and don’t see the need to use or facilities more. Gym/Kitchen/etc. We currently do not have a college/young adults group. After High School they are put into the main adult CE class. It is sad that we do not have anything for this age group 18-22 but we are barely released to do fun activities in our own youth group 13-18. Please share your thoughts about how to propose ideas of change in youth and young adults to deepen their relationships with God.


  40. What seems particularly elusive to me is cohesive assimilation that is not exclusively generational by design. So, how do you effectively retain 18-22 year olds without creating a generationally defined sub-church that serves to only push the transition gap down the road. I think of many highly successful 18-20-something ministries (even AXIS at Willow), which in their zenith really became a church-within-a-church, where a transition from “young church” to “main church” was a foreign and alienating experience for many. It would seem part of the retention strategy has to precede the actual transitional periods…how are adolescents integrated into discipleship processes with adult ministries to set a pattern of living that is less vulnerable to changes in school/setting?

    The myths are not surprising. Disengagement happens because of disillusionment (not getting anything out of it anymore), isolation (self-induced?) or disorientation and being unplugged from an activity sphere that failed to establish a discipleship dependency that would transcend environmental flux.

  41. Joseph says:

    Boy…we spend a lot of time on this stuff. The research is always interesting. I personally love the statistics. Our conferences feed on such data, etc. However, does anyone care what the Word of God says? The Bible speaks extensively about the true and the false. For example, the parable of the sower, the wheat and tares, the good fish and the bad fish, etc. The book of 1 John highlights the differences between the true and the false convert – as does MUCH of the Scripture. When the Gospel has been perverted as it is today (i.e. come to Jesus and He will make your life great; just repeat this prayer if you want to go to Heaven; etc – these ideas are foreign to Scripture), is it really surprising that so many false converts are created and in the end they fall away from the faith? This grieves me and burdens my heart. The only way to “fix” it is to return to Biblical Christianity – which will involve repentance on our part. The answer is not in “programs” – we are already program poor.

    What do our youth need? The same as adults – they need a “relationship” with Jesus Christ. That will only come when they see the exceeding sinfulness of their sin, the deserved condemnation of an eternity in the Lake of Fire, and they turn to Jesus Christ in faith (the One who paid the penalty for their sins and rose from the dead).

    Well, I am not arguing with anyone. I love you in Lord. I just wanted to toss in some Biblical insight into this conversation. May the Lord bless you as you serve Him.


  42. Seth Simmons says:

    Interesting…not shocking, but interesting. I have been a College/Campus Minister at a public univ. for close to 4 yrs now, so I understand a lot of this. I would be interested in this book. Not that my purchase would make it a best seller, but I would like to read it and then put the word out to the around 50+ other college ministers I see and meet with regularly. Our ministry is one not often supported, but often blamed for the departure of students that move to our areas. There are very few books that are out about effective college ministry, so it will be good to read a book that takes aim at reaching students.

  43. Duncan Parlett says:

    Dear Sam,

    Can you tell me the source for your information on the statistics on the influence of the Secular University?

    Duncan Parlett

  44. Sam Rainer says:

    Duncan –

    The stat came from a three-part national study conducted by LifeWay Research ( My father and I used much of the study for the research foundation of our book, Essential Church.

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