While I do not that the Barna group speaks on behalf of the church nor necessarily always give biblical solutions to the problems they identify, I think this article is insightful. - David
Many parents and church leaders wonder how to most effectively
cultivate durable faith in the lives of young people. A five-year
project headed by Barna Group president David Kinnaman explores the
opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young
adults within a rapidly shifting culture. The findings of the research
are included in a new book by Kinnaman titled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.
The research project was comprised of eight national studies,
including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth
pastors, and senior pastors. The study of young adults focused on those
who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years
and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age
No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young
adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research
uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five
young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended
period of time from church life after age 15.
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
of the defining characteristics of today's teens and young adults are
their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their
prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express
the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live
in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling,
fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said
“Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated
this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other
perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of
the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies,
music, and video games are harmful” (18%).
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that
something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said
“church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that
“faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the
Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of
these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God
seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith
is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most
common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident
they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a
Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the
scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the
perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the
same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the
creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that
many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of
staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that
values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing
Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of
sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young
believers is how to live up to the church's expectations of chastity and
sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage
is now commonly delayed to the late twenties. Research indicates that
most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian
peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about
sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made
mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of
sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics,
among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on
sexuality and birth control are out of date.”
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness,
tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the
most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race,
ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of
authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with
each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences.
Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of
the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are
“forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young
adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club,
only for insiders” (22%).
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that
allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that
sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that
the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in
this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life
questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts
about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to
help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six
young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help
with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).
Turning Toward Connection
David Kinnaman, who is the coauthor of the book unChristian
explained that “the problem of young adults dropping out of church life
is particularly urgent because most churches work best for
‘traditional’ young adults – those whose life journeys and life
questions are normal and conventional. But most young adults no longer
follow the typical path of leaving home, getting an education, finding a
job, getting married and having kids—all before the age of 30. These
life events are being delayed, reordered, and sometimes pushed
completely off the radar among today’s young adults.
“Consequently, churches are not prepared to handle the ‘new normal.’
Instead, church leaders are most comfortable working with young, married
adults, especially those with children. However, the world for young
adults is changing in significant ways, such as their remarkable access
to the world and worldviews via technology, their alienation from
various institutions, and their skepticism toward external sources of
authority, including Christianity and the Bible.”
The research points to two opposite, but equally dangerous responses
by faith leaders and parents: either catering to or minimizing the
concerns of the next generation. The study suggests some leaders ignore
the concerns and issues of teens and twentysomethings because they feel
that the disconnection will end when young adults are older and have
their own children. Yet, this response misses the dramatic
technological, social and spiritual changes that have occurred over the
last 25 years and ignores the significant present-day challenges these
young adults are facing.
Other churches seem to be taking the opposite corrective action by
using all means possible to make their congregation appeal to teens and
young adults. However, putting the focus squarely on youth and young
adults causes the church to exclude older believers and “builds the
church on the preferences of young people and not on the pursuit of
God,” Kinnaman said.
Between these extremes, the just-released book You Lost Me
points to ways in which the various concerns being raised by young
Christians (including church dropouts) could lead to revitalized
ministry and deeper connections in families. Kinnaman observed that many
churches approach generations in a hierarchical, top-down manner,
rather than deploying a true team of believers of all ages. “Cultivating
intergenerational relationships is one of the most important ways in
which effective faith communities are developing flourishing faith in
both young and old. In many churches, this means changing the metaphor
from simply passing the baton to the next generation to a more
functional, biblical picture of a body – that is, the entire community
of faith, across the entire lifespan, working together to fulfill God’s
About the Research
This Barna Update is based
on research conducted for the Faith That Lasts Project, which took place
between 2007 and 2011. The research included a series of national
public opinion surveys conducted by Barna Group.
In addition to extensive quantitative interviewing with adults and
faith leaders nationwide, the main research examination for the study
was conducted with 18- to 29-year-olds who had been active in a
Christian church at some point in their teen years. The quantitative
study among 18- to 29-year-olds was conducted online with 1,296 current
and former churchgoers. The Faith That Lasts research also included
parallel testing on key measures using telephone surveys, including
interviews conducted among respondents using cell phones, to help ensure
the representativeness of the online sample. The sampling error
associated with 1,296 interviews is plus or minus 2.7 percentage points,
at the 95% confidence level.
The online study relied upon a research panel called KnowledgePanel®,
created by Knowledge Networks. It is a probability-based online
non-volunteer access panel. Panel members are recruited using a
statistically valid sampling method with a published sample frame of
residential addresses that covers approximately 97% of U.S. households.
Sampled non-Internet households, when recruited, are provided a netbook
computer and free Internet service so they may also participate as
online panel members. KnowledgePanel consists of about 50,000 adult
members (ages 18 and older) and includes persons living in cell phone
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes
its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private,
non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar
Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources
pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy
spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian
Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and
analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to
values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like
to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the
latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this
free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional
research-based resources are also available through this website.
© Barna Group, 2011.