Debunking the Dropout Myth

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Is the Sky Really Falling?
fallSerious questions remain: What are the real
dropout numbers? How many of today’s children will still be in the
church in two decades?

Answers to these questions vary, partly because of the wide range
of definitions of what it means to be involved in church. Here are
just a handful of the ways that researchers have separated the
churched from the unchurched.

  • Since 1978, a yearly Gallup Poll has identified respondents as
    “unchurched” if they answered either of these questions negatively:
    “Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?” and “Apart
    from weddings, funerals, or special holidays, have you attended the
    church or synagogue of your choice in the past six months, or not?”
    In recent years, “mosque” has been added alongside “church” and
    “synagogue.”
  • Another survey from Gallup, released in 2002, asked teenagers
    and young adults whether they’d attended “church or synagogue in
    the past seven days.”
  • In 2006, the Barna Group defined young adults as having been
    “churched” if they’d attended church regularly for at least two
    months at any time during their teenage years.
  • In 2007, LifeWay Research identified young adults as having
    been regular church attenders if they’d attended church twice a
    month or more for at least a year during high school.
    With such disparate definitions of what it means to be involved in
    church, even the best research designs are bound to produce a
    variety of results. Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw the
    following valid inferences from the data.
  • Young adults drop out of church-and have been doing so
    for a long time.
    Young adult dropouts don’t represent a
    recent trend. At least since the 1930s, involvement in religious
    worship services has followed a similar pattern: Frequency of
    attendance declines among young adults in their late teens and
    early 20s and then rebounds by the time they turn 30.
  • The percentage of Protestants who attend church weekly has
    remained remarkably stable over the past few decades. Forty-two
    percent of all Protestants attended church weekly in the 1950s; 45
    percent of Protestants made it to church every week in the early
    21st century. In 1955, 38 percent of Protestant 20-somethings
    showed up at church weekly; today, 40 percent of Protestant young
    adults are weekly attenders.
         

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