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Debunking the Dropout Myth

Timothy Paul Jones, Professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

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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