“So tell me,” I asked, “why do you want to move your church toward a family ministry model?” The two ministry leaders I’d met with at the coffee shop were sincere, good people. Both were passionate about the gospel and faithful to Scripture. Their church had asked me to help them minister more effectively to families.
“Well,” the pastor said, “nine out of 10 kids drop out of church after they graduate. Evidently, what we’re doing isn’t working.”
“Mm-hmm,” the children’s director agreed. “We just want to do so much better than that.”
“Is your church actually losing that many?” I asked. They looked at each other before shrugging.
“I don’t really know,” the pastor replied. “We don’t see them after they graduate. Sometimes that’s because they’re involved in another church, I guess.”
The children’s director continued, “If we had programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the loss.”
“I’ll do everything I can to help your church,” I said. “But first, let’s rethink your reasons for considering these changes because the problem you think is the problem is probably not the problem at all.”
Here’s why these two ministry leaders—and scores of others like them—need to rethink their motivations: The nine-out-of-10 dropout number isn’t true. It was never true, yet many church leaders still believe it. Take a trip with me to the origins of this statistic and why it’s long past time to lay this lie to rest.
Gut Feelings Aren’t Good Statistics
This lie didn’t start as a lie. It was a well-intended, casual survey that metamorphosed far beyond what anyone envisioned. A few years ago, a doctoral student named Brandon Shields discovered the earliest sources of the 90 percent statistic. Apparently, it began in the 1990s when Jay Strack, a popular conference speaker, invited a roomful of youth ministers to share their gut feelings about how many youth were dropping out of church after high school. When Strack summed up the responses, he came up with a 90 percent dropout rate.
Strack later reported that he never intended his statistic to be interpreted as fact. Once he repeated the information a few times, though, other leaders began to reiterate the 90 percent dropout rate as truth. It spread quicker than a stomach virus in a cabin full of middle schoolers halfway through a week of camp. There’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. But conversational “surveys” will never result in reliable statistics. In this instance, the collective estimates of a few ministers resulted in exaggerated percentages that received tremendous publicity and eventually ended up in ministry resources.
Later claims escalated the hysteria. A popular book published in 1997 claimed that only four percent of young people surveyed at that time were born-again Christians. As a result, the author claimed, “According to present trends, we are about to lose eternally the second largest generation in America’s history.” The truth is, this survey spanned only three U.S. states and included information from a mere 211 youth. (To be fair, at least the author was transparent on his methodology.) Other leaders then trumpeted the “trend” as a harbinger of impending doom.
Bad News Is Big News
It’s easy to point accusing fingers at the sources of statistics-but the problem isn’t really the numbers. These numbers arose from well-intended attempts to assess the effectiveness of church ministries. The more problematic question is, Why are we so willing to wallow in the worst possibilities, even when those possibilities aren’t well-founded?
We get excited about bad news.
Human nature relishes the discovery of a hidden crisis. Once we’ve discovered that crisis, we rarely keep the news to ourselves. We spread bad news and, with each retelling, we tend to stretch it. That’s why God warns: “Do not go about spreading slander” (Leviticus 19:16). In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson provided a clear example of this phenomenon: “The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4 percent since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by Barna Research claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation.”
The tendency to turn bad news into big news doesn’t completely explain how rapidly these numbers spread through churches. I suggest an additional reason. Since the 1950s, a fun-and-games approach dominated many youth ministries. In the 1990s, a new generation of youth ministers emerged. These leaders were quickly frustrated with the assumption that a youth minister’s role was primarily to entertain adolescents.
The news that youth ministry had failed to keep kids connected to the church resonated with these young leaders’ existing feelings of frustration.
This widespread frustration yielded some very positive results. This frustration fueled the development of healthier ministry strategies than the fun-and-games approaches the youth ministers had inherited. The results included ministry approaches that emphasized discipleship, community and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships. The good news is that many constructive outcomes were propelled forward by spreading twisted statistics.
Is the Sky Really Falling?
Serious 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 attendees 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 the 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 attendees. How many kids drop out of church after their highschool years?
The LifeWay Research Teenage Dropout Study provides one of the best available snapshots on this subject. I don’t entirely agree with LifeWay’s choice to define regular church attendance as showing up at least twice-a-month for one year. (When I was a youth and children’s minister, twice-a-month kids were in my “strong prospect” file-not in my “regular attender” file!) Nevertheless, the numbers from LifeWay are statistically reliable. According to this study, 70 percent of young adults who had attended church twice a month or more for at least a year during high school dropped out after high school. Even with LifeWay’s extremely generous definition of church involvement, the dropout rate is at least 20 percent lower than the nine-out-of-10 statistic. Among young adults who attended church three or four times per month as teenagers, the dropout rate is likely lower.
Many young adults come back.
Sometime between their mid-20s and their early 30s, a significant number of dropouts return. According to LifeWay, 35 percent of young adult dropouts return to church at least twice a month by the time they’re 30.
What causes 30-somethings to come back to church? Influence from parents or other family members was a deciding factor in 39 percent of returns; friends at church were influential 21 percent of the time. One out of five dropouts came back after they married; one-fourth returned because they had children. Other factors in these comebacks included an inner sense that God was calling them to return.
Young adults aren’t just dropping out-they’re also dropping in.
Here’s good news that rarely shows up in news stories: According to the biannual General Social Survey, the percentage of young adults attending weekly worship services has risen steadily since 2000. In 2008, church attendance among evangelical 20-somethings returned to the same level it was in 1972. What’s more, a 2008 study from the Pew Forum found that 39 percent of adults who’d been raised disconnected from any church have become Protestants.
So what can we conclude about the infamous dropout numbers? The rates of dropout and return are far less bleak and more complex than we’ve been led to believe. The claim that 90 percent of kids drop out after high school clearly needs to be left behind.
The Bigger Lie
A 90 percent dropout rate isn’t the only mistruth that we’ve accepted. I suggest an even bigger lie, one far more insidious than false statistics. The bigger lie is that the effectiveness of your ministry depends on how many people you attract and retain. I’m not suggesting that church involvement and retention don’t matter. Jesus loves the church and he gave his life to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Ephesians 5:25-27). But numeric retention can never constitute a sufficient standard for assessing ministry effectiveness.
When a ministry’s faithful to Jesus, the results often include numeric gains and stellar retention rates. But at other times, faithful ministry produces negligible results as far as the human eye can see. The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another. Spiritual growth often unfolds less like a series of figures on a ledger sheet and more like seeds sprouting inside the earth or like yeast seeping through a lump of dough. That’s why the standard for ministry effectiveness isn’t, “How many participants have we retained?” but “Who’s glimpsed the truth of Jesus and the gospel in what we’re doing?”
Walk Away From the Lie
Walk away from the bigger lie that the value of your ministry depends on how many people you retain. If retention rates define ministry effectiveness, Jesus of Nazareth was an abysmal failure. At one point, a crowd of over 5,000 was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6). Then, after one difficult teaching session, attendance took a nose dive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over 99 percent! Later, on a Passover eve amid the olive trees, those dozen deserted him, and his dropout rate veered close to 100 percent.
Yet, in all of this, Jesus remained the beloved one in whom God delighted-and, inasmuch as you trust Jesus, so do you. So be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. Create a context where those who’ve strayed can freely repent and return. Most of all, rest in the goodness of God, not in the strength of your retention rates.
Timothy Paul Jones is a Sunday school teacher and Associate Professor of Leadership and Family Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also Editor of The Journal of Family Ministry. His latest book is The Family Ministry Field Guide (Wesleyan).
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