The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church
In his book unChristian, Kinnaman relayed his findings from thousands of interviews with young adults. Among his many conclusions was this: "The vast majority of outsiders [to the Christian faith] in this country, particularly among young generations, are actually dechurched individuals." He reports that 65 percent of all American young people report having made a commitment to Jesus Christ at some point. In other words, most unbelieving outsiders are old friends, yesterday's worshipers, children who once prayed to Jesus.
To tweak Kinnaman's language, the problem today isn't those who are unchristian, but that so many are ex-Christian. Strictly speaking, they are not an "unreached people group." They are our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, and friends. They have dwelt among us.
Won't They Just Come Back?
A handful of researchers insists that the dramatic drop-off in 20-something spirituality is not cause for alarm. They view the exodus from the church as a hiatus, a matter of many post-collegiate Americans "slapping the snooze" on Sunday mornings.
In his recent book Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You've Been Told, sociologist Bradley Wright says the trend of young people leaving the faith in record numbers is "one of the myths" of contemporary Christianity. Wright, a shrewd contrarian, says members of every generation are regarded with suspicion by their older counterparts. He describes himself as a youth sporting "longish hair and a disco-print shirt," and asks readers, "Do you think the adults of that generation had any faith in the future based on teens like us?" Though he acknowledges that "we can't know for sure what will happen," Wright believes the best bet is that history will repeat itself: "… young people commonly leave organized religion as they separate from their families, but then rejoin when they start families of their own."
Rodney Stark also calls for calm. The Baylor University sociologist concedes that data from his school's research mirror that of the above studies, but Stark isn't shaken. "Young people have always been less likely to attend [church] than are older people," he writes. Stark is confident that the youngsters will return. "A bit later in life when they have married, and especially after children arrive, they become more regular [church] attendees. This happens in every generation."
There is something to these arguments. Scholars like Wright and Stark expose the folly of breathless predictions of Christianity's imminent demise. The North American church does not teeter on the brink of extinction. But, in my view, the crisis of people leaving the faith has taken on new gravity.
First, young adults today are dropping religion at a greater rate than young adults of yesteryear—"five to six times the historic rate," say Putnam and Campbell.
Second, the life-phase argument may no longer pertain. Young adulthood is not what it used to be. For one, it's much longer. Marriage, career, children—the primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment—are now delayed until the late 20s, even into the 30s. Returning to the fold after a two- or three-year hiatus is one thing. Coming back after more than a decade is considerably more unlikely.
Third, a tectonic shift has occurred in the broader culture. Past generations may have rebelled for a season, but they still inhabited a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. For those reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity that has pulled previous generations back to the faith has weakened or dissipated altogether.