Are Teenagers Leaving the Church?

Mixed messages from this article in today’s New York Times.

From early in the article:

Despite their packed megachurches, their political clout and their increasing visibility on the national stage, evangelical Christian leaders are warning one another that their teenagers are abandoning the faith in droves.

At an unusual series of leadership meetings in 44 cities this fall, more than 6,000 pastors are hearing dire forecasts from some of the biggest names in the conservative evangelical movement.

Their alarm has been stoked by a highly suspect claim that if current trends continue, only 4 percent of teenagers will be “Bible-believing Christians” as adults. That would be a sharp decline compared with 35 percent of the current generation of baby boomers, and before that, 65 percent of the World War II generation.

While some critics say the statistics are greatly exaggerated (one evangelical magazine for youth ministers dubbed it “the 4 percent panic attack”), there is widespread consensus among evangelical leaders that they risk losing their teenagers.

“I’m looking at the data,” said Ron Luce, who organized the meetings and founded Teen Mania, a 20-year-old youth ministry, “and we’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing.”

It would be good news indeed if teenagers were abandoning the church, but I’m afraid I must align myself with the skeptics on this one.

Later in the article we find some reasons to doubt the four percent figure:

Contradicting the sense of isolation expressed by some evangelical teenagers, Ms. Sandler said, “I met plenty of kids who told me over and over that if you’re not Christian in your high school, you’re not cool — kids with Mohawks, with indie rock bands who feel peer pressure to be Christian.”

The reality is, when it comes to organizing youth, evangelical Christians are the envy of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants and Jews, said Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, who specializes in the study of American evangelicals and surveyed teens for his book “Soul Searching: the Religious and Spiritual lives of American Teenagers” (Oxford, 2005).

Mr. Smith said he was skeptical about the 4 percent statistic. He said the figure was from a footnote in a book and was inconsistent with research he had conducted and reviewed, which has found that evangelical teenagers are more likely to remain involved with their faith than are mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jews and teenagers of almost every other religion.

I think a lot depends on the part of the country you lived in. I went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey. A student identifying himself as an evangelical Christian would certainly have been an oddity there. On the other hand, in Kansas I suspect that atheists and intellectuals have a far more difficult time of it in high school than Christians do.

The morbid fear among evangelicals of losing the youth is something I encountered on several occasions when I lived in Kansas. One day I was listening to a call-in show on the local Chrstian radio station. It was a show for people seeking advice on parenting issues. Early in the show a person called to talk about how their son had been killed in a car accident. Later on another person phoned in. She was obviously distraught and obviously sincere. She said, and this is almost an exact quote, “Like your previous caller my family has recently suffered a terrible tragedy. My son wasn’t killed in a car accident but to me it feels just as permanent. My son called home from college and told me he had become an atheist.”

Another time I attended a conference in Wichita for home-schoolers. I went primarily because all of the featured speakers were from Answers in Genesis. The rather extraordinary curricular materials I saw, especially on scientific topics, were a good argument all by themselves for abolishing home-schooling. Anyway, I attended a small breakout session meant to provide tips for starting a home-school. It was led by a father who obviously had little experience with public speaking. All throughout the talk he stressed how important it was that children be protected from the pernicious influence of “the culture.” So in the Q and A I asked him if he ever worried that perhaps they were sheltering their children too much. They are going to come in to contact to with bad influences eventually, and if they do it while they are young their parents might be in a better position to help them respond appropriately. His answer couldn’t have been more blunt. “No,” he said. “I don’t worry about that.”

I can’t resist closing with one further anecdote from the Wichita conference, since it is the only time I ever managed to stump a young-Earther after a talk. One of the featured speakers was gushing about how ridiculous secular geology (!!) was. In particular, he was talking about the principle of superposition , which says, essentially, that rock layers form a time sequence, with oldest layers on the bottom and more recent ones on top, unless other geologic processes occur to alter that state of affairs. This principle is the basis for the relative dating of fossils, among other things. The speaker was going off on how this principle was totally false, and that therefore all of those supposedly evolutionary fossil sequences atheist scientists boast about are nonsense.

So after the talk I pointed out to him that the principle of superposition was an essential part of flood geology, no less than for normal geology. Young-Earthers interpret the sequence of fossils as indicative of the differing abilities of animals to escape from the rising waters of the Noachian flood. For example, humans appear last in the fossil record because they could keep their heads above water the longest. That’s absurd, of course, but of relevance here is the fact that they interpret the fossils as forming a sequence in time. So if the principle of superposition if as ridiculous as the speaker said, then a significant part of flood geology is out the window.

As I said, it was the only time I’ve ever seen a young-Earther at a loss for words.


  1. #1 JimC
    October 6, 2006

    I do think there is a loss of religiousity among the youth today. I think they have a general spirituality but are clearly openminded about the entire endeavor. Polls have shown 90+% of people under 25 having a form of ‘deistic’ style spiritualism that just happens to manifest itself in the religion of the family.

    I see alot of shirts that say ‘my relationship doesn’t need your religion’ in regards to their faith.

    To me this is typical of our nation. The more power and authority any group seems to accrue you can be assured of a counter current. It’s group dynamics.:-)

  2. #2 joe c
    October 6, 2006

    I think that in general, in the long view, it’s abundantly clear that civilization is becoming less religious. If we look back 100 years, 500 years, we see that the prevailing wisdom always tends toward fact over superstition.

    However, along this long historical decline there are and have been local maxima and minima. Certain religious movements gain favor and adherants for (relatively) short periods of time. I think the current swell of Christian fundies and evangelicals is basically a reaction to the experimental excesses of the Sixties, which, and I speak from experience here, were a reaction to the stifling conformity of the Fifties. It is also, I think, a long-wave backlash to the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson, upon securing the passage of the Civil Right Act, told the then young Hubert Humphrey something to the effect of, “Son, I believe I have just given the South to the Republicans for my lifetime, and perhaps yours.” How true. I think the rise of Muslim fundamentalism is similar in nature. In many ways I think it reflects a panic that American culture is inundating and submersing traditional Middle Eastern (not necessarily Muslim) culture.

    So I suppose I’m saying, “don’t worry, it won’t rain forever”. However, when the river’s at your doorstep, it’s hard not be worried.


  3. #3 steven
    October 6, 2006


    Are you in favor of abolishing homeschooling?

  4. #4 Fred
    October 6, 2006

    Steven asked: Jason, are you in favor of abolishing homeschooling?

    I’m not Jason, but I’ll answer: I’m in favor of abolishing it; there’s too much violence there. 🙂

  5. #5 steven
    October 7, 2006

    Fred – are you joking? If not, please explain yourself.

  6. #6 johnc
    October 7, 2006

    Declining religiousity is an established trend across the entire developed world, and so it must be in the US. Therefore, there has to be some specific American contingencies at work acting against that trend to explain the aberrantly high levels of Christian adherence.

    But if we see the main trend as an irreversible product of modernity, then whatever countervailing forces are at work in the US must fail in the long term. So while the 4pc figure seems to lack support, a decline in religiousity among American youth does not seem at all implausible.

    As for home schooling, surely this is nothing less than allowing parents to culturally Balkanise their children. Universal public education is a central pillar of a modern democratic society; home schooling and unregulated private schools need to be unambiguously opposed.

  7. #7 steven
    October 7, 2006

    Universal public education may be a central pillar of a “modern democratic society”, but it was not designed to educate our young people. The system of private and home schools existing before universal public education came into being was doing a very good job of educating. Literacy rates in America were very high prior to the creation of universal public education, probably even higher than they are today (look it up). Universal public education was designed to indoctrinate children into being good citizens. It come about as a result of collectivist thinking.

  8. #8 David
    October 7, 2006

    I will reluctantly dissent on the issue of home schooling. My instinct is to despise it for the reasons given above, and also because I am a public school teacher. However, thet being said, I actually find myself contemplating home schoolong for my own children; indeed they are already in a blended program that contains a significant element of home schooling. The reason is simply that my public school district, which by the way is quite a good one for our neck of the woods, is unwilling or unable my children’s needs. They are working two and three years above grade level, and could easily do more if we had an appropriate environment. They are both significantly above average in cognitive ability, but I think the real problem is that the curriculum is simply inadequate. I teach quite a few reasonably bright kids who could work well beyond what we offer them. Rather than have my children stagnate, or be placed weel beyond their agemates (which is problematic for various reasons both general and specific to them)we have put them in a charter school that essentially gives carte blanche to use distance education, post-secondary option, and home instruction in my area to develop their own programs. It is not ideal, but far better than what the schools offered. Of course we are not stuffing the heads with religious ideas.

  9. #9 David
    October 7, 2006

    Putting on my glasses and proofreading might improve my comments. 🙂

  10. #10 johnc
    October 7, 2006

    Nonsense about “collectivist thinking” is what has got the US into its current public education crisis where, to take literacy as an example, mean prose literacy for adults without college degrees is at or near the bottom rank in each comparative group among the main industrialised countries.
    Steven may wish to look outside US borders and observe public education (or health or housing, etc) in the many countries whose citizens enjoy a better quality of life (almost regardless of the indices used) than the richest nation on earth.

    To the point of this blog, however, is the question about how to improve science education when the system overall is failing in so spectacular a fashion. This should be the message to the Christian loons diverting energy and attention into ideological disputes whose content they don’t even understand.

    That is all policy, and I do sympathise with David’s personal dilemma. My 16yo godson, who demonstrated high cognitive abilities from an early age, sat for the Opportunity Class test at age 8 and was able to attend an OC primary school, and from there passed the entrance to a selective high school – all public schools, of course, but this is Australia …

  11. #11 Fred
    October 7, 2006

    I was half joking. There’s no denying that (with the possible exception of this year) more kids die or are severly injured at home than at school, yet “safety” is one of the big concerns for the families I know who homeschool.

  12. #12 Lynn
    October 8, 2006

    That “teenagers are leaving the church” panic attack has been going on all my life. (well over 40 years) It’s just an attempt to get passive church members stirred up.

  13. #13 Steven
    October 8, 2006

    Johnc, my comments were meant to apply to education in the United States – not anywhere else. It seems from your comments that we agree that education in the U.S. could be much better (especially science education) but that we disagree on the solution.

    My position is that education in the U.S. was being very well served by the private system that was in place before the government took over, and that we would be much better off now if the government had stayed out of education altogether. Furthermore, I reject the idea that the government has the right to take our children for several hours each day and teach them what the they decide is appropriate. Parents should direct the upbringing of their children, including what they are to be taught. It’s not perfect, but nothing else is either.

    I realize that not very many others agree with me on this, but that doesn’t mean that I am wrong. I also realize that some parents will neglect the education of their children under a private system, but the system in place now also neglects the education of many children.

  14. #14 Salvador T. Cordova
    October 9, 2006

    As someone who is fascinated by these sort of demographics, I had originally sided with the hypothesis that the youth are leaving evangelical churches. However, I had a change of heart upon reading evolutionblog in 2004. But now, as of today, I just don’t know.

    On the campus at JMU in Virginia, Campus Crusade grew from 1 in 1988 to 600 or so today. From 2000, Intervarsity grew from 60 to about 400. There appears to be strong sympathy for ID on the JMU campus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean interest in Evangelical Christianity.

    For the rest of the nation, I just don’t know.

    Religion on the whole seems to be gaining resurgence in an uncertain world. I don’t think demographically secularism will prevail, and it seems inclination toward religion is in the human genome and it is a trait that appears to be strongly selected for in terms of increased reproductive success. Dawkins seems to lament this apparent fact as well.

  15. #15 Matthew Fox
    October 14, 2006

    People should not be pressured into religion

    chritianity is a bad religion that condones animal sacrafice to ‘god’

    i think outside the silly god vs. the devil rubbish i am a satanist. its an unhypocritical religion that is morally right and i suggest you look into it before you start thinking that god and the devil really exist, by then it may be too late to return to sanity.

  16. #16 Matthew Fox
    October 14, 2006

    plus this blog is a bit pointless becuase creationsim is a silly idea

    feel free to email me a bout these comments as i probably wont be returning to this site

  17. #17 dogmeatIB
    October 15, 2006

    This argument is truly getting old. “Why are European schools better than American schools, why are private schools better than public schools?” Frankly it is a crock. The reason why the students in schools outside the United States and private schools tend to do better is because, in each of the cases, the schools get to cherry pick their students. In Europe the students who take their standardized tests are the college bound students. They have technical schools for the average Hanz and Pierre who are going to be well prepared to make good money working in a technical field. In the US? We test every kid. In fact, some states actually penalize you if you give an LD student their federally mandated accomodations when they take a high stakes test. The same goes for private schools here in the US. They, unlike the public schools, get to choose their students. Also the vast majority of students who attend private schools come from middle and upper income households. The number one indicator for public schools that aren’t doing well? SES. So private schools get to hand pick their kids from higher SES families, and [i]somehow[/i] they manage to educate them … wow, I agree, we should do away with public education [dripping with sarcasm].

    As for literacy rates. It is estimated by the 1790s that the rate in the United States was 90%. During the 19th century it dropped because the emphasis was on industrial growth, not education. Since then it has risen, officially the literacy rate in the United States currently is 97%.

    Finally, regarding the “decline” in religious fervor, I personally don’t see it. I happen to be in Arizona, in a rather conservative school district, but I have a large number of students who are extremely religious. Comments like “I don’t believe in evolution,” and “how can you ignore the teachings of God,” are common.

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