Young people aren’t walking away from the church—they’re sprinting. According to a recent study by Ranier Research, 70 percent of youth leave church by the time they are 22 years old. Barna Group estimates that 80 percent of those reared in the church will be “disengaged” by the time they are 29 years old. Unlike earlier generations of church dropouts, these “leavers” are unlikely to seek out alternative forms of Christian community such as home churches and small groups. When they leave church, many leave the faith as well.
Drawing on recent research and in-depth interviews with young leavers, Generation Ex-Christian shines a light on the crisis and proposes effective responses that go beyond slick services or edgy outreach.
But it won’t be easy. Christianity is regarded with suspicion by the younger generation. Those who leave the faith are often downright cynical. To make matters worse, many Christians react poorly when young people walk away. Some sink into a defensive crouch or go on the attack, delivering homespun fire-and-brimstone sermons that do more harm than good. Others give up completely or take up the spiritual-sounding “all we can do is pray” mantra without truly exploring creative ways to engage them on matters of faith. Some turn to their churches for help, only to find that they frequently lack adequate resources to guide them.
This is where Generation Ex-Christian lends a hand. It equips and inspires parents, church leaders, and everyday Christians to reawaken the prodigal’s desire for God and set him or her back on the road to a dynamic faith. The book features raw profiles of real-world, young ex-Christians. No two leavers are identical, but upon close observation, some categories emerge. The book identifies six different kinds of leavers (the postmodern skeptic, the drifter, the neo-pagan, etc.) and offers practical advice for how to connect with each type. Shrewd tips also intersperse the chapters alerting readers to opportunities for engagement, and to hidden landmines they must sidestep to effectively reach leavers. (presentation of Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith … And How to Bring Them Back by Drew Dyck)
Interview by Greg Richter, The Birmingham News, Birmingham, Alabama:
Drew Dyck never lost the Christian faith of his childhood when he became an adult, but he noticed that lots of others did.
Q. What prompted you to write about ex-Christians?
A. My friends began leaving the faith. The first was a friend from high school. We had grown up in the church. Both of our fathers were pastors. Then a few years after high school he came to visit and informed me that he was no longer a Christian. That got my attention. As I moved through my 20s, I witnessed other friends “deconvert.” I started reading about the topic and realized that these experiences were not unique. Many in my generation were walking away from their Christian faith.
Q. Are a lot of young people really leaving the faith? Won’t they just come back when they’re older?
The answer to the first question is “yes.” In the American Religious Identification Survey released in 2009
, 18- to 29-year-olds were found to be the least religious age group: 22 percent claimed “no religion.” That was up 11 percent from 1990. A follow-up study also found that the majority of these non-religious young people came from religious homes and were described by the study as “deconverts.” Other researchers see an even larger exodus. Political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell
report that “young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate (30 percent to 40 percent have no religion today, versus 5 percent to 10 percent a generation ago).”
On the second question–whether or not they will return–is where the scholarly consensus breaks down. Some view the exodus from the church as a hiatus, a matter of young Americans “slapping the snooze” on Sunday mornings. They see the trend as a reversible life-phase phenomenon. Once members of the younger generation start establishing careers, getting married, and having children, they’ll come back.
I’m not so sure. First, those primary sociological forces that drive adults back to religious commitment are now being delayed late into the 20s and even into the 30s, making an eventual return to faith more unlikely. Plus, as Putnam and Campbell report, today’s young adults are abandoning the faith at a greater rate than the young adults of yesteryear. I also think there’s been a tectonic shift in the culture. Past generations inhabited a largely Judeo-Christian culture. For this generation, reared in pluralistic, post-Christian America, the cultural gravity pulling people back to the faith has weakened.
Q. What’s the main reason they give for leaving?
A. Most cited intellectual doubts. But often there was more to the story. For example, one young woman spent the better part of an hour detailing her significant intellectual objections. But as the conversation continued, something interesting came to light. She had attended a prominent Christian college, where she’d suffered a mental breakdown after feeling ostracized by the community and betrayed by Christian friends. The timeline of her story was telling. It was shortly after this traumatic experience that she stopped practicing her faith. It was only in subsequent years that she constructed her elaborate system of doubt. Her intellectual doubts may have prevented her from returning to Christianity, but they were almost certainly not the reason she left in the first place. So that was my challenge in the interviews–to watch for those underlying experiences that often push people from the faith. It sounds more credible to say you left because on intellectual grounds than emotional ones. Some certainly left for intellectual reasons, but more often the head follows the heart.
Q. What interesting things did you learn during the interviews?
A. I encountered some surprising signs of spiritual life. In the interviews, I asked the ex-Christians whether they ever still prayed. It was an absurd question, really, considering how bitterly most of them had rejected God. But most still did pray. They were angry, conflicted prayers, but beautiful in their honesty and desperation: “God, where are you? Can you hear me? Do you exist? Do you even care about me? I miss you.”
As a Christian, the prayers were heartening to hear. I believe that there’s a deep-seated longing for God, even for those who deny his existence. I’ve learned to start hearing skepticism as the language of spiritual longing
Q. You have some interesting categories in your book: Drifters, Neopagans, Rebels, Recoilers, and Modern and Postmodern leavers. Can you explain what these terms mean?
A. No two “leavers” are exactly the same, but some patterns did emerge.
- Postmodern leavers reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just too narrow.
- “Recoilers” leave because they were hurt in the church. They suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual authority. God was guilty by association.
- “Modernists” completely reject supernatural claims. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition.
- “Neo-pagans” refers to those who left for earth-based religions such as Wicca. Not all actually cast spells or participate in pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and see earth as the locus of true spirituality.
- “Spiritual Rebels” flee the faith to indulge in behavior that conflicted with their faith. They also value autonomy and don’t want anyone — especially a superintending deity — telling them what to do.
- “Drifters” do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important until one day he’s no longer part of their lives.
These groupings were not meant to be scientifically precise; their value was diagnostic and utilitarian. The factors that lead people from the faith often serve as the barriers that prevent their return. I wanted to help people understand why young people abandon the faith and equip Christians to engage leavers in meaningful conversations about God.
Q. Has the church played a role in causing this trend? If so, how can it stem the tide?
A. Over the past couple of decades, business thinking has affected the way many churches minister to youth. The goal has become attracting large numbers of kids and keeping them entertained. As a result, today many youth ministries are practically devoid of any spiritual engagement. Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights. Church researcher Ed Stetzer describes most youth groups as “holding tanks with pizza.” There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but they’re tragic replacements for discipleship and catechism. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith. To stem the tide of young people leaving, I believe churches need to get shift the emphasis away from an entertainment model and back to religious education and spiritual growth.
Q. What role does contemporary American culture play?
A. A lot of Christians fear the corrupting influence of “the world,” the culture outside the church. But when it comes to the spiritual plights of young people, what happens inside the church matters most. Even for those lured away by alternative spiritualities such as Wicca, their deconversions were precipitated by what happened inside rather than outside the church. In other words, it was more push than pull. That should affect the way Christians approach this issue. Christian parents, for instance, should probably worry less about the influence of their children’s peers, than the lack of spiritual engagement in the home and at church.
Q. How can Christian parents talk to their grown children who have rejected their faith? What common mistakes do they make?
A. Parents generally react poorly when their children leave the faith. They often have one of two opposite and equally harmful reactions. Either they stay in denial, and fail to address the issue at all–or they go on the offensive, delivering homespun sermons or clobbering their kids with biblical truth. Both reactions are counterproductive. Another common mistake is fighting “proxy wars.” When the topic of faith gets too contentious, debate gets channeled to other arenas. Parents often end up arguing with their children about lifestyle issues, political views or sexuality. But I’d encourage parents to avoid these arguments. These are bad hills to die on. If they want to see their children return to the faith, they should live a more passionate faith themselves, and save their words for spiritual conversations.
Q. You’re a part of the generation you’re writing about. What is different about those such as yourself who didn’t leave?
A. Young people who have meaningful relationships with older Christians are much more likely to retain their faith into adulthood. I had those connections, and have no doubt they were instrumental in my life. I also sought out the intellectual resources to understand and defend my faith. That likely strengthened my faith to withstand the inevitable storms that assailed it in adolescence and young adulthood. But I don’t give myself too much credit. The difference between me and my friends who I now describe as “ex-Christians” may be a matter of degree, rather than kind. We all have the tendency to stray. But God, in his mercy, keeps drawing me back. When I look at those who have left the faith, I have to confess with awe and humility, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Q. What do you think Christianity will look like in 20 or 30 years?
A. I think it’s important to make a distinction between Global and American Christianity. Right now we’re witnessing a florescence of Christian faith in the global south not seen since the earliest days of the church. Christianity is thriving in the most populous places on earth, such as South America, Africa and even China. So globally, the future of faith looks bright.
It’s a different story in the western world. Europe is clearly post-Christian. And while the United States has always been very religious, recent studies reveal a downturn in religious belief and involvement. If this decline continues, the future could look very different. As a Christian I believe there’s a providential element to this, so I’m not willing to make predictions. Two thousand years ago Jesus promised to build his church. Not even the gates of hell, he promised, would be able to stand against it. Two thousand years later nearly a third of humanity claims to follow the Carpenter from Nazareth. More than any studies or statistics, I place my faith in him.