A Bridge Over Troubled Water
The so-called church dropout rate for Christian teenagers is a hot topic in youth ministry today. And
because it’s an alarming issue, it’s been a magnet for misinformation and half-truths for more than
three years now.
About 18 months ago we published “Busting the Dropout Myth” by Tom Carpenter (March/April
2007)—the result of a challenge I’d thrown out to Christian college students at Bethel College. I promised to publish any well-researched article that could dispel or support the “fact” that nine out of 10 Christian high schoolers will drop out of church by the time they leave college. Tom took up the challenge, scouring existing research to peg the dropout rate at a much-less-apocolyptic 40 percent.
This is one of those vampire stats that just won’t die unless you kill it just so. In contrast to the much quoted 88 percent stat, Sam Rainer of LifeWay Research pegs it at 70 percent, and Dave Kinnaman of Barna Research cites 61 percent (though he told me that number is “probably too high”). Some say it doesn’t matter whether it’s 88 percent or 40 percent; it’s still a bad number. No question.
But numbers do matter because truth always matters. And that brings me to Tim Clydesdale, a sociology professor at The College of New Jersey and author of The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School. In a riveting interview with Derek Melleby of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding (cpyu.org), Clydesdale offered the most incisive response to the church dropout problem that I’ve heard. For six years Clydesdale gathered data on incoming freshmen, operating from a “false hunch” that assumed they’d be experiencing an intellectual and spiritual “awakening.” Instead, he heard very few talk about personal change.
“American teens take a highly practical view of their college education,” Clydesdale told Melleby, “prioritizing, like Americans as a whole, the management of everyday life...Mainstream American life has become a relentless work-spend-borrow-consume cycle that discourages all questioning or reflection, and teens [are] as caught up in this as adults are.”
The consumer cycle described by Clydesdale effectively marginalizes kids’ Christian faith—the tacit outcome is a belief that my faith in Christ is important, but not really important. It’s a planet in my solar system, but not the sun. Clydesdale says: “It seems that most Christian students want to keep their faith in a nice safe box: They attend church, they read the Bible and pray, but they largely pursue the same work-spend-borrow-consume lifestyle that their non-Christian peers do. The majority of Christian teens are content to sprinkle their suburban middle class aspirations with evangelical faith (like most adults do).
“I did find some Christian teens (say 10 to 25 percent) who are open to questioning whether these suburban aspirations represent the life of radical discipleship to which Jesus calls his followers. Such teens want to think deeply about their faith and engage it with the wider world. Unfortunately, few of [them] possess the mentorship that nurtures this sort of faith development, and without it, the tug of work-spend-borrow-consume may...prevail.”
Clydesdale says his biggest surprise was how eagerly these kids responded when an adult listened well to them. He says, “Teens are drowning in competing claims for allegiance, and no one, it seems, is providing [them] the time and space to sort through all of this.”
He adds: “Those who ‘walked away’ from their faith during college made the decision...long before their college years—they just waited for the freedom of college to enact that choice...These teens reported having important questions regarding faith during early adolescence (12 to 14 years old) that were ignored by their parents or pastors rather than taken seriously and engaged thoughtfully.”
He ends his interview with Melleby with a stinging summation (“Faithful are the wounds of a friend...” Proverbs 27:6): “Sadly, most youth ministries are long on fun and fluff and short on listening and thoughtful engagement. The former produces a million paper boats; the latter produces a handful of seaworthy ships. Launching a million paper boats is an amazing spectacle on a clear summer day, but only a ship can weather storms and cross oceans.” n
Rick has been editor of Group Magazine for 20 years. You can contact him at rlawrence@group .com. And you can get a copy of his book Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry or his 10-week curriculum In Pursuit of Jesus: Stepping Off the Beaten Path in our store.