“So tell me,” I ask, “why do you want to move your church toward a family ministry model?”
These two ministry leaders that I’m meeting at the coffee shop are good people. Both are passionate about the gospel, and they long to be faithful to Scripture. Their church has asked me to partner with the staff to help them to minister more effectively to families.
“Well,” the pastor begins, “nine out of ten kids are dropping out of church after they graduate, aren’t they? Evidently, what we’re doing isn’t working.”
“Mm-hmm,” the children’s director nods. “Eighty-eight percent is what they said at the conference. We just want to do so much better than that.”
“Is your church actually losing that many?” I ask.
Both of them look at each other before shrugging.
“I—I don’t really know,” the pastor replies. “Most of the youth, we don’t see after they graduate. Sometimes that’s because they’re involved in another church, I guess. We’ve never done a survey.”
The children’s director nods and continues, “What we thought is that, if we had some programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the dropouts.”
“I want to help your church, and I will do everything in my power to help,” I say. “But first, I’m going to ask you to 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 many others like them need to rethink their motivations: The nine-out-of-ten dropout number isn’t true. It never was true, and it still isn’t–yet many church leaders still believe it. That’s why I’m inviting you to take a trip with me to the origins of this number and to look together at why it’s long past time to lay this misunderstanding to rest.
GUT FEELINGS AND WILD GUESSES RARELY RESULT IN GOOD STATISTICS
In all fairness, the lie didn’t start as a lie. It was a well-intended but poorly-considered guess that metamorphosed far beyond what anyone intended.
A few years ago, a doctoral student named Brandon Shields did some digging and discovered the earliest sources of the supposed statistic. Apparently, it began in the 1990s when a popular conference speaker invited a roomful of youth ministers to share their gut feelings about how many youth dropped out of church after high school. When this speaker summed up the responses, he came up with a ninety percent dropout rate.
The conference speaker later reported that he never meant anyone to take his estimate as a statistically-reliable representation of reality. Yet, once he repeated his numbers a few times, other leaders began to reiterate a ninety-percent dropout rate as gospel truth.
Another popular dropout percentage—88 percent—has been similarly traced back to the personal estimates of two youth ministry veterans. These estimates became part of a report that was provided to a gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the years that followed, this number was repeated in sermons and at denominational gatherings until it became woven into Southern Baptist thinking.
Notice that none of these “surveys” actually tracked how many students remained connected to church once the pomp and circumstance of their high school graduations faded! Instead, the perpetrators of these statistics relied on guesses, gut feelings, and personal recollections. Nevertheless, reports of a nine-out-of-ten dropout rate spread quicker than a stomach virus in a cabin full of middle schoolers halfway through a week of camp—and the results have been almost that messy.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue, and it’s perfectly acceptable to partner with a colleague to make an estimate. But such surveys don’t result in reliable statistics! In this instance, the collective estimates of a few ministers resulted in exaggerated percentages that received tremendous publicity. Dozens of books seized on these shoddy statistics and called for wholesale changes in youth and children’s ministries.
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.” Never mind that the survey spanned only three states and included information from a mere 211 youth (to be fair, at least this author did admit his methodology); later leaders trumpeted this supposed trend as a harbinger of impending doom unless churches changed their ministry methods.
Throughout the early twenty-first century, news of dismal retention and evangelism rates among young adults continued to spread until nearly every youth and children’s minister heard how his or her ministry was destined to fail. Only a few of these claims were true. The handful of claims that were true were often misconstrued by the time they reached the pews.
HOW BAD NEWS BECAME BIG NEWS
It’s easy to point accusing fingers at the sources behind these statistics—but the problem isn’t really the numbers themselves. These numbers arose from well- intended attempts to assess the effectiveness of church ministries. In some cases, even though the statistics were misapplied, the people who first promoted the numbers honestly reported their sources and methods.
The more problematic question is, “Why were we so willing to wallow in the worst possibilities, even when those possibilities were not well-founded?”
It’s partly because bad news becomes big news. There’s something in our fallen nature that relishes the discovery of a hidden crisis—and, once we’ve discovered that crisis, we rarely keep the news to ourselves. Bad news gets repeated and, with each retelling, it tends to get stretched a bit as well. That’s why God warned his people in the Old Testament, “Do not go about spreading slander” (Lev. 19:16). God knows our human tendency to turn bad news into big news and then to exaggerate that news so it seems even bigger.
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% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation.”
Well-researched good news was ignored while the bad news quickly became a feature in major newspapers throughout North America.
The tendency to turn bad news into big news does not, however, completely explain how rapidly these numbers spread through evangelical churches. I suggest there was another reason as well: Ever since the 1950s, a fun-and-games approach had dominated many youth ministries. In the 1990s, a new generation of youth ministers was emerging. For these ministers, youth ministry was not a stepping-stone to something greater. These men and women were theologically-educated church leaders who had responded to a divine calling to disciple youth. This rising tide of leaders found themselves frustrated with the assumption that still persisted in many churches—an assumption that a youth minister’s role was primarily to retain adolescents by entertaining them. The news that youth ministry had failed to keep students connected to the church resonated with these young leaders’ existing feelings of frustration. And so, news of a nine-out-of-ten dropout rate became a fixture in nearly every discussion of youth ministry.
In the end, this widespread frustration in the field of youth ministry did yield a few positive results. Among many youth ministers, frustration fueled the development of ministry strategies that were healthier than the fun-and-games approaches they had inherited. The results included family ministry models and approaches to youth ministry that emphasized discipleship, community, and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships.
Still, constructive outcomes can’t justify the spread of rumors and guesses as facts! A twisted statistic is still twisted, regardless of the rationale or the results.
IS THE SKY REALLY FALLING?
All of this still leaves us with a serious question, however:
What are the real numbers? How many names on your children’s ministry roll are likely to remain on a church roll two decades from today?
Answers to these questions vary, partly because there have been so many different 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.” (Why a per- son is identified as “unchurched” because he or she does not attend synagogue or mosque, I am not quite certain. Then again, “unchurched” is quite a bit easier to say and spell than “unsynagogued” or “unmosqued.”)
- Another survey from Gallup, released in 2002, asked teenagers and young adults whether they had attended “church or synagogue in the past seven days.”
- In 2006, the Barna Group defined young adults as having been “churched” if they had 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 attenders if they had 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 is possible to draw a few valid inferences from the data.
(1) Young adults do drop out of church—and they have been for a long time.
Young adult dropouts do not 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 twenties and then rebounds by the time they turn thirty.
Truth be told, the percentage of Protestants that 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% of Protestants make it to church every week in the early twenty-first century. In 1955, thirty-eight percent of Protestant twenty-somethings showed up at church weekly; today, 40% of Protestant young adults are weekly attenders.
So how many students do drop out on the heels of their high school years? The LifeWay Research Teenage Dropout Study provided one of the best available snapshots into this subject. I have issues with their 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, data from twice-a-month students went into my “strong prospect” file—not in my “regular attender” file!) Nevertheless, the numbers from LifeWay Research are reliable. According to this study, 70% 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.
So what does that mean for the claims of 88% and 90% attrition rates? It means that those numbers were a far shot from reality. Even with LifeWay’s overly generous definition of church involvement, the dropout rate is twenty percent lower than the claim of nine-out- of-ten. Among young adults who attended church three or more times per month as teenagers, the dropout rate is even lower.
(2) Many young adults come back.
Sometime between their mid-twenties and their early thirties, a significant number of dropouts return. According to LifeWay Research, 35% percent of young adult dropouts return to attendance at least twice-a- month by the time they turn thirty.
What is it that causes these thirty-somethings to come back to church? Influence from parents or other family members was a deciding factor in 39% of returns; friends at church were influential 21% 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 a personal desire to attend church again or an inner sense that God was calling them to return.
(3) Young adults aren’t just dropping out; they’re also dropping in.
Here’s one aspect of the larger picture that rarely shows up in anyone’s headlines: 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 twenty-somethings returned to the same level where it had stood in 1972. What’s more, a 2008 study from the Pew Forum found that 39% of adults who had been raised disconnected with any church have ended up as Protestants; most of these formerly unaffiliated individuals have now affiliated with evangelical congregations.
So what can we conclude about the infamous evangelical dropout numbers? The rates of dropout and return are far less bleak and more complex than most of us have been led to believe, and the claim that 90% of students drop out after high school clearly needs to be left behind.
THE BIGGER LIE
A 90% dropout rate is not the only mistruth that well-meaning ministers have accepted about retention. Behind the nine-out-of-ten lie, there is an even bigger lie. This mistruth is far more insidious than any false statistical claim. The bigger lie is that the value and effectiveness of your ministry depends on how many people you attract and retain.
I am not suggesting, of course, that church involvement and retention don’t matter! Whenever anyone drops out of involvement in Christian community, we are correct to be concerned. Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:25–27). Yet numeric retention alone can never constitute a sufficient standard for assessing the value of your ministry.
Sometimes, when a ministry makes much of Jesus and the gospel, the results include numeric gains and stellar retention rates. Other times, it’s possible to make much of Jesus with negligible results as far as any human eye can see. The proclamation of God’s Word does result in growth and in the fulfillment of God’s purposes (Isa. 55:10–11). Yet godly 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 (Luke 13:18–21). The same Word of God that yields manifold fruit in one heart may be rejected as repulsive in another (Luke 8:4–18). That’s why the standard for ministry effectiveness is not, “How many participants have we retained?” but “Who has glimpsed the truth of Jesus and the gospel in what we are doing?”
So don’t stop at turning your back on the big lie that 90% of teenagers will drop out of church! Walk away from the bigger lie that the value of your ministry depends on how many people you retain.
If retention rates decided ministry effectiveness, Jesus of Nazareth was an abysmal failure. At one point, a crowd of well over five thousand was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6). Then, after one particular teaching session, the paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over ninety- nine percent! A couple of years later, on a Passover eve amid the olive trees, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord (Mark 14:50–52; John 16:32). Yet, in all of this, Jesus remained the beloved one in whom his Father delighted (Mark 1:11; John 10:17)—and, inasmuch as you trust Jesus, so do you. So be faithful in proclaiming the good news. Seek out the lost. Create a context where those that stray can freely repent and return. Most of all, rest in the goodness of God, not in the strength of your retention rates.
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in The Journal of Discipleship and Family Ministry 3.2 (Spring/Summer 2013). You can access a PDF version of this article here.]