Thought Factory Podcast #303 || Students Vacating Church & Losing Faith

Are students leaving the church? Fifty percent of students drift from their faith after graduating high school.  Of those who drift, 80% did not plan to drift from their faith when they went to college or went into the workforce.  Are we losing the battle with students or is there a reason to have hope in this generation’s loyalty to the local church?  In this episode, Jeff Eckart and Jayson Brewer dive into the numbers from their research about students’ loyalty to the church, their youth group, and what it looks like for students’ faith when they actually attend church post-graduation.  What can we do as youth leaders to prepare students for faith outside high school, to ensure it sticks?

One in two students drift from faith after high school. Of those that drift, 80% did not plan to drift. It’s been said that within days, even hours of arriving on campus, student’s decisions form patterns and habits that either connect or separate them from their faith. For example, if students don’t connect to a ministry or church within 3 days of landing on a college campus as a freshman, they won’t connect throughout their time at that school. If they attend a party, what’s inside the cup that they are drinking will greatly determine their relationship to faith.

What do we do with these numbers? Are we losing the battle with students? We are going to discuss the question, “Are students leaving the church?” and dive into some hard data and hear what students are saying.

We are here to learn from what students are saying and learn about what we can do as youth workers to continue to connect with students, not just while they’re with us but beyond graduation.

The questions we asked 3,000 middle school and high school students from around the country who represent all types of demographics and church sizes:

(First number is the students’ response, the second number is what the adults thought how students would respond)

The youth group at my church is:
A. Very connected with the rest of the church // 66% // 26%
B. Somewhat connected with the rest of the church // 21% // 37%
C. I am unsure // 9% // 20%
D. Somewhat disconnected with the rest of the church // 3% // 13%
E. Very disconnected with the rest of the church // 1% // 4%

“87% say their youth group is ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ connected to the rest of the church. Only 1% think it’s ‘somewhat’ or ‘very disconnected.’ This is a huge difference.  So basically almost 9 out of 10 students are saying to us we think that our youth group is very or at least somewhat connected to the rest of your local church.”

My loyalty to my youth group is:
A. Very high // 33% // 11%
B. Somewhat high // 47% // 61%
C. I am unsure // 12% // 11%
D. Somewhat low // 7% // 16%
E. Very low // >1% // <1%

“We were really surprised that 8 out of 10, 79% said it’s ‘very’ or ‘somewhat high’ – a vast majority of the students are saying their personal loyalty to their youth group is really high and that goes back to even last season and some of the research we did a year ago where we ask students how important is youth group to the to their overall everyday life (71% said very important and 23% somewhat important).”

My loyalty to my church, beyond just the youth group, is:
A. Very high // 48% // 12%
B. Somewhat high // 32% // 29%
C. Neither high nor low // 13% // 34%
D. Somewhat low // 4% // 18%
E. Very low // 3% // 7%

“We have 80% of students that are loyal to their youth group and 80% loyal to their church so we’re seeing that students are loyal to their church.  Now here’s what really shocked me.  Looking at these numbers, 33%  said their loyalty was very high to their youth group, so about one out of three.  Now check this out, when we asked the same to their loyalty to their church, 48% said it was very high.  Now that’s almost 1 out of 2, so 1 out of 3 is saying my loyalty is really high during my youth group but a much larger number is saying it’s very high to their church.  I think that’s really significant for us to think about.  But adults only think 12% of the students are very high in their loyalty to their church.”

Students are telling us something that we don’t think we’ve ever heard before.  We continue to hear and read that students are less and less loyal but here in this research, they are saying they are very loyal.  Students are saying they are more loyal to the church than they are to their youth group.

How important is it for a Christian to regularly attend church services?
A. Very important // 60% // 36%
B. Somewhat important // 31% // 50%
C. Neither important nor unimportant // 7% // 10%
D. Somewhat unimportant // <1% // 4%
E. Very unimportant // <1% // <1%

“Ninety-one percent of the students responding believe attending church is important as a Christian, 60% saying it’s very important.  Split that number in half about 36% of adults thought that students would say it was very important so about half of what students are saying and only a little over one percent think it’s not important to attend church as a Christian.”

Are we leveraging that?  Do we believe that these students would want to be at church, that they want to be loyal?  As we even look further into the data and just try to analyze where we can, the students’ view of the church is high and it’s integrated into their lives, so it’s important to them. They’re loyal while they are in middle school and high school.  When we look at a 91% of these students saying it’s important to be a part of a church and we’re asking the question, “are students leaving the church?” –  what’s happening with their loyalty and their belief in the church when they leave?  As youth workers, we need to help students in this portion of their journey and to help them cross over from the time we have with them to afterward in adulthood.

We think of students that graduate and have no intention of leaving the church or faith, but within a few weeks of stepping foot on a college campus, they choose other opportunities that arise that takes them away from their faith because they fall into it.  They end up going down a journey that they don’t intend to go down and live a lifestyle they didn’t imagine being a part of in high school, but now they are walking away from their faith.

In middle school and high school, they are routine driven and they keep to a structured environment.  They keep to a schedule.  Their lives are filled with activities, including youth group.  Then they graduate and start college where their days are no longer routine driven structured with activities.  They have all the time to do whatever they want.  It takes so much more intentionality and proactivity on their part to make a connection to their faith and the community that surrounds them, whether a campus ministry or a local church, in a place they are unfamiliar with.

LifeWay Research has a sobering statistic:  Only 15% of students (of ministry orient) felt equipped with faith beyond high school.

So, 85% of students are graduating and don’t feel equipped to live out their faith beyond high school.

How can we prepare our students for life beyond the walls of their school into the adult world, on the college campus or in the work environment?

This should give us hope because there appears to be a solution.  That solution is their connection to a faith community.  The number one thing that we’ve found in determining students’ success or failure when it comes to connecting their faith to their everyday lives after high school is their connection to a faith community.

One resource to check out is
This resource lists the churches or campus ministries in the area of a particular school.  This allows us to connect the senior/graduate with churches around the school they plan to attend in the fall.  On top of being able to provide a list of churches/ministries in the area, we as youth leaders also have the ability to check in personally with the student within 3 days of them stepping onto campus, to see if they’ve made any connection with a faith community.  Studies have found that if they don’t connect within 72 hours of stepping foot on campus, the chances are very slim they are going to connect at all for the rest of their college career.

The Center for Bible Engagement also did a study on church attendance.  They have found that a simple thing like church attendance, even going at least once a month meant that students were 30% less likely to get drunk, have sex, and look at porn.  So their connection to a faith community is vital to their faith journey beyond high school.

As youth leaders, we didn’t invest in these students’ lives for 4-8 years to just see them walk away from faith in one weekend.  How are we extending our leadership beyond the realm of middle school and high school, to ensure success in a student’s faith?  Start prepping your students now.  Begin with the end in mind.

© 2017, Never The Same