When church leaders imagine young people turning away from Christianity, they may picture a college student being convinced by an atheist professor or an older high schooler getting a driver’s license and using their newfound freedom to leave church behind. In reality, the secularization of the next generation may look more like a 14-year-old watching YouTube in their room.
New analysis published at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) reveals children born in the 1980s and ’90s never absorbed the faith in their home. And they walked away from it at an earlier age than most parents and leaders suspect.
In the early 1990s, no more than 16 percent of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders said religion was not important to them at all, according to the Monitoring the Future survey series. By the early 2000s, however, the percentage of high school seniors who completely dismissed the importance of religion to them personally began to increase dramatically.
For close to a decade, sophomores were more like 8th graders, with both hovering around 15 percent. But around 2010, 10th graders became more like 12th graders in terms of their disregard for religion. A few years later, the percentage of 8th graders who said religion is not at all important began to rapidly increase.
In the latest study, close to 30 percent of seniors and sophomores and almost 25 percent of 8th graders said they didn’t consider religion to have any importance.
When does secularization happen?
One explanation for this could be fewer parents saying religion is important to them. More secular parents may be passing on their lack of faith to their children. But the IFS analysis also looked at a 2019 Pew Research study that asked both children and parents about the importance of religion.
At age 13, there is little difference between the percentage of teenagers who self-report that religion is not at all important and the percentage of parents who say religion is not important to their child. A gap emerges at 14. This gap is sizeable by 15 when more than 20 percent of teenagers say religion is not at all important.
There’s no real increase in secularization among teenagers after they reach 15. The shift away from religion occurs before then. Meanwhile, parents’ perception stays flat across the age range at around 10-15 percent who say religion is unimportant for their child.
Additionally, the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) followed the religious affiliation of those born between 1980-86 until around age 30. “Of NLSY respondents surveyed at age 13, around 12 percent were nonreligious. By age 17, 17 percent were nonreligious,” reported research fellow Lyman Stone in the IFS report.
“Religious affiliation wasn’t surveyed for a few young adult years, but then by age 21, about 21-23 percent of these young people were nonreligious, a share that has been essentially unchanged until today. In other words, this cohorts’ rise in secularism occurred by age 21, and much of it by age 17.” Yet, only 7 percent of parents report raising their children with no religion between the ages of 13-17.
Stone concludes that “most nonreligious children are born into religious households and lose their faith while under the supervision of parents who believe that they are successfully transmitting their religious values.”
Similarly, the most recent Lifeway Research study of teenage church dropouts found 66 percent of those who attended a U.S. Protestant church regularly for at least a year also stopped attending for at least a year as a young adult. Similarly to the IFS analysis, teenagers often begin their religious separation prior to their college years.
Sixteen is often a pivotal age for those dropping out of church. At that age, the attendance rates start to diverge for those who stay in church as adults and those who drop out. The next few years become the church dropout danger zone when most teenagers leave behind regular church involvement.
6 practical keys to retaining teenagers
So what can churches do? Further regression analysis of the Lifeway Research dropout data reveals factors that make teenagers more likely to stop attending church as they become young adults. Some of it falls on the teenagers themselves or their parents. But other issues involve the church.
3 home factors
Make sure dad shows up. It matters that dads are involved. The odds of a teenager dropping out of church are 1.27 times lower among those whose fathers attended church compared to those whose fathers did not attend when the teenager was 17.
Enjoy church as a family. It should be obvious to students that their parents find joy in being a part of their congregation. For those who did not indicate that their parents genuinely liked church, the odds of dropping out are 1.49 times higher than those who report their parents really liked their congregation.
Encourage personal Bible reading. Teenagers who personally engage God in His Word are less likely to drop out. The odds of dropping out are 1.23 times higher among those who did not spend regular time reading the Bible privately prior to the age of 18 compared to those who regularly spent personal time in Scripture.
3 church factors
Foster an environment of trust and guidance. The odds of a teenager dropping out are 1.23 times higher among those who did not want the church to help guide their decisions in everyday life prior to age 18 compared to those who wanted such help.
Youth leaders should care. The more a student feels their leader cares about them, the less likely they are to drop out. For every additional level of agreement with the statement “The youth leader genuinely cared about me” (from strongly disagree to strongly agree), the odds of the teenager dropping out were 1.17 times lower.
Get more adults involved. When teenagers have more adults investing in them, they’re more likely to stick around. The odds of a teenager dropping out who said three or more adults at church invested in them between the ages of 15 and 18 is 1.35 times lower than those who had only one or two adults investing in them. Even more dramatically, the odds of those who had three or more adults investing in them are 2.65 times lower than those who had no adults investing in them at church during those ages.