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Debunking the Dropout Myth

Timothy Paul Jones, Professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


fall2How many kids drop out of church after their high school years? The LifeWay Research Teenage Dropout Study provides one of the best available snapshots into this subject. I don't entirely agree with LifeWay's 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, twice-a-month kids were in my "strong prospect" file-not in my "regular attender" file!) Nevertheless, the numbers from LifeWay are statistically reliable. According to this study, 70 percent 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.
Even with LifeWay's extremely generous definition of church involvement, the dropout rate is at least 20 percent lower than the nine-out-of-10 statistic. Among young adults who attended church three or four times per month as teenagers, the dropout rate is likely lower.
  • Many young adults come back. Sometime between their mid-20s and their early 30s, a significant number of dropouts return. According to LifeWay, 35 percent of young adult dropouts return to church at least twice a month by the time they're 30.
    What causes 30-somethings to come back to church? Influence from parents or other family members was a deciding factor in 39 percent of returns; friends at church were influential 21 percent 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 an inner sense that God was calling them to return.
  • Young adults aren't just dropping out-they're also dropping in. Here's good news that rarely shows up in news stories: 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 20-somethings returned to the same level it was in 1972. What's more, a 2008 study from the Pew Forum found that 39 percent of adults who'd been raised disconnected from any church have become Protestants.
    So what can we conclude about the infamous dropout numbers? The rates of dropout and return are far less bleak and more complex than we've been led to believe. The claim that 90 percent of kids drop out after high school clearly needs to be left behind.
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