88% of Evangelical Children Leave the Church After High School

Orginally published on Tuesday, August 08, 2006 at 8:50 AM
by Todd Rhoades

As a parent of four kids the stat in this article really grabbed my attention. What do I have to do as a parent to make sure my kids make the cut. And what is/can my church do to keep 88% of our current youth from abandoning the church?

(AgapePress) - The new president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) says he is disturbed that many students in both public and private schools—even Christian private schools—are leaving the church once they graduate.

In 2002, the SBC’s Council on Family Life reported that roughly 88 percent of evangelical children are leaving the church shortly after they graduate from high school. Dr. Frank Page, the denomination’s new president, says SBC churches need to counter that statistic by finding ways to make themselves more relatable, more pertinent and significant to students before they graduate.

“We’re seeing a societal trend where a large number of young people are opting out of the church,” Page notes. ”Estimates of 15 to 20 million people now in America have said they are Christians but they simply don’t want to be a part of the church,” he says.

Some blame the church “drop-out rate” among young people after they graduate on the secularist influence of America’s public schools. However, the SBC’s president observes, ”The sad thing is that we’re seeing that number of dropouts from church [among] those who went to public school and private school, and that’s an unfortunate trend.”

Although he admits he has no “hard numbers” to back up his contention that graduates from private Christian schools are leaving the church almost as rapidly as others, Page says he is referencing anecdotal information heard from this year’s Resolutions Committee at the recent SBC meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. “It is a disturbing trend,” he asserts, “and part of it is that our churches have become one- or two-generation churches, and we’ve failed to learn how to reach out to this younger generation.”

The Southern Baptist leader says churches must find ways to connect with this young adult demographic—Generation X, the bridger generation, or “whatever you want to call it”—and must do a better job of discipling members of this group. A big part of the problem, he contends, “is that our churches simply are not relating to or seeming relevant to these students.”

Even though Christian students are under attack for their beliefs in many public schools today, Page believes those who are firmly grounded in their faith can have a “salt and light” influence on their peers and teachers. Nevertheless, the SBC president says his prayer is that more churches will begin offering Christian schools, both for families who can and for those who cannot afford such education.

So… how do parents and churches partner together to make sure we don’t lose nearly 90% of our next generation of church goers?

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  There are 95 Comments:

  • Posted by

    I’ve enjoyed all your comments, but Shadowett says it best , I think. Youth group is exciting years and so much fun. Then you graduate and its like falling off the earth. Churches don’t offer much it’s boring and you quit coming. If you leave for college you might be fortunate to go to a town that has a great church with a great vision for reaching the youth on campus. The word gets out about an exciting church with a great college ministry, you check it out and your hooked. But the church has to have a vision to reach the lost no matter what age they are, and it really helps when they have a minister just for college age. Now remember we are talking about the 88% who are churched and fall away. It’s hard for kids to hang around if there is nothing being offered to them. Smile, now go and tell someone about JESUS.

  • Posted by

    Wendi are you really counting that as a “witnessing” encounter? Jesus is demonstrating love in withholding the judgement of man upon the woman, but to call that a witnessing encounter, which are better demonstrated by, say, His encounter with the rich young ruler or the woman at the well, well that is to take liberty with the test and make it represent something that it does not. That is evidenced by His comments to her, He asks her where her accusers are - there are none, from which one can resolve that God alone has the authority to judge her for her act which will happen, but not on that day and at that time. His final words to here were words one seldom would hear uttered from many today - “Go and sin no more.”

    To use that as justification for leading off to the lost with “Jesus Loves You!” or “God Loves You!” is to deny that God abhors the wicked and that His wrath is being revealed against all unrighteousness and that it is solely by the grace of God that any man receives his or her next breath. When the wages of sin is death and any of us have not received just punishment for our sin, therein lies the grace and mercy of God towards even the unrighteous.
    Now I certainly would not say we are not to show love to all people (Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glirify your Father in heaven) and demonstrate the love of Christ revealed thru us, but to tell someone upon whon the wrath of God is resting that has not been humbled before a just and Holy God and does not believe in Jesus Christ nor have they repented, well that is to do them a grave disservice.The FEAR of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, it is also the beginning of knowledge. When you deprive a person of that reverent fear of God you have done a great injustice to them and have not shown obedience to sharing the true nature of Almighty God.My thought.

  • Posted by

    ok, this is getting ridiculous.  I dont think that any of us are saying that you go around telling people “Jesus loves you”.  That is just stupid.  I think what we are saying is that you lead with love.  Love people first through meeting their needs… if people are hungry, you feed them, if people are sick, you care for them, if people have messy bathrooms, you clean them… if they ask you why you are doing it, you tell them it is because you love them, and you want to care for your neighbor.  You begin to establish the relationship so that you can begin to talk about the sinfulness of man.

  • Posted by

    Jn. 3:36 - Of course I’m counting the woman caught in adultery as a “witnessing encounter.” Jesus was the incarnate Word of God and every single encounter He had with people offered witness to the truth of God.  And since He nearly always witnessed showing love, I’ll stick with Him.  The people He showed the most wrath to were the Pharisees, and today the closest parallel are (IMO) legalistic judgmental Christians.

    Where did you come up with the idea - scripturally (do I sound like BeHim??), to divide Jesus’ various encounters with people into types and then label them?

    BTW - getting back to the subject of this post.  I believe that many young people who are in the 88% who leave the church, have trouble with the judgment of church people toward their friends who are outside the church.  I know that was a big issue for my own prodigal son (and I confess that he often felt his parents were the worst “judgers” of his non-Christian friends).


  • Posted by


    I am already feeling a small struggle with the friends of my kids thing.  We have a daughter who is 5 and a neighbour in our building (only a small triplex) who is 6.  She is adopted, comes from a biological mother who perhaps gave her some fetal alcohol syndrome and although her single adoptive mother loves her she has no parenting skills at all.  I have no doubt there is some strong spiritual bondage at work here even though she is a Christian.

    Because of their ages, the girls love to play together but it is a mixture of fun, sometimes inappropriate games that I have to step in on and if my daughter ever angers her friend...watch out.  Physical violence has been stopped more than once.  I hear her being manipulative and unkind to my daughter on occasion.  And then there are lots of times when they play together happily. 

    My struggle has been to find the balance between how much do I allow this girl to influence my young child and yet how much does my daughter need to see and practice Christ’s love in action.  We’re supposed to love our enemies so we pray for this girl together.  I do allow them to play together but not consistently every day or for long periods of time.  We try and bring her to church sometimes but I worry that the Sunday School would not be equipped to handle one of her outbursts.  I teach her scripture when she’s in our home and try to give her as much love as possible coupled with very strong boundaries.  Over time we have seen improvements.

    Anyway, I feel we have found a good balance - a lot of it is listening to the Holy Spirit because there are times when this girl is better and times when I would fear for my kids’ safety.  I simply have to be in prayer on a very regular basis as a Mom so I can sense these things.  I wouldn’t mind your opinion on the situation.

  • Posted by

    Snoop, I apologize profusely for jumping to wrong conclusion.  Please forgive me!

    [Here’s one example . . . Jesus shows up when a woman has been caught in adultery (which means some man was also committing adultery or sexual sin - BTW), and Jesus rescues her from certain death before he says one single word about sin.  Then, the first word He does say is not to the woman, but to all the sinners (male sinners BTW) who have stones in their hands.
    He doesn’t ask the woman to consider her sin until He has unequivocally demonstrated love (love, love, love) to her.]

    Wendi - your post sounds feminist - “man was also” and “male sinners BTW”??? wink

    This scriptural account actually proves God’s Perfect Wrath and THEN those who are found IN HIM (Christ) receive God’s Love - not vice versa.  Jesus started with Pure and Clear Wrath - Righteous Judgment… THEN set the captive Free (Love).

    Jesus was actually using the opportunity (which was foreordained BTW) to show Perfectly Righteous Judgment (ALL are sinners and condemned already) and His message to the woman was - “Neither do I condemn you, [REMEMBER, His Life was given to Perfectly Appease God’s Wrath] go and sin no more [and set captives like the woman free - IF she is FOUND IN HIM - outside of Him is still God’s Wrath - “condemned already"]".

    EYS - if you don’t mind my saying - I think you’re doing a fine job of discerning what to do and when.  Perhaps you should have the adopting couple over for Bible Study and to go to church too.  The Gospel, we hope, will draw them but sometimes it repels too; and you’ll know where the parents stand and more than likely the influence the little girl has at home - gives you opportunity for a little more discernment.  I’m VERY thankful you are equipped to recognize the situation and value of discernment.  Praise God!

  • Posted by Daniel

    BeHim, I think your analysis of this passage in John is tortured, at best.  I fail to see how Jesus gently and poetically turning the tables on the would be law-abiders embodies God’s Wrath.  If anything, he is gentle and loving both to the adulterous woman and to the self-righteous men (Wendi, you’re no feminist for pointing out their gender--not that being a feminist would be a bad thing anyway!!!--unless you’re a complementarian of course).  Nowhere in this passage does Jesus seem to share the Reformed visceral need to grovel in wretchedness and wrath-deserving-ness.
    I my opinion, this is a classic case of re-reading a misinterpreted Paul back into Jesus--which necessarily severely distorts the words and actions of our Lord. 
    Anyway, EYS, it sounds like you’re doing just fine with boundaries, so I don’t know that I can add anything of value to what’s already been said (although BeHim’s comments on this matter are spot on).

  • Posted by


    I agree with Daniel and BeHim that you are doing the right things.  I can just say from personal experience that if we had it to do over, we’d have worked harder to befriend some of our kid’s more questionable friends (more in their teen years).  It’s pretty unlikely that they’d have come to church with us (until we built a relationship, which we didn’t do). I wish we’d worked harder to make our home more feel warm and inviting, and that we’d have invited some of their parents over, really tried to engage them with our family.

    BeHim, I’m not a feminist.  Just pointing out that in their culture, two people of different genders committed the same sin (together no less), but through their human lenses only the woman was a sinner.  Really, that is exactly the point Jesus was making when he said (my paraphrase), “hey guys, if adultry makes her guilty of sin . . . you’d better all go home and take a good long look in the mirror.” What are the sins we’d be missing today if Jesus asked us all to put down our stones, go home and look in the mirror (which I believe He is doing every day)?


  • Posted by

    Just one quick comment that I want to remphasize from an earlier post is an area that I think this post has failed to address and that is parents.  The greatest problem that is causing the 88% dropout rate from our churches is NOT public schools, or our theology it is nominaly committed parents who not fulfilling their God given responsibilty of raising their children in a home that is centered around a radical commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course we need to do more as churches and church leaders to connect our 18+ year olds to their relationship with God and the church but the real issue lies in the home and no one seems to want to deal with this area of the problem. 

    BTW - an interesting read on the whole law/grace debate in gospel presentation is “Hell’s Best Kept Secret” by Ray Comfort - check it out.

  • “John3:36” (poster above) said:
    Nora, cite for me one example from scripture wherein Jesus or one of the disciples begins a witnessing encounter with “God loves you...” or “Jesus loves you....”

    Hi John-

    How about this verse, John 3:16?

    John 3:16
    16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    God is love and it’s all about love.  We are only saved because of His love for us.  Yes, the law is used to convict sinners of sin.  But it is the love of God that saves us, by the work of love of his personal sacrifice.  We have a promise of eternal life, only on the basis of love and mercy, not merit (as you know).

    We love because He first loved us:

    1 John 4:19
    We love because he first loved us.

    Luke 10:25-28
    25On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    26"What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
    27He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
    28"You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”


  • Posted by

    It seems to me that we need to start with love that equals our burden (or maybe they come from the same source).

    Maybe we could start by sitting down with the high school kids and LISTEN to what they are saying about God, church, relationships, etc.  Not leaving it to the young youth directors/pastors to challenge us into the changes they feel the church needs to make...(not bad, just we need personal involvement if we are to understand what kids are saying and thinking).

    There is a drastic difference between “youth church” and adult oriented worship services.

    I have found one helpful method of working with young singles...don’t lecture them, let them discuss the Bible openly and even question what we believe and come to a conclusion with the Word.

    Ramblings, I guess....

  • Posted by

    Ramblings that hit the spot, Wayne. Those 85% did not own their faith after high school, they reflected their parents Sunday morning faith until they had opportunity to make a worldview of their own. You are right that they ought to exercise their faith and express it. More high school and college groups need to find avenues to stretch the members with activities that will strengthen and learn new experiences that will include growing thier faith in God.College and young singles is the least churched age demographic. People tend to go to church after getting married and having children. They become refocused off of them selves and onto community and the expression of their faith.

  • Posted by

    Some of you have hit the nail (or should I say people) right on the head.  As a disheartrned former Youth & Music Minister, thats right I did both, the area thats needs addressed has been mentioned here a few times.  I too was guilty of doing two different areas of worship.  One for youth and one for, shall I say older adults.  I realized very quick that something was missing, the church as a family.  I tried to get the youth involved but was fought.  I did get them involved in their own worship service and when the youth was as large as the adults they wondered what I was doing.  I couldn’t possibly be teaching them anything about God.  There was too many of them and they were having fun.  The Pastor sat down and said we need some of this in the main worship.  I prayed fervantly for God to show me how to incorporate the two and got nothing but complaints.  Why to the young people have to worship that way, we don’t like the music, they don’t wear the right clothes. After seven years there the church ask me to leave, well not in those words, but that was the implied statements.  The Pastor has been there over 20 years and didn’t want to cause waves.  The older folks do pay the bills, so they get their way.  I thought its was Gods money.  Until Pastors get out of their comfort zone and the older generation quits complaining and starts being the church, instead of just sitting on the premissis, the church will be just a nice building.  And by the way if you think I’m some young punk, I’m 49 and was a minister for over 15 years.  I’ve not given up on Jesus, just the present church!

  • Posted by

    Thanks Bill for sharing your heart. It is tough to find a church that genuinely cares for all the generations. The us and them mentality adds to the challenge to sharing Christ’s love to the world. Change and inconvenience is the call for all of us in church leadership. It is the same as parenting. If I am interested in being a good parent it will take incredable amount of sacrifice and love. And I hope my 18 year lease from my children will be renewed by them. As to the church, the younger generation is not renewing that lease, they are leaving to see what else is out there. Some are coming back, but after a length of pain and suffering. I hope you find that community of people who love God and each other no matter the style or trend.

  • Posted by


    Sorry to hear about church experience. I know it was probably a “broad brush” statement, but don’t give up on the church. It is the only hope for the world, and there are churches that desire to be authentic. I have had the privilege of serving in a church where we have laughed together, and cried together (pre-marital pregnancies) and supported one another through these events. And in all of that, by God’s grace, have managed to reach some people in our community for Him!

  • Posted by

    Just to put in my two cents worth from a global perspective - I have 25 years experience in baptist churches in the US, and am currently now serving in India.  I have been both a pastor as well as a youth pastor.  From my experience, the whole basis of this question provides insights to the answer.  What we are discussing is how to keep 88% of our youth in the church, when we should be discussing how to live by example a true, vital, Christian faith, not one that caters to where they are “at”.  By this I mean we are assuming that “where they are at” is away from us!  Our children have been accustomed to being treated as kings and queens from birth, with parents, teachers, and the church catering to their wishes, their preferences, etc.  Thus, when they turn 18 and have to face the real world, they are ill equipped, both emotionally and spiritually.  They need to be part of society, the family, and the church, and fully functioning members (although with a Junior status), not separated and entertained.  To be separated on a consistent and ongoing basis creates an odd sense of both entitlement and rejection at the same time. 

    So, to echo some of the previous postings, put our children to work in the church from an early age.  Expect that they contribute - they may complain, but deep down will be grateful, and possibly develop a genuine heart for service.  If nothing else, they will rightly feel that they belong, and will not have to look elsewhere.

  • Posted by

    I have jumped into this one rather late, so forgive me if I make a statement that’s already been made - I skimmed most of what was posted above.

    In the job I am in, I have worked with many young adults. When they find out that I am a “preacher/pastor” on the side - I have been a pastor and now do pulpit fill - I have some good opportunities to talk with them about faith, God, salvation, etc…

    Many of these young people I talk to that were brought up in church and in a Christian home reflect these survey results perfectly. As soon as they were out of the house, they immediately stopped going to church. The question is, “why?” Was it because the church was not contemporary enough? No. Was it because their parents didn’t pray enough for them - no (I agree that we need to pray more for our kids, but it goes deeper than just prayer, as I’ll get to). Was it because they church was not relevant enough to them and had enough “programs” for them? Not at all. Every single one of them left the church because they didn’t see the value of their faith. 100% - every one of them expressed a discontent with the church that came back to that one single thing - their faith had no value to them.

    Why did it not have any value? In every case - remember, many of these young people were raised in church - most in a “Christian” home - in every case it was the lack of a good spiritual example from their parents. Their parents were either identified as hypocrites - one 21 year old male said he could not stand to go back to church (especially where his father preaches) because when his dad is in the pulpit saying one thing - this young man reflects on what his dad is really like at home, and he sees two different people. Now, none of us are perfect… but he brought up a good point.

    Every one of the young people I’ve talked to about why they left the church have revealed to me (without knowing it) that their parents negatively shaped their view of the value of their faith by how their parents acted at home, away from church. Hypocritcal behavior, apathy toward prayer, lack of reading the scriptures, lack of applying scripture to life situations - plain outright disregard for the instruction of scripture, etc… The kids failed to see faith as being relevant in the lives of their parents, and so they have concluded that church, faith, God is one big sham. In their minds the question is - “what’s the point?”

    Yes, we do need to pray more for our kids, as was brought up earlier, yes, we do need to be relevant to them - but not to keep them interested - rather, to help them see how their faith is valuable to their lives. And most of all, as parents, we need to live out our faith every day and in every situation - not just being a “Sunday Christian.” If we set an example for our kids to show them that our faith centers around God, rather than ourselves (which most Christians sadly think), then we’ll have made a major step in keeping our kids and producing true Christians.

    Is it foolproof? Is it 100% effective - no. It’s still up to our kids as to what they’re going to do with their faith. However, we need to set the good example for them to follow. And as pastors, we need to instruct our congregations in this as well. Our kids learn from us. It’s up to us as to what they learn.

  • Posted by James

    I, too, have stumbled upon this discussion a little late, but let me just state a few things:

    I’ve read the comments here and seem to have missed something. Yes of course we need to focus on our children’s and youth ministries to show our kids the way, but what about after high school. I mean that is the real question that this post is all about.  88% of students are leaving church after high school.

    That means that the students that are leaving are around 17 or 18 years old. What are we doing to minister to them?

    I grew up in church...In fact I was there from 9 months before I was born. The churches we attended as a family had great children’s and youth programs and I grew up in the ways of God there. But something seemed to happen as soon as I hit the 18 yr. old mark. I began to feel that I was too old to hang out with 12-16 yr. olds yet I was too young to go into the over 30 class. What was I supposed to do? I felt lost and out of place. And when I looked around, I found that all of the churches that I attended really didn’t have anything in place for this age group.

    I’m now 22 and the Young Adult Pastor at Evangelistic Temple in Ada, OK. We are a college town and we have A LOT of young adults in our area. We just kicked our ministry off this summer so I can’t bost large numbers of attendees or things like that, but I can tell you that I have seen a big change in the hearts and attitudes of the students who attend our weekly Gathering.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can focus on training our kids up in the way of the Lord through children’s ministries and youth ministries, but if we don’t have anything in place for our young adults when they do graduate from high school. We aren’t going to see any difference in teh statistics. They will either leave the church all together or they will go find a church who does have what they are craving....community and fellowship with people of their own age.

    Just a side note…

    We have a few different ways for young adults from 18-35 to get involved in our ministry.

    Sunday Mornings we meet at 9:30am in The Living Room (a section of our IGNITE Hall that is furnished with couches, comfortable chairs and a big screen TV. We enjoy great coffee, fellowship and challenging conversations as we go through the NOOMA videos by Rob Bell.

    Wednesday Nights we open the doors of the IGNITE Hall for our weekly Gathering. Doors open at 6pm for everyone to come and enjoy playing pool, drinking coffee and tea, play games and watch the big screen. We start our service at 6:45 pm with a live band (made up of members of the group) and then I preach. Everything is really laid back and the students sit around round tables to help facilitate discussion about the topic.

    Thursday Nights my wife and I open our house up to anyone who would like a little deeper understanding. We are going throug C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and discussing the implication of his writing. We meet at 7pm and meet in the living room of our home. It really has been a great place for students to come in a real non-threatening environment. They feel free to ask questions, voice doubts and struggles and we all work toward trying to see what God has for us.

  • Posted by

    I just happened to stumble upon this page after reading a NY Times article today about evangelicals losing the teenage population and getting curious.  I have never been to this site before but felt compelled to leave a comment.

    I am 20 years old and grew up in the Presbyterian Church.  I’ve also attended services many times at Methodist churches of family members and friends, as well as three or four Baptist churches, a Catholic church and a Jewish temple.  Basically, I’ve been exposed to pretty much all of the major religions in America.  Growing up we went to church 3 or 4 times a month, not necessarily every week, but close.  I was active in my youth group. I served for a year as the youth elder, during which time I even served as the Clerk of Session.  The point I’m trying to make is that I was raised in a very Christian environment.

    I wanted to provide some insight into the mind of a Generation Y member like myself, now attending college.  I say that I was brought up Christian and obviously was very active in my church, but despite all that I was never able to force myself to actually believe any of it.  Sure, I could believe in being a good person and helping my neighbors, but I couldn’t believe in any of the rest of it.  The reason that churches are having trouble making religion relevant to young people isn’t some failure on their part, but simply that religion *isn’t* relevant.  As a collective group, Christians are fighting battles against all the wrong “enemies.” When churches fight against gay marriage and equal rights for gays, the alienate every homosexual teenager and everyone who has gay friends, like myself.  This is the generation that is finally making progress towards tolerance for homosexuals.  In 50 years, the preachers that fought against gay rights will be remembered with the same disdain as those that fought against rights for blacks in the past.  Many Christians find it necessary to fight the theory of evolution, attempting to present it as junk science or an unproven theory.  Everybody who has been taught evolution by a competent teacher understands it as one of the strongest scientific theories we have.  This alienates all of those people.  No competent people believe the Earth is 10,000 years old, or that Adam and Eve were literally the beginning of humanity, or that people who work on the Sabbath should be stoned to death.  So all bibilical literalists alienate all rationalists, a segment of the American population which, thankfully, is growing with each generation.

    The only way for Christianity to remain relevant is to drop the crusade against gay rights, stem cell research, abortion, pre-marital sex, evolution, science, pornography, VACCINES THAT PREVENT CERVICAL CANCER and everything else that makes it irrelevant and unacceptable in the modern day.  In order to modernize itself properly, Christianity will have to completely change.  This 88% statistic comforts me like you would not believe.

  • Posted by

    We need to be cautious how we use the term ghetto-ize. It could be taken as a derogatory term. It’s not wise to marginalize car washes, selling candy and attributing it as habits & conditions of ghetto behavior.
    Definition of “ Ghetto”
    A section of a city to which an entire ethnic or economically depressed group is restricted; as by poverty or social pressure.
    (n.) an impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city, usually troubled by a disproportionately large amount of crime.

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