Fewer young Christians remaining in church

The drop in attendance of youth at church is a product of our shallow church environment.


Job Ang

It is beneficial and necessary to attend church for many reasons, such as the body of Christ and personal and spiritual growth. | Ashley Jones/THE CHIMES

Matt Norman , Writer

It is beneficial and necessary to attend church for many reasons, such as the body of Christ and personal and spiritual growth. | Ashley Jones/THE CHIMES [file photo]

Alarmed by significant drops in teen church attendance over recent years, church leaders speculate that a shallow church culture focusing more on entertainment than a sound biblical foundation in order to attract youth is more harmful to teen faith in the long run.

An Implicative Study

More than 50 percent of young Christians raised in the church will leave it after age 15, according to a study by the Barna Group extending from 2007 to 2011. David Kinnaman, a Biola graduate who was involved in the study, shared the results of the study with students at chapel on Jan. 30.

The five-year study concluded that 59 percent of teenagers who were regular churchgoers either permanently ceased attending church or disconnected for an extended period of time after turning 15.

Thaddeus Williams, an adjunct professor for Talbot School of Theology, said this trend should be alarming for Christians.

“In terms of God’s redemptive mission in the world, the church is God’s plan A,” he said, describing the biblical view of church as a community loving well and reflecting the reality of God in relationships. The world is not seeing the Triune God when generations of Christians are being disconnected from each other in the church, Williams said.

Williams went on to shed some light on what might be causing this tend.

“We’re kind of reaping what we’ve sown with a generation of youth ministry that values entertainment over the Bible,” he said, relating the trend to the seeker-friendly movement of the 1990s, a movement characterized for making changes trending toward entertainment and style for the purpose of appealing to mass audiences. 

Area Pastors Weigh In

David Talley, who is both a Talbot professor and an elder at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada, also spoke on the change Williams described.

“Christianity has developed a little bit of a shallow feel to it; church has become a little more about entertainment than it has become about actually equipping believers to wholeheartedly follow Christ,” he said. “The person in the pew is a consumer, rather than actually giving of their time [and] their resources, and being invested in the ministries of the church.”

Talley additionally attributed the lack of youth church commitment to a failure to teach on the part of the parents.

“The parents may be rock-solid believers, but it’s not trickling down to [the children],” he said. 

The Rev. Canon Stephen Scarlett, rector of Saint Matthew’s Anglican Church in Newport Beach, concurred with the idea that church has become an ever-changing commodity. He emphasized the shifts in evangelical Christianity seen in the mid-20th century, such as moving away from liturgy and tradition.

Much of what evangelical Christianity had viewed as new and exciting became old and boring ten years later, and as a result evangelical churches were constantly changing, he said.

“And so we’ve trained people this way: that church is to be esteemed like things we buy at the mall; we shop there for things we want and if we don’t find it there we move on,” Scarlett said.  

In addition to the consumerist mentality, young people might be put off by dogma perceived to be anti-intellectual, he said.

“A lot of churches don’t know how to say ‘I don’t know,’” Scarlett explained. “The church’s authority now must not be dogmatic and dictatorial; it must give plausible voice to the Christian faith, where a lot of people have questions.”

Williams also mentioned anti-intellectualism as a factor, speaking of many atheists he knew who had grown up as Christians.

“They weren’t given a welcoming atmosphere where questioning was even possible,” he said. “I’m seeing the fallout of an anti-intellectual approach to ministry.”

Looking Forward

Williams explained what would be needed to reverse the trend found by the study.

“We need to raise our biblical IQs and follow the footsteps of Jesus,” he said. “Jesus not only said, ‘Love the Lord your God with your minds’; he lived it.”

Williams feels that we need to follow Jesus’ example of thoroughly and intelligently answering skeptics’ questions.

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