September 23, 2020

Michael Bell: How To Stop The Hemorrhaging: A Follow Up To The Pew Forum Data

IM First Officer Michael Bell follows up his look at the Pew Forum Data on Changes in Religious Affiliation.

In my previous post at Internet Monk, I looked at two surveys conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. that was released a few weeks ago, and which was a followup to their U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that they released last year.

religiousswitching2By working with the numbers of the surveys I was able to come up with a chart that showed how Americans have been changing from their childhood faith to their current faith. One of the key findings was that Christian denominations are losing adherents though the back door so to speak than they are gaining new believers through the front door. If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, please check out the original post, as it will help you understand some of the ideas behind this post, as well us understand the magnitude of the changes.

Today I wanted to focus on the “when” and the “why” this hemorrhaging was occurring, but as I have been pondering the data, the “when” seemed to really stand out as being important. I was reminded of my preaching classes back in seminary, when our professor, Dr. Peter Ralph, would constantly remind us to find the “big idea” that needed to be communicated from the biblical text. I think the same holds true when looking at survey data. Here is the “big idea” that jumped out at me when going through the Flux survey data and reports:

Most religious life decisions, even among those who have been open to change, has been set by age 23.

Of those who were raised Protestant (Evangelical, Mainline, and Historical Black), and are now “unaffiliated with any religious group”, 85% left their childhood faith before the age of 24. Of those who were raised Catholic and were now unaffiliated, 79% left before the age of 24. The same holds true for those coming back the other way. Of those raised unaffiliated, but who are now affiliated with a religious group, 72% left the ranks of the unaffiliated before the age of 24.

I can’t emphasize enough how huge this is. I will state this again: Most religious life decisions, even among those who have been open to change, has been set by age 23. There is another much smaller group that will leave their Christian faith group between the ages of 24 and 35, but only 3-4% who will make the change after they turn 36.

Before I look at the implications of this, I would like us to consider some related statistics that also come from the Flux survey. Of those who were raised Protestant but are now unaffiliated, 64% attended weekly worship as a child, but only 29% attended as a teen. This too is huge. When we relate this back to our first set of numbers we can see that of those who left the faith before age 24, a large percentage had already made that decision by their teenage years. For Catholics, the decision to leave is somewhat delayed. Of those from Catholic backgrounds who become unaffiliated, 44% are still attending regularly as teens (down from 74% as children). As noted earlier, before the age of 24, most of those who will leave have already left, whether they be Catholic or Protestant.

So what does all this mean for us?

These numbers have significant implications for both discipleship and evangelism. While I have focused primarily on those leaving, it works both way. Those coming to faith make the decision when they are young as well. Let us look at the discipleship aspect first.

A friend of mine, Mitch, became a Youth Pastor of an Evangelical Presbyterian church a number of years ago. While the Church was of quite a decent size (about 300 attendance), they had no youth group, and almost no youth attending. I believe Mitch was hired as the church’s first ever Youth Pastor because the church knew that they had potentially lost one complement of youth, and were afraid of losing those who were approaching that age as well. As hard as Mitch tried, he could not get those youth who had left to come back, even though their parents will still attending the church. So instead he focused his energies on the kids in Sunday School and Junior High. By building into those kids lives, they had gone through significant discipleship well before they hit high school, and Mitch had the joy of working with them all the way through high school. Even after Mitch moved on to another church in a distant community as a senior pastor, he was invited back to participate in their weddings. It was wonderful to see those teens move into adulthood, still actively engaged in the church.

My point is that if we are not serious and intentional about engaging our young people before they hit their teens, then we may have left it too late.

After the teenage years comes young adulthood, and College and/or University have often been fingered as being culprits in the move away from the faith in young adults. Steven James Henderson in his 2003 study entitled “The Impact of Student Religion and College Affiliation on Student Religiosity” writes:

Railsbackís 1994 study of “born-again” Christian students… found that the vast majority of Christian students attend non-Christian colleges. As previously mentioned, of the group that attended public universities, approximately 52% either no longer called themselves “born again” or had not attended any religious services or meetings in over a year by the end of their college experience.

However it has been shown that those who do not attend College fall away from the faith in ever greater percentages than those who do attend. Regnerus and Uecker write:

The assumption that the religious involvement of young people diminishes when they attend college is of course true: 64 percent of those currently enrolled in a traditional four-year institution have curbed their attendance habits. Yet, 76 percent of those who never enrolled in college report a decline in religious service attendance.

So what do we do?

In Henderson’s more readable summary article, he points out that:

Students who attend institutions that are members of the Council for Christian College and Universities (CCCU) showed significant positive differences on almost all individual measures of religious commitment as well as an overall increase in that commitment compared to those who attended non-member institutions.

These numbers may be misleading because if I want to become and Engineer, I am going to go to a school that specializing in producing Engineers. If I want to become a Pastor, I am going to go to a school that specializes in producing Pastors. So it may be that those who enter CCCU schools are more intentional about their future Christian involvement, and as such score much higher in the surveys.

Even if the numbers are not misleading, this still gives me a bit of a problem, primarily I believe that Christians cocoon themselves far too much, and secondly, because as pointed out by George Wood, a leader in the Assemblies of God, only 15% of their students choose schools affiliated with the CCCU. His figures, based on the 2005 Church Ministries Report for the Assemblies of God show that there are:

315,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 17 in the 12,301 Assemblies of God churches in the U.S.

210,000 (two-thirds) will enter one of the 4,000 colleges or universities in America.

178,500 will enter a non-Christian college or university, while

31,500 (15 percent) will enter one of the 102 CCCU schools, including those affiliated with the Assemblies of God.

In nine years, after these 13- to 17-year-olds have been in college for four years (and if the same percentages hold true for those who don’t go to college) up to 189,000 of Assemblies of God youth ñ out of 315,000 ñ may no longer be following Christ.

So, while giving additional consideration to a Christian College may be of benefit to our students, we need to consider the large majority who are not going to go that route.

This is why I am such a large supporter of Christian Campus ministries like Navigators, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and what was formerly known as Campus Crusade. Church “College & Career” ministries are very important too. My wife and I were involved in three different Campus ministries while at University, and one significant Church College ministries. All four had a huge impact on our spiritual growth, as well as in establishing life long relationships with like minded Christians. I look at those I was involved with and so many of them went on to become Pastors, Missionaries, and leaders in their respective churches. It is for that reason that my wife and I give 25% of our tithe to Campus ministries, spreading it out over four campuses. Being able to contribute to the spiritual well being of University students is something I believe will have a lasting impact on both their lives and the future health of the church.

Henderson has a number of excellent suggestions for students, parents, and Pastors, for ways that students can remain strong in their faith during their college years. It is well worth reading.

I would like to add a couple of other thoughts to his list as well as tie back to some of my original comments about teens.

I realize that I am about to pick on Pastors here, but I see Pastors as the key implementer of change within churches. Pastors, how intentional are you at engaging youth and young adults in your sermons? Go over your last 10 sermons. How many of the sermon illustrations were ones that young people could really relate too? Have you ever alluded to a group like “Cold Play”? Do you have a visitation schedule? If so, have you ever included a teen or a young adult in that schedule? Have you ever taken a teen in your church out for a baseball game or even a cheese burger? When was the last time someone under the age of 18 did a Bible reading in the service? Ushered? Ran the sound board, or video system? Joined the worship team? Let a Bible Study? My son who is 14, does all kinds of complex presentations at school on all kinds of subjects that he has researched. Why doesn’t he get the same kind of opportunity at church?

My point is that many of our people have become disengaged from their faith at a very young age. It isn’t enough to tread water, but we need to become intentional at engaging them. You should note that I am not advocating that we become youth focused in our churches, but that we should at least become much more youth aware and youth inclusive. We need to engage them beyond the time spent in their Sunday School class or youth group, and make sure that they are an integral part in this bigger thing we call “church.”

My final note has to do with evangelism. As noted earlier in the post, of those raised unaffiliated, but who are now affiliated with a religious group, 72% left the ranks of the unaffiliated before the age of 24. My friend Tim immediately came to mind when I read this. When I was at University, he amazed all of us in our Christian campus group by leading his entire residence floor to Christ. One of the guys who became a Christian went on to become the President of our group three years later. Yet this is something that should not surprise us, because this is a stage of life when people are seeking, learning, and discovering so many new and amazing things about the world around them. We need to take the opportunity to introduce them to the most amazing person of all: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. My kids are right at the age where: we shall see how it all plays out. BUT, I’m convinced that one of the best gifts that I gave them was forcing them to sit through hours of vestry meetings, altar guild preps, Sunday School clean-up Saturdays. They know that church is about participation, grunt work, hour long votes about the new handicapped toilet. Being part of church is being involved in the little stuff. yes, Jesus is the POINT, but being part of community is tiresome, boring, and pastoral – on a toilet level. I also believe, and pray, that when your 13 your old has doubts about the whole thing, that you let him/her play that out, because without doubt, faith is impossible. I can tell that when he said, “i don’t know that i believe in God” and i replied, “yeah, i get how that’s a struggle for you.” that we are keeping the conversation going to allow God to speak to him in HIS time.

    That is a link to the FAQ about the Dead Theologians Society. It’s to help teens and young adults be strong in their faith. I know there are a few groups in Maine and I find the idea intriguing. Some of what this page says is:

    “Though many young people today may be unfamiliar with the movie Dead Poets Society, the name still serves us well. At Dead Theologians Society we don’t dwell on death, and are certainly not a morbid or depressing program. We do address the reality that we all will face death and it will truly be one of the most important events in our lives. Sacred Scripture in Sirach 7:36 states, “In whatever you do, remember the end of your life, and you will never sin.” As Catholic’s we’re taught not to fear death, but to fear sin and that we must live this life with a sense of responsibility and a direction that leads to Heaven. The title of our apostolate indicates to young people that we are not some “soft” program, but rather we face the tough issues in life and through the examples of the Saints, the Dead Theologians Society will inspire the youth of today to become the saints of tomorrow.”

    “The DTS motto, “Mortuum Mundo – Vivum in Christo” is Latin for “Dead to the World – Alive in Christ” This is inspired by Romans 6:11 where St. Paul tells us to be dead to sin and alive in Christ Jesus. The Saints we study are alive in Christ forever. DTS members seek to always become more alive in Christ through their Catholic faith and “dead” to the negative influences of the world.”

    “Chapters meet in churches, youth rooms or classrooms converted to have a “chapel or monastery-like” vibe, choir lofts for an “upper room” effect or undercroft chapels in churches. Meeting spaces must meet all required safety codes.”

    “The official DTS “hoodie” or “hood” is simply a black hooded sweatshirt of the style that almost everyone wears in cool weather or has in their closet. It is NOT and never has been some type of long flowing gown with a hood that is worn over the face to conceal the identity of the wearer! There is nothing dark or sinister about it. While we make it clear that the DTS hoodie is not a religious habit, we do speak of its connection to the religious habits of the past and present. Many religious orders took their habits from the common wear of the poor or commoner of the time.”

    “Parishes regularly report to us the blessed results DTS has born in the lives of their parish teens and young adults such as:

    Increased Mass attendance among teen and college age population

    Increased interest in vocations to religious life and/or a life of service

    Increased pre-Confirmation enthusiasm and post-Confirmation attendance at Mass and youth/parish activities

    Increased interest in young people participating in parish life, service and other ministries
    Increased reception of the Sacraments, especially Communion and Confession

    Increased faith formation and a deeper prayer life”

  3. Thanks for the excellent article. Well researched and very thoughtful. Mr. Bell outlines, in my opinion, the number one issue facing Christianity today. The fact that he draws the line at 24 is not a surprise. That is the age when the vast majority of American;s finish their formal education.

    As an unrepentant culture warrior I am deaply troubled by the state of our education system and how it is has aligned itself against Christianity. And please don’t misunderstand me I am not talking the removal of prayer in public schools or the teaching of evolution. I am against prayer in public schools and believe the teaching of evolution is appropriate.

    What is going on within our education system is far more insideous. Christianity is openly mocked in schools and Christian values are denigrated as backwards, bigoted, hypocritical and opressive. Perhaps even worse, for a university, is the fact that the historical record of Christianity and the Church is distorted beyond recognition.

    What’s more, just about everything about our culture runs counter to Christian values. Even (perhaps especially) the “traditional” American values that conservative christians hold so dear (ie. Americanism, consumerism, the American dream, etc.)

    To counter this requires education – a lot of it. We need to be educating our children on the triumphs of Christianity and the failings of the Church. We need to be educating helping our children understand what is Christian and what we sometimes mistake as Christian but is really cultural baggage. We need to stop teaching our children that science and Christianity are at odds with one another and that science is a wonder gift. But we need them to understand the limitations of science and the abuses of reasons (presuppositions posing as conclusions) within science.

    Bell’s numbers suggest that youth pastors and parents need to be less focused on outreach and more focused on education and equipping the children they already have. The seeker-focused youth program necessarily must become a exercise in ammusing children with christianized versions of the same stuff the culture offers them outside the Church. Why they would find the church irrelavant once they have a mind of their own should be of no surprise at all.

  4. I think a big part of the problem is that the Christianity many of these kids have been exposed to is an either/or proposition. Either you accept Christianity “our” way, or you have to leave it all together.

    Examples: God created the world in 7 literal days, and if you don’t believe it that way, you aren’t a true Christian. God wants men to be in charge of women, and if you don’t believe it that way, you aren’t a true Christian. Etc, etc, etc…

    Instead of thinking in terms of both/and, we present our precious truths in an either/or frame, and so when the kids become young adults and begin thinking for themselves, they soon realize they are backed into a corner by the teachings they’ve grown up with.

    For example, there’s no room to wonder if a person is born gay or chooses it—they’ve already been told what and how to think about that issue, and they know that if they think the “wrong” thing, they aren’t a true Christian. In fact, if they choose to be a true Christian, they’re not allowed to think about the “wrong” thing, at all, as a matter of fact.

    After a while, it seems like the question isn’t whether or not to be a Christian, but rather whether or not to use one’s brain.

    Because to be a Christian, they’ve learned, involves shutting the brain OFF and unquestioningly accepting the pronouncements of their particular brand of Christianity. This is not the way it should be. But this is the way it often is.

    Our young people encounter a Christianity that has a lot of things tacked onto Christ. Many of them that turn away aren’t rejecting Christ—they’re rejecting the “prerequisites” we’ve tacked onto Him, the (separable) things we say are inseparable from Him.

    This isn’t their problem. It’s ours.

  5. Michael,
    I have found this series of posts quite interesting. Do you have any statistics which breakdown the percentages of those leaving the church by individual denominations? I am curious if there is a trend between those denominations which focus on more traditional teaching with youth such as catechisms, (LCMS, PCA etc) and those which focus on hyped up youth rallies, music, true love waits, and the latest trend going around.

  6. Molly, another good post from you. I am a Catholic Christian that believes in the items stated in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed. Yet, when it comes to “acting” out my Christianity within politics, I find that I am not always in the flow of what I am “supposed” to think, believe, vote on if I am REALLY a Catholic. So, what am I…an 80% Catholic? Oh well, I just try to do my best.

  7. I would tend to echo much of what Becky said and add to it as well. I won’t go into my spiritual background other than to say that it was not primarily Christian. When I did become more Christian than not, I had kids across a wide spectrum of ages. I would not only say that their perception of their parents and grandparents struggle with faith impacted and still impacts them, but that their struggle with their various experiences in church and with it has always impacted me and the way I perceived my faith as well. I would say it’s decidedly non-linear and non-hierarchical. There’s more of a circular and flowing effect.

    If that makes sense.

  8. alvin_tsf says

    michael bell,

    thank you very much for your helpful and meaningful insights. my wife and i head our children’s ministry. we discussed your findings in part 1 of your post. i have been waiting anxiously for this part 2. your post has confirmed what we have been discerning and praying about for quite awhile. the number of kids in our ministry has grown significantly. i empathize with a lot of the commenters re the neglect most churches have for children. we have been trying to fight off the notion that sunday school is a baby-sitting ministry so that adults can better worship God. one progress we have made, i believe, is that we let the children, especially the “tweens” to join the congregational praise/worship singing. we also plan to have, at least once a month, to have a children’s worship service. our ideas re the teens having a part in the sunday service is worth considering and plan to suggest this to our sunday service committee.i think the best way is to show them that indeed they are part of the covenant community. an integral part of which Jesus Himself has mentioned specifically in the Gospel accounts.

    i ask permission to distribute your post and insights to our church council for an evaluation on how we can better serve God and discuss ways to have them firm in their faith before the age of 24.

    thank you very much


  9. Alvin_tsf,

    By all means do so.

    Just remember that I have presented more problem than solution, so others may have different ideas of what that solution may look like.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    My experience with VCF and the Navigators at my undergraduate school was actually very counterproductive for me, faith-wise – that VCF group there pushed a very isolated, “childish” view of Christianity which encouraged a cocoon-like, insular approach to their faith. It was hard dealing with a group that was very insular, and almost cliquish in how it dealt with “newbies”. — Rampancy

    When I was at Cal Poly Pomona in the late Seventies, the Navigators had the rep of being the most extreme Uber-Christians with the highest burnout and flunkout rates. J Michael Jones was in over his head with them during that period and has a lot of horror stories on his blog, Christian Monist.

    Ironically, my spiritual development was greatly enhanced by my non-Christian (Atheist/Agnostic, Muslim, etc.) friends – the types of people who were supposedly the “enemy”. — Rampancy

    Speaking of “the enemy”, I was an SF litfan and D&D gamer. You learn very quickly to compartmentalize your life and get very familiar with the concept of Friendly Fire.

    I tried going to Campus Crusade but they alarmed me with their almost militaristic language in how they were going to take over the evil, immoral university for God…somehow I got the image in my mind of them charging the administrative offices with guns and the like. — Rampancy

    Campus Crusade varies from campus to campus, though even the rather mellow Cal Poly Pomona chapter seemed a bit clueless and insular (though nowhere near the level of the Navigators). The Cal Poly Pomona chapter was where I first heard of the live role-playing game “Killer” (AKA The Assassination Game); it was a common game played by the staff.

    In complete contrast, the CCC chapter at Cal State Fullerton (at the other end of Brea Canyon) was so tight-assed they could have been “discipled” by Fred Phelps. (I could easily see them charging the administrative offices with guns.) I played D&D on Saturdays at Cal State Fullerton (we met in the administration building), and the local CCC had us in their sights for Witchcraft (TM). We were on constant alert for CCC “sheep in wolves’ clothing” trying to infiltrate and Wretched-urgency “Save” us, including security measures such as routing newbies past this one BS artist who could put on an act of being Aliester Crowley II. (Fortunately, the campus cops were on our side after we fingered a local arsonist who was torching trash cans in the building.)

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy,

    You make my post sound like one of those weightloss advertisements where I have to add the disclaimer, “Your experience may vary.”

    I generally had good experiences with Campus groups and so I put them forward as a possible solution, you obviously did not. I don’t have statistics to say one way or another which or our experiences is more typical.

    Probably among by best experiences were in the IVCF chapter in my first years at University, and in the summer group I started because no other groups were meeting.

    That being said, my first University had 11 different groups, most of which were much more conservative that the IV group I attended.

    It was in that IV group that I learned:
    1. That yes, Christians could dance and have fun
    2. There were many different types of Christians out there, who all seemed to have a pretty good grasp of their faith.
    3. Pentecostals were not all that scary.

  12. So what does all this mean for us?

    It’s a lot more simple than you’re making it out to be: Adults do not share their faith with other adults like they do with youth. If they did, many more people past the age of 24 would self-indicate a change of affiliation. Whom to blame this on?

    Hard to say. The most active adult evangelists were trained and discipled in our best youth ministries: CCC, IVCF, the Navs. So either all their efforts aren’t enough to blip the screen, or the methods learned are counter-productive among adults.