LifeWay reports that church attendance peaks at age 15, with more than three-quarters regularly attending then. But that percentage took a nosedive at 18, and by 19, only 4 in 10 former regular-attenders were still in the habit. By 21, one-third attended church services regularly—a percentage that remained constant through age 30.
The dynamics of churches themselves are increasingly a turnoff for dropouts. In 2007, half (55%) pointed to church- and pastor-related reasons as important in their decision to leave—mostly their impressions of their place in the congregation. But in 2017, 73 percent indicated such grievances were a factor in stepping away.
Just as earlier research by Fuller Youth Institute concluded that young people don’t want hip pastors, matters of worship and preaching were not dominant factors inspiring young people to leave. LifeWay found that only 13 percent said they left because the worship style was “unappealing,” and 1 in 10 said they left because “the sermons were not relevant to my life.”
It’s worth noting that most who withdraw from regular attendance are not abandoning the faith outright. Still, a bigger portion of the dropouts cite major shifts in their views of Christianity. While only 10 percent said they left because they stopped believing in God, that’s double as many as ’07.
Of all young adults who used to attend Protestant churches but left temporarily or for good, just 7 percent say they are currently atheists (3%) or agnostic (4%). In contrast, most still consider themselves Protestant (49%) or non-denominational (21%), while 10 percent now identify as Roman Catholic.
There’s more positive news for orthodox Christianity. While most of those who left the church did so for reasons related to personal life changes (like going to college) or frustrations with hypocrisy and politics in church, those who continued regularly attending did so primarily because, they said, “church was a vital part of my relationship with God” (56%) and “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life” (54%).
Notably, young Protestants who kept up their church attendance claimed to experience fewer of the social frustrations than those who dropped out. While those who stayed did observe judgmentalism, cliquishness, and a lack of connection in some ministries, they perceived these problems at substantially lower rates than the students who ended up leaving.
And for young Christians who bailed on church but have since returned, the most common reasons were the encouragement of family (37%), the personal desire to go back to church (32%), and the feeling that God was calling them back (28%).