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Why are kids leaving the church? The answer lies in parents

I have yet to find the definitive, empirical study as to why kids leave church, although it is a very hot topic right now across the ecumenical world. But here is what we do know — kids are leaving! This is not news.
Many of our kids leave high school, go off to college and take a break from church. The bad news — the Barna Group and other researchers point out that, for the first time in their ongoing studies of church life, many of these kids are not returning to the church when they marry and have kids.
Why is this happening? What can we do about it?
Only God and parents really know how delicate children are. While many teens “commit” their life to Christ, not much happens before or after that for many of our “churched” teens. In sociological studies, a majority of moms and dads report that religion and faith are among the most important influences in their lives. And yet, over and over again, this is not lived out.
The church — and particularly youth workers — get the blame for teens not being spiritual enough to make it on the outside. In “Why Christian Kids Rebel: Trading Heartache for Hope,” Tim Kimmel writes that some kids see their parents treating faith like a hobby, so they follow suit. We know that children’s perceptions of their parents’ religious beliefs — and the accuracy of these perceptions — influence the acceptance of these beliefs.
And yet, we as parents are not dealing with the reality that we are not doing our God-given duty. We are not living out Deuteronomy 6:4-9 — “Impress (God’s commandments) on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road …”
Over and over in sociological research, parents (typically mom first and dad second) are the primary influence in teens’ lives. Youth ministers, preachers, church and youth groups are down the list, though they do have some influence.
How can parents fulfill their roles? It actually isn’t that difficult, it just takes time. In “Raising the Bar: Ministry to Youth in the New Millennium,” Alvin Reid reminds us that only 34 percent of North American families eat one meal together each day. The average father spends eight minutes per day with his children.
(That includes meals and watching TV.) Only 12 percent of families pray together. The average couple spends only four minutes of uninterrupted time together a day.
We do not have time for relationships. That’s what our behavior says to our children. Perhaps we are too busy, or we do not feel adequate to be the spiritual leader of our children or our faith is not real for us.
The oft-quoted Shema from Deuteronomy is about spending time with our families and “doing ministry” with our families. Youth and children’s ministries can assist parents in their roles, but they can’t replace those roles. We sometimes build $4 million buildings for our children, only to watch them walk away from those buildings after graduation.
While thinking about “family ministry” is not new, it is still not the norm in North American churches.
Churches are basically doing the same thing parents are doing — “dropping off the kids” with youth ministries. We have put the concept of intergenerational ministry on the shelf. Sometimes we aren’t even doing “big” church together. We have separate assemblies for our youths.
Is it any wonder that our children have nothing vested in church when they walk out as high school seniors?
Children’s church and youth group meetings are over. Some of our campus ministries attempt to keep that experience going, but it is a very poor attempt, if one checks out the percentages of our children at these universities and then counts on a Wednesday night how many attend the college-age Bible class.
In the book “Family-Based Youth Ministry,” Mark Devries reminds churches that “there is no such thing as successful youth ministry that isolates teenagers from the community of faith.” I am not advocating that we toss children and youth ministries from the church. I would strongly suggest that they be used as tools to equip parents to disciple their own children.
Children will look as much like Jesus as their parents and fellow church members do. Kids will follow Jesus through college — and for the rest of their lives — if they have parents that do likewise, and if that they can see older Christians modeling that behavior. Even some secular researchers stress the importance of having a “community of shepherds” around our children. Shouldn’t this be the church?
We know that children rely on their parents and other adults around them for support and affirmation, but we don’t make time to sit with our children and tell them about the faith that sustains us. To help in this task, I recommend the book “Building Faith at Home” by Mark Holmen. This is not the definitive resource, but a good start.
Parents, bottom line, it is still your job to rear your children and teach them to have faith in God. Elders, it is your job to shepherd our souls. Please stop sending money to Africa, Brazil, Honduras and other foreign countries to save souls when our own children are walking out on God. Please rethink church and ministry as equipping people to become mature in Christ.
The numbers do not lie. We are shrinking as a fellowship. I do not believe it is because of the economy, the culture, President Obama, instrumental music or whatever the excuse may be this week.
Moms and dads at home, and elders and ministers at our churches, wake up! Let’s repent. Let’s recommit.
Let’s walk and talk and do our faith with our children.
We have to disciple our own children and teach them to make disciples. It is a continuing process. We must not skip — or lose — a generation!
DUDLEY CHANCEY is associate professor of youth ministry at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. He attends the Memorial Road church in Oklahoma City. For a list of sources used here, contact [email protected].

  • Feedback
    I am currently about to submit my findings in my thesis which is on the subject of retention and not attrition. I chose to research into those children who are staying. What is it that is keeping them in the church and also in the faith. One thing I have found is that “WHEN YOUNG PEOPLE DEVELOP A GENUINE RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD THEY STAY. MOST OF THEM WHO ARE LEAVING WERE IN CHURCH BUT NEVER DEVELOPED FAITH IN GOD PERSONALLY.
    Neil Acheampong
    Frederick, MD
    March, 18 2013

    ibelieve for somany centuries the gospel has been with us little preparation are made to cater for the spiritual needs of children and youths church minister prepare sermons targeting mainly adults.
    david okedi
    anglican c.o.u
    kampala, soroti
    November, 22 2012

    I’m a teen who stopped believing in god after years and years of being taught the bible in church, believing every word told to me, remembering what I was taught, and trying my hardest to live it out.Teens and young adults leave because they have questions in the backs of their minds that are dismissed because asking them would seem un-godly or foolish. Or maybe the questions are dismissed by church leaders who don’t really know the answers.
    Also, Young people see their whole lives ahead of them and don’t want to waste it following something they begin to believe can’t be true. Adults see a shorter life ahead and will follow Christianity blindly.
    No more church
    Toledo, Ohio
    May, 20 2012

    I have been expressing my concern over “departmentalized” programs for years. Churches would be better off equipping families rather than hiring new ministers for youth, for children, for boys, for girls, etc. On top of that churches often encourage “the youth” to sit together as a group during the worship service. My children sat with us as a family and we did not feel obligated to attend every function the church sponsored. Family time was more important.
    many cities, many states
    April, 4 2011

    I believe that we got to stop making excuses for this generation for leaving the church. They need know the truth. The truth is your generation are falling out of God more than previous generation. It all starts for this generation to repent. If they can’t do that, there is not much we can do. I always tries to pray for kids that Minister, and my own kids. We need to pray for them. I went thourugh what they went through. I have to make own decision whether I want to follow God or not.
    Steven Lee
    Santa Clara United Methodist Church
    San Jose , Ca
    United States
    February, 15 2011

    Hi, This article is so timely for me. I have worked as a live-in nanny for several families over the years and now work with elementary children. I am tired of hearing about the problems of our youth and families and would like suggestions on finding a church to host youth and family programs in. I am ready to do the workthat I have been called to do and am willing to go wherever I need to go. I may be reached @ 510-239-8642. Thanx, DOnna
    Donna (MEDI) Tate
    seeking a home
    Oakland, CA
    July, 27 2010

    This is an awesome article and I have been asking the same question! what do I do when my child that I teach the bible to goes to church and is exposed to something totally different? In many churches there are sexual activities, delinquent behaviors, lies and many more. These ministries are very popular and successful!
    Magalie Hall
    Hope & Faith wellness
    Fort Worth, Texas
    May, 13 2010

    Having worked in state university campus ministry for 11 years and having been involved in it as a student before that, I have repeatedly witnessed the truth of this article. State universities are often blamed (especially by Christian school recruiters) for “stealing” students’ faith. However, the truth is this: while a state university environment can deal harmful blows to a student’s faith, far more frequently, the students aren’t having their faith stolen at the state university but are instead showing up at college with precious little–if any–faith to begin with. It’s so disheartening for those of us who work with college students to witness this tragedy year after year, and to know that it’s only getting worse.
    Chris Buxton
    West Side Church of Christ
    Russellville, AR
    September, 8 2009

    About 90% of us send our children to public schools where they spend about 14,000 hours being trained in secular humanism and related philosophies (please don’t say “Our school is different.”) But Christian children need Christian education (Lk 6:40, Eph 6:4, Col 2:8). And the principle of Deuteronomy 6 to teach our children His ways all the time is as true today as when Moses wrote it. In fact, we are rebelling against God when we act as if it only applies to after-school hours.
    Scott Thomas
    Blythe Church of Chrsit
    Blythe, CA
    July, 19 2009

    I appreciate the article.
    Raising teens to love Jesus is a very difficult challenge in our culture. As I talk to teens, they see the church as irrelevant. They aren’t into keeping traditions and the post-modern influence around them teaches them not to trust the big story (meta-narrative) of what God has done in sending Christ.
    Then they meet with the church and they are either segregated or even worse with other adults whose lives are not marked by confession, honesty and passion. So they look somewhere else for LIFE.
    So it starts in the home, living as authentic community, but it continues in church life where real stories and candid confession break through. Churches must decide to live differently.
    Chris Pierson
    Richland Hills Church of Christ
    Fort Worth, TX
    June, 17 2009

    Chris Holley
    Mountain Island Church of Christ
    Charlotte, North Carolina
    United States
    June, 15 2009

    I personally feel that the church has been VERY slow in changing with the times. Honestly, look at any CofC service. If we could transport in time, we would find the exact same style service and classes in the early 20th century. We must face the facts. Our generation and the next generation do not learn the same way they did in the early 20th century. You will not find one school that teaches like they did in the 30’s and 40’s. It’s no wonder we are losing so many people. We aren’t reaching them. The message should never change but the methods must I also agree that we must spend more money to evangelize our youth. Look at the church budgets in most congregations. The youth budget is usually lower than the most other line items.
    church of christ in the carolinas
    Charlotte, NC
    June, 4 2009

    I read Devries book years ago, and tried to adopt the premise, but, soon found out that kids began leaving church in the mid 70’s. Therefore, my ministry shifted from teen spiritual formation to helping parents shape theirs. But, even then, this work was a waste of time because what was and is missing from the lives of many modern Christians, is the connection to a community that engages each other in Spiritual formation through the practice of accountability. As long as church leaders perceive success through a spreadsheet, or a list of activities they can place on a website, the church will continue in dysfunction. In short as a youth minister my goal is to help other people discover their ministry.
    Daren Mitchell
    New Hope Christian Church
    Marshalltown, IA
    June, 4 2009

    I think the important role of parents in their children’s spiritual lives has been shown to us in a situation where there is no youth ministry. We are essentially the youth ministry. The youth in our very small congregation that we work with is comprised of our children and one other. As they go to secular schools (private religious schools being too expensive and homeschooling being against the law) we realize that we are the ONLY source for their spiritual education. This enormous responsibility has opened our eyes to opportunities in teaching our children at the dinner table, on the tram ride to school or at the park for a picnic. We are also part of a very young church, where “community teaching” is not really understood.
    Brianna Carroll
    Gemeinde Christi Dresden
    Dresden, Saxony
    June, 4 2009

    This article is not about blame at all. It is simply about parental/church responsibility. If you have grown children then the responsibility shifts to them, of course.
    However, if you are a parent with children in your home, you are completely responsible for the spiritual education of your child just like you are responsible to feed and clothe them. If spirituality is not high on the parent’s priority list then it likely will not be on the children’s priority list at all. Everything else in our children’s world will pull them away from spirituality unless we, as parents, pull them back.
    The church/youth ministers can only do so much. If we, as parents, don’t prove to our kids that God is God to us, then God won’t be God to them.
    Caryn -a mother/youth minister’s wife
    Church of Christ
    livonia, MI
    June, 4 2009

    On the subject of children leaving the church: at what point and what age does his children’s rejecting the church disqualifies a man from being an elder? If a man gets the credit he has to take the blame, if any is to be assigned. What do you think?
    John Jenkins
    Great Smoky Mountains Church of Christ
    Gatlinburg, TN
    June, 4 2009

    The real story here is that the answer DOESN’T lie in churches, per se. Big and small, old and young, northern and southern, contemporary and traditional, VBS/Bible Bowl/camp/Youth Minister and not — all lose kids at about the same rate.
    “Youth Ministry” as traditionally conceived by Churches of Christ makes NO STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCE in the retention rate of kids who grow up under it.
    What does make a difference? Parents’ church attendance and martial status.
    Retention of kids starts and ends with parents who are committed to God AND TO EACH OTHER.
    If we want to keep our kids, churches need to focus on keeping Mom and Dad together and in church. Anything else is grasping after the wind.
    Ben Wiles
    Pleasant Grove Church of Christ
    Guthrie, KY
    June, 3 2009

    Our kids are leaving for two reasons: 1.Because we have spoiled them. They have grown up thinking church is about them. Everything they have experienced has been aimed at entertaining them and keeping them safe.The ONLY evengelism they experience is being told to invite a friend to COME to church.
    2. 85% of conversions are coming from the 18-30 age group and most of our churches don’t even have a ministry in that age group.
    Want them to stay? Give them a mission that is bigger than the world has to offer.Train them to become mighty warriors for Christ and fight the hords of hell for the souls of mankind.
    Lynn Stringfellow
    Bay Area Church of Christ
    Brandon, Florida
    June, 3 2009

    I grew up with a very close knit group of teens whose parents were involved in our lives and kept us active in the church. I did not come from a Christian home so the influence of these parents set a firm foundation for me and I give thanks every day for all of them for the wonderful Christian influence they left with me and the others. Today we live in a society where families aren’t families anymore and they let their children get way too involved in outside activites, even to the point that church isn’t a priority if they have another activity ~ is it no wonder kids don’t put God first? So much to say, so few characters to do it with~ lol
    Carol Boling Short
    Centerville Rd church of Christ in Garland TX
    Garland, TX
    June, 3 2009

    As a former youth minister, I beg the church to wake up and hear these words. Dudley is right on in his assessment. I grew weary of “kicking against the goads” in youth ministry…struggling to change the perception that youth ministry was family ministry…that the church if it is to be the church must practice the Shema together…not in a society segregated by its ministries.
    Doug Oakes
    Central Church of Christ
    Bakersfield, CA
    June, 2 2009

    This article is only partially correct. My husband & I raised our son that it was important to go to Bible class & worship services & the only reason you missed was due to illness. We read the Bible together every night. We prayed together every day. We were active in the Youth Group & made sure he attended all of the activities & events. His best friends were in the Youth Group. Our church has had an excellent youth program for years. He graduated from ACU. Now that he is on his own he attends worship sporadically. I don’t believe it was our fault & I don’t accept the blame for it. As an adult it is up to him to put what he was taught to use & build his own faith.
    Patricia Burt
    Nichols Street Church of Christ bay City, TX
    La Ward, TX
    June, 2 2009

    This is not about blame, it is about responsibility. Adult children are responsible for tending to their faith, but even so, that is what the Community of Believers (including their own parents) are there for. As for us parents with children in our homes, it is OUR responsibility as THEIR parents to cultivate, plant the seeds, and tend to the spiritual life that grows out of that work. As our children grow, they take on more responsibility for tending to their spiritual life. If this process hasn’t started before their teenage years, it is not too late to begin! God is the Great Harvester… Farmers that till the land often have more faith in the production of their crops than we do when it comes to matters of faith!
    Greg Bukovatz
    East Point Church of Christ
    Wichita, KS
    June, 2 2009

    I appreciate that Dr. Chancey makes us aware of the opportunities inside our families, groups, and congregations to help grow faithful Christian young people. Our society has forgotten the necessity of family involvement – even inside our own brotherhood. Mrs. Cusic sees the family responsibility beginning and ending with planting seeds. It seems we as parents of youth and teens need to help cultivate the soil of their souls, nurture and encourage their budding beliefs, prune when necessary, and water with prayer throughout. As young adults they must continue developing those beliefs but as youth and teens God entrusted their growth in all areas to parents. This article is simply a clarion call for parents to be parents.
    Scott Mills
    South Fork Church of Christ
    Winston-Salem, NC
    June, 2 2009

    We parents must reconsider how we are sharing our faith with our kids. Children learn much more than the words we say; they are highly tuned recording devices of everything – everything we do and and don’t do, not just our words. Accordingly, if we as adults are not convicted by our faith to be active in it DAILY, that duplicity is what our children learn. Driving them to church each week isn’t what will impart a lifelong faith. Witnessing the totality of our lives every day of their lives is what will encourage them to continue to participate in the fulfillment of the Lord’s desire for their lives. It’s not about blame Susan. It’s about being accountable for our first and primary mission field. May this article circulate widely.
    Aimee La Buy Crane
    Fairfax Church of Christ
    Springfield, VA
    June, 2 2009

    Brother Chancey said the same things I have seen successful congregations doing for many years except for one important detail – when he asks us to quit sending money to foreign countries while we are losing our children.
    I’m not sure where that remark came from, but in 20 years of preaching, most of the churches I have seen with serious problems in keeping their youth were not particlarly keen on missionaries.
    If church and ministry are really going to equip people to become mature in Christ, it must equip them with a fire to tell others about the gospel.
    The Great Commission is what we need to model to our children – We will keep them when we are committed to the lost everywhere, not when we pull back.
    Jay Kelley
    Austin Street
    Levelland, TX
    United States
    June, 2 2009

    No parent is perfect.
    This includes our role in instilling the importance of a relationship with God into our children.
    With this in mind, maybe we need to look at our own efforts to deepen our relationship with God.
    Maybe I need to ask myself the following question:
    Would I be comfortable with my child’s progress in her relationship with God being–in some objective way–60% of what my own is?
    Would I be comfortable with my grandchildren’s relationship with God being 36% (60% of 60%) of what my own relationship with the Master is?
    These are arbitrary numbers, but–again, we need to accept the fact that we are not perfect, and put the extra time and effort into making sure that our imperfect efforts have a chance.
    Russ Sharp
    Edmond Church of Christ
    Edmond, Oklahoma
    June, 2 2009

    We’ve been talking about this for a few years. We need to make church what it is supposed to be, a place for all. Segregation doesn’t include all in any form it takes. THANK YOU for printing this article.
    Tom Light
    Modena, MO
    June, 2 2009

    I don’t think we should dismiss this article by accusing the author of delegating blame. Something is causing a frightening exodus of our young people. A part of the issue is that sports have been elevated to be the God of this culture. This involves parents. The parents see no need to come to Bible study. Guess what! Neither do their children. I appreciate Dudley Chancey sending up the alarm. We need to talk about this problem. Our children are growing up to be like us.
    Gary L. McDowell
    Newburgh Church of Christ
    Newburgh, Indiana
    June, 2 2009

    Data from the nationally representative National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR) confirm the premise that adolescents are religiously and spiritually very much like their parents. They are in large measure conventional in their stated beliefs and practices.
    At the same time they are what Christian Smith call, Moral Therapeutic Deists. Essentially, they believe in God in large numbers, but believe God is around to solve their problems when they want their problems to be solved. God is not someone with whom you have an intimate relationship, but rather a service provider of sorts.
    Where did this belief come from? It is probably the logical response to their context.
    Chris Gonzlaez
    Richfield Church of Christ
    Burnsville, MN
    June, 2 2009

    Blame, blame, blame. Everyone wants smeone to blame and it sounds like the aurthor of this article is no different. A parent can only plant the seed and it is up to the individual child to accept Christ and develop their own personal relationship with God, not take on their parents relationship with God. I have two adult children who are now responsible for their own choices in life and salvation, so take the blame or credit off of me and put it back where it belongs. Judgments of others have a very negative impact on the younger generation, whle the older generation has grown to accept them as a part of human flaws.
    Susan Cusic
    Saturn Road Church of Christ
    Garland, Texas
    June, 2 2009

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