Study confirms: Majority of college students drop out of church

Church pews may be full of teenagers, but a new study says college students might be a much rarer sight on Sunday mornings.

Two-thirds (66 percent) of American young adults who attended a Protestant church regularly for at least a year as a teenager say they also dropped out for at least a year between the ages of 18 and 22, according to a new study from LifeWay Research. Thirty-four percent say they continued to attend twice a month or more.

While the 66 percent may be troubling for many church leaders, the numbers may appear more hopeful when compared to a 2007 LifeWay study. Previously, 70 percent of 18- to 22-year-olds left church for at least one year.

“The good news for Christian leaders is that churches don’t seem to be losing more students than they were 10 years ago. However, the difference in the dropout rate now and then is not large enough statistically to say it has actually improved,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.

The dropout rate for young adults accelerates with age. While 69 percent say they were attending at age 17, that fell to 58 percent at age 18 and 40 percent at age 19. Once they reach their 20s, around 1 in 3 say they are attending church regularly.

Virtually all those who dropped out (96 percent) listed a change in their life situation as a reason for their dropping out. The five most frequently chosen specific reasons for dropping out were: moving to college (34 percent); church members seeming judgmental or hypocritical (32 percent); no longer feeling connected to people in their church (29 percent); disagreeing with the church’s stance on political or social issues (25 percent); and work responsibilities (24 percent).

Almost half (47 percent) of those who dropped out and attended college say moving to college played a role in their no longer attending church for at least a year.

Ben Trueblood, director of student ministry at LifeWay, said, “For the most part, people aren’t leaving the church out of bitterness, the influence of college atheists, or a renunciation of their faith. What the research tells us may be even more concerning for Protestant churches: There was nothing about the church experience or faith foundation of those teenagers that caused them to seek out a connection to a local church once they entered a new phase of life. The time they spent with activity in church was simply replaced by something else.”

Among those who dropped out for at least a year, 31 percent are currently attending twice a month or more. “On some level, we can be encouraged that some return,” said Trueblood. “At the same time, we should recognize that when someone drops out in these years, there is a 69 percent chance they will stay gone.”

McConnell added, “While some young adults who leave church are rejecting their childhood faith, most are choosing to keep many of the beliefs they had but with a smaller dose of church.”

— Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources.