By Aaron Earls
A Lifeway Research study of young adults raised in the church discovered certain characteristics that can have an impact on whether they continue to attend church as adults or drop out.
The good news for small churches is that neither the size of the church nor the student ministry has any influence on drop-out rates.
The most important characteristics are ones every church can strive to embrace.
Young adults who regularly attended church as teenagers were given a list of various characteristics and asked if those words matched their impression of members at the church they attended prior to age 18 or the congregation they attended as an 18- to 22-year-old.
On several characteristics, there were no significant differences between those who dropped out of church as a young adult and those who continued attending regularly.
On others, however, a marked difference in attitudes was found among those who left church and those who stayed.
These 10 church characteristics are those that highlighted different perspectives on church among dropouts and consistent attendees. For churches that want to retain teenagers into adulthood, these traits matter.
When teenagers see church members as insincere, they are more likely to drop out. Relatively few young adults say the church they attended as a teenager was insincere, but dropouts say this more often.
Among those who stayed in church, 17% saw church members in their teenage church as insincere. That jumps to 24% of those who left. Similarly, when describing the church they attended as a young adult, 21% of those who stayed in church saw members as insincere, compared to 37% of those who dropped out.
How can your church develop a reputation of sincerity in the congregation and the community? Cultivate genuineness and honesty within your church. Value truth.
2. Avoiding hypocrisy
One of the starkest differences among dropouts and those who stayed in church is whether or not they viewed their church as hypocritical.
Less than 1 in 5 young adults who stayed in church (19%) describe people in the church they attended as a teenager as “hypocritical.” Among those that left, however, the number jumps to nearly 1 in 3 (32%).
When describing church members in the congregation they attended as a young adult, 21% of those who stayed active in church described the people as hypocritical. Among church dropouts, 41% say that was the case.
For those who continued attending church, 69% describe the church they attended as a teenager as authentic. That fell to 59% of those that dropped out.
The difference is even more dramatic when young adults described the church they attended from 18 to 22. Three in 5 of those who stayed in church (60%) say the people were authentic. Among those who dropped out, it was almost cut in half—down to 32%.
There are similarities between each of these first three characteristics. This should make it obvious how much importance the next generation places on the general idea of being honest about your beliefs and working to live up to those standards.
Young adults clearly want a church that is not pretending to be something it is not, while actually striving to faithfully follow their biblical convictions. They aren’t looking for perfection, but they do want honesty.
The next generation wants to know they have support from those older than them when it comes to life decisions.
When asked if church members in the congregation they attended as a student were disapproving of those who didn’t meet their expectations regarding issues like jobs, school and marriage, 23% of those who stayed in church said that was the case, compared to 36% who dropped out.
Thinking about the church they attended as a young adult, 23% of those who stayed said members were disapproving of their life choices, while 42% of dropouts said that was the case.
Churches and members need to find ways to encourage young adults in their life decisions that do not run counter to Scripture but may not match cultural expectations. Older Christians also may need to invest time in the lives of younger Christians to be able to speak into their lives without them feeling harshly judged.
In addition to wanting support, young adults are more likely to stay at churches they don’t see as excessively judging. Around a quarter of those who stayed in church (26%) described both the congregation they attended as a teenager and the one they attended as a young adult as judgmental.
Among those who dropped out of church, 38% said their church as a teenager was judgmental and 49% said the same about members in the church they attended as a young adult.
Part of basic Christian doctrine is that human beings are fallen and, as such, we sin and need to be forgiven. Young adults want to know their church will forgive them when they make mistakes.
Half of those who stay in church (52%) describe both the church they attended as a teenager and the one they attended as a young adult as forgiving. Fewer church dropouts describe either church they attended that way. More than 2 in 5 (44%) say members at the church they attended as a teenager were forgiving, while only 29% say the same about the church they attended as a young adult.
Much like the first three, the next three traits on the list fit together. Teenagers and young adults want to be part of a church body that will be encouraging in critical moments of decision and forgiving when mistakes are made.
Churches that inspire the next generation to think beyond themselves and point them to Christ are more effective at retaining young adults.
When thinking about the church they attended as a teenager, 46% of those who stayed active said church members were inspirational, compared to 36% of those who dropped out. When asked about the congregation they were part of as a young adult, 43% of those who stayed say it was inspirational, while only 20% of those who left say the same.
As the next generation moves into adulthood, they want to know their church will care for them.
Among those who stayed active in church, 62% describe members of their teenage church as caring and 59% say the same about their congregation as a young adult. Church dropouts paint a different picture of their churches. Around half (52%) say church members were caring at the church they attended as a teenager. Only 33% say the same at the church they attended as a young adult.
Young adults want to know they will be welcomed by their church family.
For those who stayed, 65% described the church they attended as a young adult as welcoming. Among those who dropped out, only 37% say the same.
Young adults had to endure cliques in school and have seen the divisiveness in American culture. They want to be part of a church that embodies unity.
Slightly more than a quarter (27%) of those who stayed in church say members of the church they attended as a young adult displayed cliquish behavior. That jumped to 41% of those who dropped out.
Do these traits describe your church? Ask young adults, including some who have left, what they think. The goal is not necessarily to become a church that attracts young people. If you examine the list of character traits, they are the type of characteristics Jesus said would describe His church.
By becoming a more Christlike congregation, churches will inevitably be more inviting to the next generation and others.
This post originally appeared at Lifeway Research.
Published July 9, 2021