Six Reasons Young Christians Leave Church

A five-year project headed by the Barna Group explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development amoung teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

This is my number one complaint with most of the resources I have looked at to teach about Christianity with my kids. It seems like the idea is that having all the right answers inoculates a person from doubt. As if doubt were a state of ignorance. Doubt is related to faith not knowledge. I would love to see more humility and more acknowledgement of the limitations of our “answers” as we teach them. More “some people interpret it this way, others another way, and we aren’t positive who is right” More “some people address the problem this way, others that way, but neither approach takes care of everything.” But it’s usually just an unequivocal “the Bible says X.”

This goes hand in hand with the first quote. If people in the church believe that doubt is just a symptom of lacking of right answers, obviously they’re going to fail people with doubts. Especially those for whom doubt is a life-long spiritual struggle, not just a fleeting growing pain on the path to Christian maturity.

I’m reading a book on the church’s response to gender dysphoria and one thing the author keeps bringing up is the failure of most (Evangelical) churches to offer tools for long-term identity and meaning-making and a redemptive “life story” to people who do not fit the fairly rigid gender roles held out as normative. I bring this up not to dive into a tangent on sexuality, but because I think in many ways it is a similar failure when it comes science-minded people and science professionals and anyone who intellectually rebels against some of the narratives held out as the default “Christian” ones. There is often a failure to provide a sufficiently affirm-able “life story” or “faith journey” for these kind of people in the context of the church and the church’s beliefs. According to the narratives held out, the way they make meaning as a scientist or their identity as a science professional is out of bounds in some ways. If someone can’t express who they are and the concerns they find most pressing in the language and structures available for talking about a redeemed identity, they will go find a community that will give them that affirming space and allow them to “make meaning” out of their experiences and identity.


Excellent article. Several of the points mentioned, such as the church being overprotective, shallow, and simplistic seem to have a common thread in that we do not appreciate teens and young adults as having the maturity and capacity to reason about deeper issues. Kids today face many issues that previous generations did not have to deal openly with, and the church needs to address them on the appropriate level, rather than spoon feeding and talking down to them. Teens are sometimes assumed incapable of understanding ideas and concepts, and are taught with rote memory work and concrete stories, more appropriate for elementary students.

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The Church needs to teach people, old and young how to think theologically or relationally.

Faith is not belief in a collection of facts. Faith is the understanding of relationships and how to relate to God and others.


When I was a child, my grandmother used to take me to Sunday school when I’d visit her. It left no impression except that recall I spending a fair amount of time facing the corner for questioning things like whether someone could actually be swallowed by a whale and survive.

My father recalls his first day in a college theology class taught by a Jesuit scholar / priest. The priest asked: “Can we prove that God exists?” “Raise your hand if you think we can.” My father was the only one who didn’t raise his hand. The priest said to my father, “OK, you sit over there and we’ll see whether the others in the class can come up with convincing proofs.” The priest then had the rest of the class try to explain how to prove God exists, and spent the rest of the lecture demonstrating how the offered ‘proofs’ were insufficient.

So part of the issue, at least, is not teaching that which is not known and papering over real issues with platitudes. Infantilized faith.


[My own emphasis added above]

This is so important, and I share very strongly in this conviction. My hang up is that Scriptures seem (on the surface anyway) to provide so much more ammunition to the “doubt-eradicators” you are addressing. I think especially of passage like that in James 1 “… he who doubts is live a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” I know that was spoken in the specific context of asking God for something, and yet is a very pointed warning lending force to detractors on this. If you see support of a more broad nature for this from Scriptural teachings generally, I’m curious for your thoughts. Sorry if I’ve asked you this before … after a few years around here I can’t remember how much I may be repeating myself.

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C’mon, Mervin. Have you never read the Psalms?

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? … But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.” Psalm 13

This is just one example of many. Faith does not preclude the struggle with doubt and fear. In the Psalms, God’s people pour out their hearts and their troubles before him. How was David a man after God’s own heart? Was it that he bared his own soul before the Lord, sins, doubts, troubles, and all?


I think Evangelicals tend toward an approach to the Bible that views it as a collection of “truth nuggets” to be mined. So they tend to value most the verses fit that approach and that make pronouncements or assertions or anything that can be turned into a proposition. They don’t really know what to do with Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, chunks of Jeremiah, etc., where there is just a bunch of raw human emotion, a lot of it despairing and not understanding. All of that just gets reduced to something like “God’s ways are higher than ours, so we shouldn’t question them.” Really? That’s the lesson we take away from pages and pages of godly people wrestling with God’s ways? Why don’t we consider the wrestling a model for our own spiritual lives? Why don’t we see the wrestling as normative?

I was reading someone, maybe Michael Bird, and he was talking about how a lot of Evangelicals seem to be embarrassed for God that he did not do a better job handing us the systematic theology that obviously the Bible was supposed to deliver, and they try really hard to help God out on that front instead of considering that maybe Scripture is supposed to be a lot more than a systematic theology deliverance device.

I don’t know if any of that addresses the question you raised. But if someone said to me “mature, godly people don’t doubt, see James 1” I think I would say, “What about David hiding out in the caves? What about John the Baptist sending the message from prison asking if Jesus really was the Messiah? What about Job on the ash heap?” We need to pay attention to the stories, not just the truth nuggets.


Indeed! Those, Job, Ecclesiastes and others are the strongest antidotes against “certainty pushers” – I agree. And thanks for the reminder. I guess I was just lapsing back into wishing (along with so many others) that some New Testament verse would just spell it all out neatly for me. But you are right --and this is one of the main reasons the Old Testament remains so important for Christians today. Thanks, Brother. Now to see what Christy just wrote …

Okay now it looks like I just copied your response into my own above which I wrote at the same time but got posted after yours! You and Jay are both right on (no surprise there…) The spirit moves. Amen to everything you said --and said much better than I could have myself! I know this all well, and yet still need the reminders about trying to reduce the bible to some system of propositions. Thank you.


Excellent example. And Jesus did not answer him directly, but indirectly.

And this is one of the reasons that I love the short book of Habakkuk so much. He starts with a complaint that could serve just as well as a label for our own age:

How long, O Lord, must I call for help?
But you do not listen!
“Violence is everywhere!” I cry,
but you do not come to save.
Must I forever see these evil deeds?
Why must I watch all this misery?
Wherever I look,
I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
so that justice has become perverted.

And when God reveals his reply to the prophet, Habakkuk is stunned and cannot understand the Lord’s ways.

I trembled inside when I heard this;
my lips quivered with fear.
My legs gave way beneath me,
and I shook in terror.
I will wait quietly for the coming day
when disaster will strike the people who invade us.

Despite all that, he ends with one of the most tremendous declarations of faith ever recorded:

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
able to tread upon the heights.


The “happy ending” is what we usually look for to make it a more palatable whole. Imagine going into some bible study group … often heard in such a setting: “I was in the dumps … didn’t even think there was a God much less anyone that cared …” (and almost never heard at the end of it): " …and that’s where I am now. Down in the dumps and still wondering." No, No, no … you only share stuff in groups when the ending sounds more like “…and then Jesus found me … :grinning: …” Many (but not all) of the psalms do come through on this happy ending bit - apparently some of the psalmists didn’t get the memo.

Regarding the Baptist’s doubts, one can still reply that Jesus didn’t bother trying to affirm John in his doubts but essentially said “okay – tell him to have a look at the evidence” which ostensibly addressed John’s doubts leading him to that nice happy conclusion we all imagine!"

But I think the clearest validation of doubts and struggles would have to come from Job where the doubter in the end gets the affirmation while the faithful and certain ones (what do you mean by impugning God’s record with all these questions?!) are told by God, no less, to eat crow.

But you still remain solidly correct. The stories have it all there. The nugget mining seems to cause the problems. (Thanks for that turn of words, @Christy --hope you don’t mind if I use it.)

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It is stating the obvious, but the reason so much is written about doubt and uncertainty is that is it such a common human condition. The last thing we need to do is deny it exists, or infer that you are a bad person or bad Christian if you have doubts.

As to how that applies to the passage from James, there are times that we need encouragement to stay the course despite our doubts. The most prominent example is perhaps Sister Theresa who persisted despite the dark night of the soul she experienced.


I like to think that this is one of the passages from James that induced the fathers of the early church to consider his gospel apocryphal. If it were used to guide the church, it would have been impossible for science to gain a foothold in a Christian Europe. I much prefer: "An unexamined Faith is not worth holding."
Al Leo

You can lump this Catholic amongst the ‘lot of Evangelicals’ who consider a few Biblical passages to be a positive embarrassment. This Sunday’s gospel reading is a case in point. Gen. 11:11-9 “explains” to us why God purposely sought to confuse human endeavor by 'multiplying the languages of the builders of the Babylonian Tower that they used for communication. Why do I deem this important? Not that it has any influence on my faith or worldview. But I have a very bright teenaged great-grandson who actually seeks out my advice!!! He is intrigued by computers–builds them and programs them–and wants to be in the forefront of research into artificial intelligence. Religion (most notably the Catholic Faith) has played almost no role in his life to date. I would like to remedy that. It is quite natural for him to anxiously seek out the latest news about space telescopes, Chandra & Kepler, and expectations for the Webb. But how do I incite equal interest in the valuable wisdom contained in Revelation, especially if that revelation is considered as coming directly and inerrantly from God. How can I ask him to believe that God actually said: Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

It need not be considered disrespectful to maintain that, before the belief in a One True God got firmly entrenched, a Near East Myth became a part of early Jewish theology. Why cannot Christian leaders clearly state that this is the case. This will not cause the entire structure of Christian Faith to come tumbling down. However, if the cornerstone of Faith is laid upon the “sandstone of inerrancy” of any dogma, there is that real danger.

In reference to this thread, I’m afraid it might disclose a “elitist” characteristic in my own outlook. I cannot but wonder if it always counts as a 'zero sum’ if an educated Christian youth leaves the church but is “balanced out” by a young Ruwandan’s baptism. I have a deep admiration for the way Christy and other BioLogos teachers have consistently used an intellectual as well as an emotional examination of Scripture. But it is my fear (borne out by the horrible Ruwandan massacre) that some of the conversions to Christianity of “heathen natives” have, in reality, been merely a thin plaster coating over deep seated tribal differences that, unless reachable by rationality, are likely to fester unchecked. This is not a problem unique to Christianity. Witness the divisions that plague the various sects of Islam. Surely the world’s youth today have a choice between unbridled materialism (e.g. virtual reality) and blind ‘spirituality’ (e.g. madrassa-like study).
Al Leo

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Is the book by Mark Yarhouse? I’ve been meaning to read his Understand Gender Dysphoria.

Yes, that’s the one. :slight_smile:

I agree with the statements about the significance of acknowledging the importance of doubt in Christian formation, and greatly appreciate the fact that the Bible itself does not gloss over the reality and even fruitfulness of doubt. “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief,” a tormented father said to Jesus just before Jesus proceeded to bring wholeness to the hellish existence of his boy. The discussion concludes with these reassuring words that many of us would testify as being our experience as well: “Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.” (Mark 9:27)

So I agree that we in the church must be seen to embrace the doubter with Christ’s love, especially since it is likely that many of us have not only experienced doubt, but were shaped profoundly by it.

However, just being known as a community which tolerates or even encourages sincere doubt is only one component in the set of six outlined in this essay. The article was written in 2011 in conjunction with the book, “You Lost Me” by David Kinnaman. Kinnaman, along with co-author, Gabe Lyons has written a wonderful new book called “Good Faith” which addresses the broader aspects of how followers of Jesus are to cogently live out their faith in this secular age. They contrast secular society with its values with that which must characterize the church.

Interestingly, Kinnaman and Lyons barely mention science in their whole book this time. The key issue is how do we follow Jesus more effectively in the current age? How do we remain faithful to God’s Word in this rapidly changing society? How do we become an oasis once again in a manner that is untainted by the secular values that permeate our society? This book, together with Andy Crouch’s books “Culture Making” and “Strong and Weak” have the potential to revolutionize Christian communities. As followers of Jesus live out the gospel message in the engaging manner described by these leaders, thoughtful Christians will be increasingly asking questions of the scientifically-informed in their communities. As we love and listen to each other, God will be able to use our communities to speak into this scientistic age in a more informed manner. But it starts, as Kinnaman and Lyons so beautifully show, with holding onto orthodoxy, living in love, and manifesting that love as we wisely engage those who think differently.


Helping out the past Prez a bit: You Lost Me, Culture Making, and Strong and Weak on Amazon. Thanks for the tips. All of these are right up my alley…

A cogent question. Unfortunately, most folks will wrongly identify “the secular values that permeate our society.” My grandmother was an old-fashioned Holy Ghost charismatic, and she was pretty sure television was the root of all of society’s evils. Luckily, she didn’t live to see the Internet. In our present environment of Culture War, the typical conservative Evangelical will identify those “secular values” as anything and everything identified with the “liberal agenda.” (I won’t bother to list them. We know them all by heart now.) This misdiagnosis, too, is part of the problem.

Here’s a view from the “other side” – American Secular Identity, Twenty-First-Century Style: Secular College Students in 2013, a research report by the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Its survey of college students revealed:

* Thirty-three percent of this young population answered “None” to the question “What is your religion, if any?” This rate far exceeded the 15 to 20 percent recently reported in surveys of the total U.S. adult population. …

* One important question that intrigues us is: How do people become secular? We asked the students about family background and how they were raised. Almost half the Secular group (49 percent) reported that they had attended religious services at least monthly when young. Only 28 percent were raised in irreligious families and never attended services. So we can conclude that the great majority of the Secular group comprises the “deconverted.”

* What, then, are the causes of this alienation from religion? Many conservative religionists have posited that higher education itself undermines faith and is the major cause of alienation from religion. We explored the differences among the worldview groups as to the courses of study they were following. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no statistical difference between the patterns of choices of academic majors between the Religious and Secular worldview groups.

* One indicator of alienation besides respondents’ personal theological beliefs, discussed later in this article, is that 70 percent of the Secular group agreed with the statement, “Looking around the world, religions bring more conflict than peace.”

* So what are the politics of this younger generation of Seculars? Because they have come of age during an era when the Republican Party has been dominated by the religious Right, it’s not surprising that very few are registered Republicans. As a result, the pattern of political party preference reflects a generational skew and the “God gap” that is typical of current politics. The Secular students were 57 percent Democrat, 25 percent Independent, and only 5 percent Republican; Other/Don’t Know were 12 percent. Perhaps a better gauge is their actual political views. These showed a little more diversity: 4 percent Conservative, 7 percent Libertarian, 11 percent Moderate, 44 percent Liberal, 20 percent Progressive, and 14 percent Other/Don’t Know.

Much to chew on there …

Edit: Had to bold the “deconverted” number. Amazing. Sad. A call to arms!


One problem with our current religious education is that it is oriented to children. We need to keep it accessible to children, and not set out to frighten them, the nicety-nice tone and soft pastel images of Sunday school handouts can easily lead to the belief that religion is for children, to be set aside in adulthood along with belief in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.