This appalling statistic applies to a broad cross-section of the American public. My own work is with the Church of Christ, so I was fascinated to come across the results of an in-depth survey by Dr. Flavil Yeakley. Instead of taking a quick snapshot of the general public, as in the Barna study, Yeakley tracked several thousand young Christians over a number of years following graduation from high school.
Roughly forty percent were no longer faithful. This is miles ahead of the Barna result. Even better, twelve percent of the prodigals seem to return to the church in later adult life.
This is good news. We still mourn the loss of all those souls, of course, but at least the outlook is not all gloom and doom. And besides, we know that the way to heaven is narrow and hard to find (Matthew 7:13-14), and we know what Jesus taught about the soils (Matthew 13:3-9). Some attrition is to be expected, right? But then we have to remind ourselves that these are our kids growing in the soil of our congregations and our families. These are not the un-churched, hardboiled people of the world.
So how can we prevent or slow the exodus? Active, thriving youth groups are definitely part of the answer. Sociologists and psychologists tell us that teens need a sense of belonging and acceptance. For the most part, they will find this in a typical church youth group.
Unfortunately, the need for group involvement diminishes with growing independence. As parents, we want to see our children make it on their own, and work life or college life is a step in that direction. But the spreading of one’s wings means nothing if it involves an Icarus-like plunge into unfaithfulness and unbelief.
Every year we host a teen rally at the Alkire Road Church of Christ. It’s a humble affair, to be sure, but we were thrilled in 2011 to have Joe Wells of Focus Press. We wanted Joe because he would challenge our teens to fight for their faith. The actual rally topic may vary from year-to-year, but our thinking in the background has always been the same: How can we encourage our teens to make that precarious transition from youth group to faithful, adult Christians?
The church can help, but parents must bear the brunt of responsibility for raising their children (Proverbs 22:6, Ephesians 6:4). Carting our kids to and from church youth activities is a start, but it’s not enough.
Eighteen years of diligent teaching and preparation may not be enough, either. Of our Christian teens who attend a college affiliated with the Church of Christ, 85 percent remain faithful into early adulthood. Apparently, an extra four years of Bible teaching and Christian fellowship significantly improves their chances of remaining faithful in the long term.
The majority of losses occur among high school graduates who attend secular colleges, or never go to college at all. There are always notable exceptions. Some of our kids will thrive no matter where they go. And in many places, college ministries provide an essential lifeline to students who want to work and worship with the local church. However, in Yeakley’s estimation, many of our kids are leaving the church as soon as they leave home.
College students need to feel a part of the local church and campus ministry from day one. The first campus visit should include a trip to nearby congregations. Move-in day should apply just as much to the local church as it does to the dorm room. Parents should introduce their kids to an elder, preacher, deacon or other leader who cares dearly for the spiritual welfare of young college students in the area.
There has to be a place for God after the youth group. We cannot assume that our graduates will make this transition without our prayers and support.
[A version of this article appeared in Think, June 2012, p. 8.]
 The Barna Group, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Spiritually Active Teen Years,” September 11, 2006. [Online] http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/147
 Flavil Yeakley, Good News and Bad News: a Realistic Assessment of Churches of Christ, USA, 2008.
© 2012, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.