“So, tell me,” I ask, “why do you want to transition your church toward family ministry?”
“Well,” the pastor begins “nine out of every ten kids are dropping out of church after they graduate, aren’t they? Evidently, what we’re doing right now isn’t working.”
“Mm-hmm,” the children’s director agrees. “Eighty-eight percent is what they said at the conference a few weeks ago. We just want to do so much better than that.”
“Is your church actually losing that many?” I ask.
Both of them look at each other before shrugging.
“I—I don’t really know,” the pastor replies. “I mean, most of them, we don’t see after they graduate. Sometimes that’s because they’re involved in another church or they’ve plugged into a college fellowship, I guess. Sometimes they move away. I don’t think the church has ever actually done a survey or anything like that. It just seems to me that a lot of them do drop out.”
The children’s director nods and continues, “What we thought is that, if we had some programs to teach parents how to grow their kids spiritually, we could stop the dropouts before they happen.”
“I want to help your church,” I say to them. “And I will do everything that I can to help you. But first, I’m going to ask you to rethink your reasons for considering these changes. The problem that you think is the problem is probably not the problem at all.”
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had conversations of this sort with hundreds of church leaders. The denominations have differed, the locations have spanned the globe, and the churches themselves have ranged from minute rural chapels to suburban mega-churches. Yet the script inevitably runs something like this: Eighty percent, maybe even ninety percent, of students are dropping out of church after high school! Can you help us launch a family ministry program to fix this problem?
In these statements, ministers and church members are simply aping the conventional wisdom that they’ve heard at conferences and read in Christian books. According to these widely-proclaimed assumptions, one of the most pressing ministry problems is the high percentage of students whose church involvement can’t seem to persist more than a year past the pomp and circumstance of their high school processionals. A recent Internet search revealed nearly a quarter-million references to the infamous evangelical dropout statistic.
This shocking dropout statistic represents a starting point for all sorts of demands for modifications in ministry practices—including the launch of family ministry programs. The logic throughout most of these references runs something like this: The standard for youth ministry effectiveness is retention of students beyond high school, and an overwhelming percentage of students are dropping out after high school. Therefore, current strategies for youth and children’s ministries are clearly not successful. If only churches could come up with more effective ministry practices, they could fix the dropout rate and become more effective.
One author, in a self-proclaimed manifesto for the future of youth ministry, puts it this way:
Kids are dropping out of church after youth group at staggering rates. . . . There are flaws in many of our assumptions and methods. . . . While our thinking was correct—for its time—the world of teenagers has changed. . . . When you’re in a poor, rural country and see a horse-drawn wagon rolling down a dirt road, you think nothing of it. . . . But when you’re driving through Pennsylvania Dutch country and see a horse-drawn buggy rolling down a nice, paved road and holding up traffic, it seems as though something doesn’t fit. . . . Youth ministry today is the latter horse-drawn buggy.
In other words, the dropout rate demonstrates a flaw in our present practices, and our present practices are flawed because we haven’t kept up with the times. If only we can come up with ministry methods that fit more effectively within the culture, we can fix the dropout rate—until, of course, the cultural gales gust in some other direction, and the latest trend turns into one more horse-drawn buggy.
As I have consulted with these congregations, here’s what I have found in many churches: Congregational leaders see family ministry as a quick counterbalance for dropout numbers that they’ve heard at a conference. They perceive partnering with parents as a fix for the problem of a faith that can’t seem to last past the freshman year of college.
Perhaps you’ve read about the crisis too. Maybe you heard a speaker mention the dropout statistic at a recent conference. Perhaps that’s even why you are reading this post: You’re convinced that better partnerships between your ministry and the parents might provide the perfect solution to dismal retention rates. If so, I want to make a suggestion that may seem a bit radical at first: The dropout rate is not a sufficient reason to reorient your ministry practices.
Allow me to unpack why I’m making such a claim: First, it’s uncertain whether the rate of attrition that looms so large in our ecclesial anxiety closet even exists. And furthermore, even if a high dropout rate does exist, attrition rates represent an inadequate means for assessing ministry failure or success. To understand what I’m suggesting, let’s first take a closer look at the numbers behind the infamous evangelical dropout statistic.
In the first place, when did conference speakers first begin to claim that the vast majority of youth were exiting the church before their sophomore year of college? And was their research reliable?
The first references to the dropout statistic come from the late 1990s. That’s when a well-meaning speaker reported a post-youth group attrition rate of 90 percent.
And how did he obtain this number?
The speaker’s information was based on the “gut feelings” that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministers.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. Yet the communal hunch of a single group rarely results in a reliable statistic. In this case, an informal averaging of personal recollections resulted in a wildly overstated percentage that received tremendous publicity. As a result, over the past couple of decades, many youth ministries have leaped from one bandwagon to another, driven by the unsubstantiated estimates of a few youth pastors. Another popular percentage—88 percent—has been traced back to the estimates of two youth ministry experts, based on their own experiences.
So, why do the dropout percentages represent an insufficient reason to reorient your ministry toward an emphasis on family ministry? In the first place, it’s because many of these dropout numbers—particularly the nine-out-of-ten ratio—have little basis in fact. This infamous evangelical attrition rate does not rightly describe the present reality, and it probably never described any past reality.
Later claims escalated the hysteria. A popular book published in 1997 claimed that only four percent of young people surveyed at that time were born-again Christians. As a result, the author claimed, “According to present trends, we are about to lose eternally the second largest generation.” Never mind that the survey spanned only three states and included information from a mere 211 youth (to be fair, at least this author did admit his methodology); later leaders trumpeted this supposed trend as a harbinger of impending doom unless churches changed their ministry methods.
Throughout the early twenty-first century, news of dismal retention and evangelism rates among young adults continued to spread until nearly every youth and children’s minister heard how his or her ministry was destined to fail. And yet, very few of these claims were true. Even the handful of claims that were true were often misconstrued by the time they reached the pews.
So how many church-involved students actually do drop out in the months following their graduation ceremonies? The answer to this question depends largely on how you define church involvement. When involvement in a faith-community is defined as attendance in the past seven days, the young adult dropout rate is around 38 percent. When church involvement is defined as two months of attendance at any time during the teenage years, about 61 percent of young adults disengage from church after high school. When a research sample mixes frequent attendees with twice-a-month attendees, the dropout rate rises to 70 percent.
To be sure, even the moderated attrition patterns that I have reported here are not a cause for celebration. Yet the real dropout numbers vary widely, and they are affected by a range of factors that’s far broader than family ministry. This much seems clear, though: The real numbers are far removed from the spurious statistics that have been spouted from the platforms of far too many ministry conferences.
It’s easy to point accusing fingers at the sources behind these statistics—but the problem isn’t really the numbers themselves. These numbers arose from well-intended attempts to assess the effectiveness of church ministries. In some cases, even though the statistics were misapplied, the people who first promoted the numbers honestly reported their sources and methods.
The more problematic question is, “Why were we so willing to wallow in the worst possibilities, even when those possibilities were not well-founded?”
It’s partly because bad news quickly becomes big news. There’s something in our fallen nature that relishes the discovery of a hidden crisis. Once we think we’ve discovered a crisis, we rarely keep the news to ourselves. Bad news gets repeated and, with each retelling, it tends to get stretched a bit as well. That’s why God warned his people in the Old Testament, “Do not go about spreading slander” (Leviticus 19:16). God knows our human tendency to turn bad news into big news and then to exaggerate that news so it seems even bigger. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Rodney Stark and Byron Johnson provided a clear example of this phenomenon: “The national news media yawned over the Baylor Survey’s findings that the number of American atheists has remained steady at 4% since 1944, and that church membership has reached an all-time high. But when a study by the Barna Research Group claimed that young people under 30 are deserting the church in droves, it made headlines and newscasts across the nation.” Well-researched good news was ignored while the bad news quickly became a feature in major newspapers throughout North America.
The tendency to turn bad news into big news does not, however, completely explain how rapidly these numbers spread through evangelical churches. I suggest there was another reason as well: Ever since the 1950s, a fun-and-games approach had dominated many youth ministries. In the 1990s, a new generation of youth ministers was emerging. For these ministers, youth ministry was not a stepping-stone to something greater. These men and women were theologically-trained leaders who had responded to a divine calling to disciple youth. This rising tide of leaders found themselves frustrated with the assumption that still persisted in many churches—an assumption that a youth minister’s role was primarily to retain adolescents by entertaining them. The news that youth ministry had failed to keep students connected to the church resonated with these young leaders’ existing feelings of frustration. And so, news of a nine-out-of-ten dropout rate became a fixture in nearly every discussion of youth ministry.
In the end, this widespread frustration in the field of youth ministry did yield a few positive results. Among many youth ministers, frustration fueled the development of ministry strategies that were healthier than the fun-and-games approaches they had inherited. The results included family ministry models and approaches to youth ministry that emphasized discipleship, community, and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships.
The infamous nine-out-of-ten dropout statistic was a false alarm. Most likely, your congregation loses far fewer than that, and about half of the dropouts return within a few years.
But let’s suppose for just a moment that your ministry actually does have an abysmal attrition rate.
What if your church really is losing nine out of ten attendees when they graduate from high school? Should retention become one of your primary goals?
Here’s another way of asking the same question: Is ongoing church involvement really the truest metric of a ministry’s success?
During his days on the dusty roads of Judea and Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth seemed to have been notoriously unconcerned about retention and attrition rates. At one point, “a large crowd” of well over five thousand was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1-25). In contemporary terms, Jesus was well on his way to leading a mega church. Then, after one particular teaching session, the numbers of paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over ninety-nine percent!
And what did Jesus say to the handful who remained?
“Okay, guys, what can I do to improve my retention rates? If I don’t come up with a new ministry model, my Father will be so displeased with me! Let’s brainstorm a bit to figure this out.”
Not even close.
“Do you want to go away as well?” was what Jesus asked as thousands of former followers filed away; then he added, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil” (John 6:67, 70). A couple of years later, one Passover eve in the Garden of Gethsemane, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord, and the divine dropout rate veered toward one hundred percent (Mark 14:50–52; John 16:32).
At this rate, Jesus would likely have failed as a student minister. Yet, in all of this, the service of God the Son infinitely and perfectly pleased God the Father. Jesus remained the beloved one in whom the Father was well pleased (Mark 1:11; John 10:17). Even in the moments when his closest companions abandoned and denied him—in some sense, especially in those moments when “he was despised and rejected by men”—Jesus was fully fulfilling his Father’s will (Isaiah 53:3-11). It was our sin that spiked Jesus to the cross, not his attrition rates.
So what’s the problem with allowing retention rates to become the central focus in a ministry model? Simply this: It turns the visible growth and maintenance of a local congregation into the primary focus instead of Jesus and the gospel. When retention rates determine how we envision a church’s future, we have made too much of our own visions and dreams for the community of faith and too little of the One in whom we place our faith. Ministry leaders become visionary idealists seeking numeric gains rather than shepherds seeking to join in God’s mission and to equip God’s flock. In the process, we lose sight of the true vitality and value of the very community that we were planning to preserve.
Please don’t misread my point: The local, gathered community of faith is important. Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Ephesians 5:25–27). Whenever anyone drops out of active involvement in Christian community, the congregation is correct to be concerned! Yet neither numeric retention nor expansion should, in themselves, constitute the points of focus for reshaping a church’s practices. Jesus is the paradigm for the growth of God’s people (Philippians 2:5; Hebrews 12:2). The church is the body of Christ, and the church’s value and identity flow from the all-surpassing glory of Jesus (Ephesians 4:12–16; Colossians 1:24–27; 3:1–4). “Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this,” German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote. “We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.”
The goal of the gospel is not a human ideal of retaining members in a visible community; the goal is to call people to Jesus. And so, the crucial question is not, “How many participants have we retained?” but “Who has glimpsed the truth of Jesus and the gospel in what we are doing?” Retention rates aren’t the launching pad or the endpoint of God’s plan; Jesus is (Revelation 22:13).