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Why are Young Ex-Christians Leaving Church?

By Rick Lawrence
Executive Director

Several years ago I interviewed Drew Dyck for GROUP Magazine, the youth ministry resource I edited for three decades (it’s no longer published, but the online version of it is youthministry.com). Drew is the former managing editor of Leadership Journal, the leading evangelical resource for pastors—today he’s an acquisitions editor at Moody Publishers and a contributing editor at CTPastors.com. He’s author of several books, including one that has a direct impact on our calling as ministry leaders—it’s Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Church…and how to Bring Them Back. In the book Drew explores why churched young people are jumping ship in droves (in the last five years, 25 percent have left the church). Here’s a short excerpt from my interview with Drew…

Rick: You got interested in exploring why young adults are leaving the church—why?
Drew: I saw a lot of [young people] leaving the church and maybe even leaving the faith. The story that kind of kicked it off for me was when a buddy that I’d known in high school came to visit me—he was a pastor’s kid, as am I. Over dinner he told me in a matter-of-fact way that he had left the Christian faith. Of course that got my attention. As a journalist I really wanted to have an in-depth conversation with young adults who’ve walked away from their faith altogether.

Rick: What did you discover as you dug into this?
Drew: First, I learned some of the stock responses that I’d heard about why they were leaving were wrong. For instance, I heard that young people are leaving the church because they want to dive into sinful lifestyles. You change your creed to match your conduct, so to speak. That’s certainly the case with some of them, but not for most of them. I also learned how critical it is for young people to have intergenerational relationships in the church. In other words, to have a connection with older, preferably mature, Christians. When that wasn’t in place, it was often the death knell for their faith. They would have a great experience in youth group, but then once they aged out of youth group they aged out of church because they didn’t have a connection with anyone outside that youth group.

Rick: In your book you talk about the different “species” of “Church-Leavers.” Can you give us a brief overview of each kind of Leaver and how they’re different from one another?
Drew: No two people who leave the faith are exactly alike, but as I did my interviews I did see some patterns emerge.

  • The first is what I call Postmodern Leavers—they’re people who reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. They feel like the Christian faith is just too narrow. And they have a worldview that doesn’t allow them to accept certain truth claims that the Christian faith makes. These are folks who have a great heart for the marginalized. They’re concerned about social justice, so obviously there are areas in which you can engage them.
  • The second type is the polar opposite—I call them Modern Leavers. These are people who care very much about reason and rationality—they believe science has proven that we don’t need religion, or that there is no God. God is a delusion. Any truth beyond science is superstition.
  • The third category is Recoiler Leavers—this covered a lot of people who’d had painful experiences with Christians or the church during their formative years. God had become guilty by association. When they grow up, they push away those people who hurt them, who are also kind of representatives of God. They just throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.
  • And the Neo-Pagan Leavers refers to those who leave the Christian church for Earth-based religions and spirituality, such as Wicca. These people deny a transcendent God and see the Earth or nature as the true focus of spirituality. One Wiccan priest that I talked to said that virtually every Wiccan convert that he knows was raised in the church, and many of them reject Christianity because it’s perceived as being sexist or patriarchal.
  • Then there’s Rebel Leavers—these are people who leave because the Christian lifestyle is just too hard for them to maintain. And so, instead of living as hypocrites, going to church and trying to maintain their faith while not living the lifestyle, they just change their creed to match their conduct.
  • The last category that I discovered is what I call Drifter Leavers. Just as it sounds, these are just folks who drifted away from faith. One study found that 77 percent of people who walk away from their childhood faith report just drifting away. It wasn’t some dramatic event that caused them to walk away. Over time they just don’t read the Bible, they don’t pray, they don’t go to church, and God, for all intents and purposes, is absent from their life.

Rick: Finally, in the book you talk about how trust is a major issue, relative to all of these species of Leavers—their trust has been broken with the church. Talk about why trust is such a tipping point with young people leaving the church.
Drew: Yeah, trust is a huge issue. There are some broader societal trends that have created this reality. So many in this young-adult generation have grown up in broken homes. They don’t have faith in the traditional nuclear family, and for good reason. They have seen the biggest institutions in America go bankrupt because of immoral practices. And they are all too aware of the economic hardships that they face. This is also the generation that’s seen clergy abuse scandals and a lot of corruption in the church. So they’re naturally suspicious of institutions, whether it’s marriage, the corporate world, or the church. Paradoxically, they are really longing for people they can trust—that’s why authenticity is such a seminal virtue for this generation. They want to know their leaders. They want to know that they struggle with things, that they’re real, that they’re not just an expert who can tell them what to believe about God, but someone who really does walk beside them.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith. He’s the general editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible, and author of 40 books, including The Jesus-Centered Life and the new daily devotional Jesus-Centered Daily.


Connect with our experienced ministry Coaching Team to help you assess, strategize, and create the kind of community and faith-formation environment that is magnetic, not repelling, to young adults. It’s free to chat with Vibrant Faith Coaching Director Jim Ladoux for 30 minutes about your coaching needs, and to learn more about Vibrant Faith’s coaching options.

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