This article first appeared Oct. 10 in World on Campus.
Travis Thompson grew up going to church with his family in Charlotte, N.C. He attended youth group to socialize with people his own age, and went on yearly ski trips with them. After high school, Thompson went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He got his degree in Biology and got rid of church.
Thompson's disenchantment with the church began in high school.
"I would ask questions, and they would just say it's not important, or have faith," he said.
Late during his junior year of college, Thompson decided to stop going to church.
According to a research study recently released by the Barna Group, a company that provides resources for churches and non-profits, Thompson is just one of a majority of young Christians who are choosing to walk away from the faith of their childhood. During the five-year study, researchers discovered that 59 percent of young Christians disconnect from church life, either permanently or for a long period of time, after age 15.
The project included eight national studies conducted among teenagers and young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. Those polled were active in a Christian church during their teen years.
David Kinnaman, president of Barna and head of the study, said he was interested in how young people were thinking through their faith in a new way. During the study, he wanted to find out why people choose to accept or abandon their childhood faith.
But Kinnaman found a deeper story to the numbers. The social technology changes in today's culture and consumer way of life, reminded him of the biblical pattern of Babylon. Young people in the church are questioning how Christians are to live out their faith in light of this culture, he said.
Kinnaman expected to find a common reason motivating people to leave the church - a smoking gun. Instead, the study found six themes that explain why younger generations are dissatisfied with the church.
In the broadest of terms, young adults wrestle with critical questions, and don't always feel like they get answered. Thompson said when he questioned different beliefs about the church, he always felt like he was given a generic answer with no logic behind it. Thirty-six percent of those polled in the Barna study said they felt they couldn't ask their most pressing life questions in church.
Kinnaman said he learned a lot about the church's struggle to connect with young adults because of their unprecedented access to other worldviews and pop culture. He worries Jesus is going to "get lost in the data strain." Kinneman analyzes the findings of the study and its implications for the church in his new book "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church."
But some churches are getting it right, Kinnaman said. Successful churches are aware of the digital culture and are trying to help young people in that realm, without making technology an idol, he said. Those churches show young people how to live in the world, but not be of it, he said.
The Barna research showed that young people want to talk about everything. For them, no subject is taboo, from sexuality to culture, the exclusivity of Christ, technology and pop culture.
Kinnaman said in reality it's not about the church organizing young people into hip clubs, but rather, helping young adults understand the community of faith as something that matters in "a way far more compelling than we've allowed them to experience."
During the next six days, World on Campus will explore the six major themes of the Barna Group research. Here's a sampling of what young Christians had to say about the church:
- Christians demonize everything outside the church (23%)
- The church ignores the problems of the real world (22%)
- The church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful (18%)
- The Bible is not taught clearly or often enough (23%)
- God seems missing from my experience of church (20%)
- Christians are too confident they know all the answers (35%)
- Churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in (29%)
- The church's teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date (40%)
- The church forces me to choose between my faith and my friends (29%)
- I am not able to ask my most pressing life questions in church (36%)
Read the rest of the stories about the Barna Group study: