Calling the SBC's bluff [a long post on ministering to statistics]

So I'm reading this article by the Southern Baptist Convention, and it says that 88% of teens are leaving the church by age 18, never to return again. Well, here's the actual quote:
In the course of researching family life in America, the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life uncovered such gut-wrenching statistics that they were driven to their knees. Among the facts they found: 88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18, never to return.
SBC, I'm calling your bluff. What research led you to those statistics?

I don't believe it's that high. My research in college said the percentage was somewhere in the 50's, and Tom, didn't you find it somewhere in the 40's? I don't believe it's become 88% in 2 years, AND I don't believe you can say something like "NEVER TO RETURN." Here's why:

1. Unless you surveyed people my grandma's age, you have no idea if they're never going to return. My guess is you looked at some research done in the last 5-10 years, which would give you subjects who are at most 28 years old. 28 is not an adequate age to say that they've made permanent decisions for their lives. Heck, I'm 24 and I can't even decide on what color nail polish to wear.
2. The research I did said that many of those who leave during their young adult years come back once they start raising a family.
3. They didn't provide any of their research, so I should believe it as much as I should believe that 88% of all statistics are made up.

Because this is a topic so close to my heart, I feel like I need to speak up about this: Publishing articles like this, with doom and destruction statements, facts that aren't backed up, and dramatic overstatements, is irresponsible. When I tried to find evidence of the 88%, all I could find were articles from other youth pastors who seemed to be in a panic. Is it important that we spread the message of Christ to teens? YES, but you can't base your reasoning to share the gospel on statistics. Christ didn't die for statistics.

Another thing to keep in mind [which Terry brought up to me a few months ago]: one of the key reasons it seems like the 18-30 crowd is missing [besides the fact that their numbers are lower] is because the 13-18 crowd is the largest crowd in the church. Barna states that one third of students participate in Christian groups at school, and 81% have attended church for a period of at least 2 months during their teen years. Teens are everywhere in churches, because they're drawn to the acceptance of Christ and the community of a Youth Group. When they go off to college or move away from home, they're on their own for the first time, and church is just another option. It's not that they've abandoned their faith; their lives have drastically changed, and they're trying to figure out things on their own for the first time. But we freak out and think it's the end all of end alls that numbers decrease.

Here's the thing, youth pastors: if you've done your job, if you've loved your kids like Jesus would, if you've built relationships, if you've ministered with integrity, your students will remember that, even if they're away from the church. People don't forget that kind of stuff, and sometimes part of growing up is walking the path of the prodigal for awhile. All we can do is love our kids and love Jesus, and we have to realize there's a bigger picture beyond our world, and God is the author and perfector of it all. We can't be God- we as youth pastors can't be God. However, we can step aside and let God move through our students, and when you experience something like that, it's impossible to completely turn away from it, never to return again.


Tom Carpenter said...

Right on! I cannot stand this statistic. It was this Southern Baptist statistic that first prompted Rick Lawrence to ask our Saturday Seminar if it was accurate or not. I went back to read through my paper and found that I came up with somewhere over 40%. But, that the majority of those came back eventually. (Either that or the church is doing an amazing job at bringing in new converts of people in their 30s-50s...highly unlikely). Most of that research came from Gallup.

The Barna research I found said it was around 60%, but when looking at some of their criteria I found it unreliable and unrealistic.

I loved your three points. I change my mind so much as well. I also have never heard of where they got their research...and I don't remember that Rick Lawrence knew either (which is why he was suspicious).

I never thought of what Terry brought up, but it makes a lot of sense. I have been wrestling through the question "where are all the people my age?" while at church for the past year. Do you think that if the church was setup in a different model that it would attract 20 somethings more? Or would it not really change anything?

Let's talk more about this.

Kara Szyarto said...

I'm thinking about the models thing. I was involved in a small group for awhile for people our age [I drove an hour for it, which is ridiculous, but some of my friends were involved in it]. It started as a book study, but we also took on local missions, discussed theology, and some higher-ups in the Methodist church came to us to see what was going on, because things were working well. I don't think the "big church" model is bad for people our age, but I think there needs to be that feeling of being connected and that sense of being the Church for the community. Let me think about it some, though.

I wish I had all the answers :) I feel like it can't be as hard as we make it out to be.

billy v said...

If you go to the Lifeway Research webpage, the actual statistics are 70% will leave for one year between the ages of 18-22. Of that 70%, 2/3 will return. I don't know who hijacked the statistics you mentioned, but I trust Ed Stetzer and his numbers when it comes to research. It is still important to think that 70% of students brought up in church are making some major life decisions during that time without a gospel influence.