Contemplating the Hemorrhage

The study, Hemorrhaging Faith, takes a look at “why & when Canadian young adults are leaving, staying & returning to the church” as the subtitle suggests. Broadly speaking it divides young adults who grew up in the Church into four categories, the Engagers who “still affiliate with a Christian tradition” (page 28), the Fence Sitters who “still have a Christian religious affiliation; however, more than 25% no longer indicate an identification with an organized religion” (page 28), the Wanderers and Rejecters who “have typically unhitched their spiritual identities from the traditions which they were raised” (page 29). The difference between the last two is that wanderers “tend to drift from the church whereas Rejecters tend to have some kind of scarring experience they feel has forced them out.” (page 29)

So, what to make of all this?

Optimism Galore

First things first. The wording of the study sounds, in my humble opinion, to betray an attitude of unwarranted optimism. With the enemy strutting through town, undeterred, what good news is there to find? They certainly sought whatever they could for this report. For instance, the subtitle (quoted above) promises to tell us about the stage when young adults return to the church. I found nothing in the report to indicate that young people are returning. Chart 4.7 shows a fairly steady decline in attendance as young adults continue to age, and, as the study says, “there is no discernible increase in attendance with age.”

The optimism continues with their some of their labels of the four spiritual groups they describe throughout the report. The image of a “fence sitter” is of a person torn between two options that they are equally drawn to. It is true that roughly 2/3 of fence sitters affiliate with some kind of Christian tradition (Chart 2.6) but it would seem that affiliation is difficult to take seriously. When it comes to Bible reading and prayer (Chart 4.9) and attending a church service (Chart 2.8) we see a night-and-day decline among “fence sitters” compared to engagers. 97% of fence sitters never, or hardly ever, read the Bible or pray and 87% seldom or never attend a religious service. The only thing “fence sitting” about this group is their self-identity, but even some of the rejecters still “affiliate” with Christianity despite clearly rejecting it according to the same chart, so it is hard to take self-described affiliation seriously in the absence of some kind of lifestyle indicators. If I describe myself as lover of great theatre but I haven’t seen a live show in years and I cannot name more than one or two of the classics, would you take my self description seriously? From all external appearances they are not sitting on the fence, they have crossed it and are frolicking in the field on the other side, occasionally glancing back over the fence to see what those they left behind might be up to.

Seen from this perspective, then, the study shows that roughly 77% of young adults leave the church and do not return, even if they still call themselves “Christian” out of some misguided sense of spiritual identity which – conveniently enough – makes absolutely no demands on their time or energy. Does that sound like “Christianity” as described in the Bible? Not to me it doesn’t. I may be presenting this with a somewhat pessimistic spin but I believe my perspective offsets an excess of optimism on the part of the study’s authors. Three quarters of young people who grow up in the church will leave, never to return. Them’s the facts, ma’am.

Interestingly, this is by no means the only study to come to such a startling conclusion. Here are a few similar conclusions from other studies. I have included only a quick sample of the data, there’s plenty more at the link below.

Data from the Southern Baptist Convention indicates that they are currently losing 70-88% of their youth after their freshman year in college. 70% of teenagers involved in church youth groups stop attending church within two years of their high school graduation.

88% of the children in evangelical homes leave church at the age of 18.

Nearly three out of every five young Christians disconnect from their churches after the age of 15.

Why the mass exodus?

What else can we learn from Hemorrhaging Faith? Well, it turns out that trying to find a “cause” for these apostasies is far from straightforward. One common theory is that young people leave the church because their faith is attacked in university. With this paradigm in mind one would assume that the engagers would have been attacked less (somehow avoiding that bullet) and the rejecters would have been attacked more. Chart 4.31 shows an almost even distribution across all four groups with greater than 50% of each group claiming to have been “exposed … to new ideas that challenged [their] faith.” In other words they were all equally likely to have their faith attacked but some of them stuck around and others did not. Now the attacks in school may still be a factor in some people’s abandonment of the faith, but it is interesting to note that almost 40% of the rejecters spiritual group claim not to have been exposed to new ideas that challenged their faith.

In fact, Barna research sheds a different light on this. According to Barna, myth number 3 about young adult church dropouts blames it on college. Rather,

… many young Christians dissociate from their church upbringing well before they reach a college environment; in fact, many are emotionally disconnected from church before their 16th birthday.

The article goes on to suggest,

… the university setting does not usually cause the disconnect; it exposes the shallow-faith problem of many young disciples.

This would seem to be consistent with the fact that just about every group of young person had an equal likelihood of exposure to faith-challenging ideas.

Another theory I’ve heard bounced around is that young adults are so busy they just slip away from church because of life commitments (school, career, etc). Chart 4.27 shows that every group experienced a decline in attendance due to lifestyle (with only minor fluctuations between the groups). Despite the hassles of life – which they all experienced to similar degrees – some stuck around and others did not.

Were they hurt by church leadership? Again, a very even distribution across all four groups, and a surprisingly low number claimed to have been hurt (Chart 4.33). Ironically, the engagers appear to have been the most hurt, yet they stuck around.

Could a church split do it with all the infighting and ungodly behavior they would see in their fellow Christians? Once again there is a fairly even distribution with, ironically, the engagers experiencing the highest likelihood of having gone through a church split (Chart 4.34).

A geographical move? Engagers were most likely to experience a move, and all categories are relatively low (Chart 4.30).

It seemed to me that many of the traditional explanations for why young people leave were suspect, based on this study.

Why men?

One of the results that most fascinated me, however, was the gender differences. This fascinated me on two levels. First, roughly twice as many women (65%) participated in this survey as did men (35%). The authors did comment in Appendix A that getting men to participate in surveys is a common problem. A little poking around the internet confirms this challenge, though it was hard to find a lot of data on the phenomena. At any rate, it is interesting that men are less likely to want to participate in a survey than are women, but that alone really doesn’t have any bearing on the content of the survey; it’s just interesting in its own right.

The second reason the gender difference was interesting to me was because in three of the four spiritual type categories the ratio of men and women was more or less an even split (Chart 2.7). The “rejecters” is the only category that bucks that trend; it is heavily weighted toward men. In fact, if we take the numbers presented in Chart 2.7 and we scale them to estimate what the numbers would have been if the ratio of men and women in the survey were roughly equal, 2/3 of rejecters are men. Engagers and fence sitters are slightly weighted toward women, wanderers are slightly weighted toward men and then the weighting is pretty heavily testosterone laden by the time we get all the way over to rejecters.

Other research confirms this trend. From the American Religious Identification Survey (2008) we get this interesting little demographic data; of those who do not affiliate with any religion (similar to the “rejecters” category) 60% are male.

Demographics of the "no religion" category in the USA.

Demographics of the “no religion” category in the USA.

This has a few other interesting implications. The distribution of the four spiritual types shown in Chart 2.5 was based on a study that involved far more women than men. If we look at the numbers on a per-gender basis (this is not presented in the study, I had to do the following extrapolation) we find very different results for both genders. What I found most interesting is the comparison of the engagers (most faithful) and the rejecters (most faithless) for men and women.

Female spiritual types

Female spiritual types, extrapolated from Hemorrhaging Faith data.

Women: 25% Engagers, 11% Rejecters (most of the rest are fence sitters)

Male spiritual types, extrapolated from Hemorrhaging Faith data.

Male spiritual types, extrapolated from Hemorrhaging Faith data.

Men: 20% Engagers, 20% Rejecters (the other two groups are evenly split)

In other words, for women the numbers come out weighted very heavily in favour of those with some kind of positive disposition to the faith (even if they have left it – a la fence sitters) whereas for men the numbers are pretty evenly split between those positive toward the faith and those negative toward it.

Or, if I can boil all these numbers down to a very sobering reality that the Canadian church needs to come face to face with, it would be this; the church is producing equal numbers of men who show up on Sunday mornings, read their Bibles and so on, as it is producing men who actively want nothing to do with the church and usually nothing to do with God. For every Canadian adult man sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning there is another Canadian adult man who has openly, actively and deliberately rejected the church and what it stands for. And, of course, there are many others who refuse to go to Church, but aren’t quite so hostile as the rejecters. Let’s not forget that 3/4 of young people in the church leave and never return.

We’re doing something quasi-right for the women (after all, a “mere” 75% of women leave the church), but apparently we are really messing things up for the men (a full 80% of them leave). In fact, let me part company from the survey for a moment and offer some personal hypotheses. No, I have no hard data to back any of this up. According to the survey there are a large number of people who claim some kind of affiliation with Christianity but they cannot be bothered to do any of the usual “Christian activities” like going to church or reading their Bibles. Is the inverse also true? Are there people who not only claim affiliation with the Church, but participate in it, yet they aren’t “fully on board” in a manner of speaking? They go through all the motions but their enthusiasm has, shall we say, deteriorated. I theorize that there are a large number of men who do, in fact, participate in all the usual “Christian activities” but are not, deep down, particularly convinced of it all. Perhaps they oblige their wives or their parents. Perhaps they are persuaded that there is some kind of deep truth to this whole Jesus-thing, but they find the present expressions of faith confusing, misguided or just out of tune with their masculine nature. Church is on one frequency and they are most decidedly, per God’s design for men, on a completely different frequency.

I recall a conversation I once had with a group of men who were all part of the same “care group” as I was during which we fantasized about creating an “I don’t care group.” We were sick of the excess estrogen levels and the obvious feminine take on spirituality that left us scratching our heads, biting our tongues and politely going along with all of it. We go along with the church ministries. We faithfully bring our families every Sunday. We “participate” in our care groups, but honestly, we’re not fully on board with all of this. We just refuse to do what so many other men have obviously done; walk away from something that makes little sense to us.

In fact, one of the gentlemen present in that discussion about the “I don’t care group” no longer affiliates with Christianity. Coincidence?

One irony in all this is the fact that so many in the Church are still wringing their hands over the Church’s apparent PR problem with women. In the past decades/centuries we have made significant changes, and we continue to change, in order to create a more female-friendly church. At the same time as we have been doing this, however, men have been slipping out the back door. I’m not suggesting we backtrack on changes that have been made with respect to the women, but perhaps it’s time to start asking, “how can we make church more attractive to men?” Or, perhaps it would be wiser to ask, “What part of God’s plan for men have we overlooked?”

Closing thoughts

3/4 of Christian women and 4/5 of Christian men leave the church, never to return. Young men are just as likely to actively, spitefully reject God as they are likely to keep coming to church. What are we doing wrong? How do we begin to fix it? How do we fix the “man problem” without undermining whatever it is that inspires the (few remaining) women to stick around?

Personally, I have a passion for Apologetics, as do many of the (mostly male) members of our humble group. I see Apologetics as a key part of the solution. If we can remind people of the truth of Christianity then people are less likely to drop out if it is uncomfortable or happens to not make total sense at this particular moment. I can walk away from something I don’t like, but it’s much harder to walk away from something I am convinced is true.

Furthermore, Apologetics helps to answer the difficult questions that confront our faith. The problem of evil. The problem of suffering. The hiddenness of God. We take these issues seriously and we wrestle with them deeply instead of just telling people to “have more faith” and “focus on relationship.”

Lastly, Apologetics taps into the deeply rational, intellectual, side of humanity. This tends to appeal to men (and many women too, of course). As a general rule men are less likely to get fired up with some poetic worship song than they are to get fired up about investigating the deeper matters of faith, wrestling through difficult issues, tackling a challenge and so forth.

For all these reasons Apologetics is part of the solution. Yet it is only a part. I believe that a church that fails to teach its members how to defend the faith is failing them, but so would a hypothetical church that spent too much of its time on this particular discipline. We need to maintain balance and right now we are obviously out of balance. But let’s not tip over the other direction either.

Apologetics may be part of the solution, but I do not know what the full solution looks like. However, it seems obvious that there is one course of action that we simply cannot take; whatever we have been doing up until now. Some kind of change is necessary.

[A quick disclaimer is in order. Due to time and interest constraints in my own life I have not read every line of every page of this report. Some sections I read in detail and other sections I skimmed. I believe I have accurately reflected the content and results of this report insofar as I address them, but the possibility exists that I have misspoken on some point. I am open to correction. However, if I have erred, we must ask if the nature of my error detracts from the points I make in this little review. I doubt they would, but, again, I am open to discussing these issues.]

About Paul Buller

Just some guy with a variety of eccentric interests.
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