Protestants face a critical dropout problem. An appallingly high number of young people stop going to church and Sunday school, and their interest in spiritual matters declines drastically.
This raises some disturbing questions. What causes youth to lose interest in spiritual things? Is it lack of home training? Then why are there dropouts from Christian homes? Are church programs that lack youth appeal to blame? Then why do some churches with many activities for their younger members still lose them? At what age does the retreat from church and Sunday school, and from such basic Christian disciplines as Bible reading and prayer, begin? Are dropouts permanently lost to Christianity and the church? Is this problem faced only by evangelicals, or are churches of other theological persuasion also confronted with it?
Such queries stem from more than curiosity. They reflect a concern for the total outreach of Christianity and a burden to meet the needs of youth in the critical adolescent years. For a church or Sunday school to broaden its base and increase its outreach, it has to do more than attract new people; it must also retain those it already has. If it loses some while gaining others, at best it is at a standstill.
The first question is, then: What causes youth to drop out of Sunday school and church? Of several possible answers, possibly the chief one is that Christian training and encouragement in the home are inadequate. Everyone knows that parental example plays a tremendous role in determining the character of young people. Yet too few parents seem to take this seriously enough. Easy-going adjustment to the common, everyday evasions and the prevalent lack of self-restraint vitiate the God-given role of fathers and mothers in the spiritual nurture of youth.
A recent survey of 600 Sunday school dropouts in Topeka, Kansas, revealed that only a handful came from homes where one or both parents attended Sunday school (“How to Build a Better Sunday School,” by Harold Garner, Moody Press, 1965). On the other hand, 90 per cent of those young people who remained in school, progressing through the various departments, had parents who were active church members. The Sunday schools seem unable to hold children if home support is lacking.
As for evangelical churches, a study of their dropouts made in 1962 by the National Sunday School Association revealed that 70 per cent of 331 teen-age quitters were from families where at least one parent was not a Christian (Link, Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., 1963). And one minister with many years of pastoral experience commented in this survey that high school youth from merely nominal Christian homes are as likely to leave church as those from non-Christian homes.
However, church activity and Christian dedication are not enough. Parents must also show understanding and love for their adolescent children and deep personal interest in them. If a Christian parent shows by his actions that he is not really interested in his teen-age son or daughter, if he constantly nags at him and argues with him, that parent’s example of zealous church activity may do little to keep his child in church. Moreover, forcing teen-agers to attend numerous church services every week against their will sometimes causes them to rebel against attending any. Indeed, parental hypocrisy was the second main reason for quitting church given by young people in the NSSA survey.
Are there some dropouts from homes where parents are active, dedicated Christians and where there is real understanding and communication between parents and adolescents? There are indeed. For other factors beside the home contribute to the churches’ loss of teen-agers. Surely one of these is the failure of the church program to interest youth and to relate the Bible to their needs.
“I got bored with the Sunday school class. It did not speak to my needs,” said an Indiana high school graduate who comes from a Christian home. A Mississippi dropout remarked: “I don’t feel free in class to say what I really think.” “Until I was in junior high school, I loved Sunday school,” a nineteen-year-old boy stated, “but from then on it was just so much repetition.” Lois, a sixteen-year-old, said, “For the last two years I’ve had such dull teachers. The lesson was lectured in a monotonous voice.” A California boy commented that churches “do not deal with nor face the real problems of living.” Many high school young people also complain that their teachers are unprepared.
One hundred Lutheran youths, forty-one of whom were dropouts, gave reasons like these confirming the other surveys: “It was uninteresting”; “class was boring”; “I didn’t learn anything”; “it was the same old thing”; “we were never challenged to think” (Interaction, May, 1965). In other words, the teacher makes or breaks a class. It is his clear duty to be prepared and to make the lessons interesting by encouraging lively discussions, by relating the Bible to life, and by avoiding needless repetition. An eighteen-year-old mused, “I suppose it would take a keen teacher to satisfy a bunch of high school kids.” How right he is!
As for church services, the dropouts questioned by the NSSA complained, surprisingly enough, that they were too informal. (The churches represented were evangelical.) And, as would be expected, they also said that pastors were not preaching on subjects that appeal to young people.
In discussing youth meetings, the church-deserters said the meetings were unplanned and disorderly (a judgment revealing the adolescent need for a structure of authority), dealt with uninteresting subjects, had poor adult leadership, lacked variety, and were deficient in serious Bible study. Here again, irrelevance shows up as the cause of fading interest. Not surprisingly, there is at this point a parallel with a major cause of public school dropouts. As a statement from the head of the Maryland State Department of Education puts it, “Young people who drop out of high school see little relationship between the activities of school and the lives they now lead or expect to live.”
Secularizing influences in colleges and universities may also contribute to the problem. The presence of other family members in Sunday school and church encourages youth attendance. More than half of the forty-one Lutheran dropouts—but only 5 per cent of those still in Sunday school—reported that no other members of their families attended Sunday school. When a young person goes away to college, he is no longer under encouraging family influences. And the busy college schedule may tend to crowd out Sunday school and church attendance.
Moreover, campus opinion on this matter may be unfavorable; many college students seem to feel that church attendance is beneath them and that they can get along very well without it. Such attitudes are nourished by professors who downgrade Christianity, or fellow students who ridicule those who stand up for Christian convictions, or textbooks in which supernatural religion is questioned. Christian young people in college (and in high school too) may also be swayed by the prevalent materialism (“Get all you can while the getting’s good”), or by humanistic self-sufficiency (“We don’t need God; we’re doing O.K. without him”), or even by immorality and fatalism (“Eat, drink, and live as you please, because you may die sooner than you think”).
With such philosophies constantly put before the minds of young people, a gradual dulling of the spiritual senses is likely, even among Christian youths. For those already spiritually weak, the results may be disastrous.
Still another factor in the problem of teen-age dropouts is the nature of adolescence itself. Surveys reveal that the most common age for young people to quit church is sixteen. Adolescents are trying out their independence. Their desire for being on their own, for making their own decisions, brings about an overt rejection of authority, although inwardly they may still crave it. “Young people,” one writer has explained, “are trying to determine their own set of values apart from the family group. Sometimes they consider the church just an extension of the family control. So in their bid for complete freedom they often feel they must break with the church too.”
The second major question in this matter of spiritual dropouts is: Do dropouts return to church? Seeking an answer to this, I surveyed 253 young adults of five denominations in the greater Chicago area. One out of five reported he had dropped out of church at one time. The average period for staying out was five years, though the time ranged from less than a year to fourteen years. Thus it may be concluded that some dropouts do return.
Why did these return? Twelve of the thirty-nine who answered this question said they returned because they “got saved,” or “became a Christian,” or “got right with the Lord.” Seven reported an awareness of a spiritual need or a renewed interest in church. Six young married couples cited interest in providing spiritual training for their children. Four returned because of the influence of a fiancé or spouse. The conclusion is obvious but important: There is a correlation between church attendance and a personal relation to God through Christ. Evangelism is thus one of the most important answers to church dropouts.
Do the more liberal as well as the evangelical churches face the dropout problem? According to the NSSA survey, one out of six teen-agers in evangelical churches quits. But J. Edgar Hoover has reportedly stated that seven out of eight teen-agers in America leave the churches, including evangelical, liberal, Catholic, and Jewish congregations. This suggests that liberal churches may have an even larger share of dropouts than evangelical churches.
Helen Spaulding, in Youth Look at the Church (Bureau of Research and Survey, Department of Youth Work, National Council of Churches), states that nearly half of 1,311 youth and young adults interviewed dropped out. She gives the following reasons for dropouts: Church was boring and unchallenging; young adults had marriage and family responsibilities; the youth or young adult organizations were geared to single persons; the dropouts’ spouses were not interested in church; the hours of employment interfered with church activities; student activities vied for time and interest; the young people became too adult for the youth group; the youth in church were not friendly. Familiar reasons, all of them, and similar to those voiced by respondents to the NSSA survey!
The final question we must ask is: How can dropouts be prevented? I believe that we desperately need to do these things:
First, we must rethink our ministry to families. Without the influence of Christian parents, much of our effort to retain potential dropouts may fail. For too long many churches have neglected one of their most vital responsibilities—that of ministering to families, of helping parents fulfill their responsibility of providing Christian education in the home. Other churches might well follow the example of a Chicago church that is conducting after-church Sunday night forums on the problems of parents with teen-age children.
Again, our educational ministry to youth in the dangerous dropout years must be upgraded. Sunday school teachers and youth workers are needed who are spiritually dedicated, interested in youth, and willing to spend time with them. We must have adults who can teach the Bible enthusiastically and creatively and who can relate it to the problems of today’s adolescents. Bible study sessions must be brain-ticklers, not sedatives. Sunday school teachers must challenge high school youth to interact with the truth. The day when young people would respond to a merely entertaining youth program is over; they are asking for programs with intellectual depth and sparkle.
Young people yearn for opportunities to serve and to feel themselves a part of the church. Any dropout prevention campaign must encourage their active participation in such things as church discussions, choirs, athletic teams, and community service projects.
Finally, we must develop a more aggressive ministry to college youth. We should mail them the weekly church bulletin, write to them, urge those at home to pray for them. They should be encouraged to become active in a church near their college and in a Christian fellowship group on campus—Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, or their denominational student ministry. We should fortify their faith by providing them with good Christian literature on apologetics, Bible doctrines, Christian living and service, and witnessing. And churches in college communities should maintain an active Christian witness to college students, welcome them to all services and activities, and show them hospitality in the homes of the members.
The waning interest of many young people in spiritual matters can be reversed. But to do so will take a far greater measure of careful planning and self-sacrificial service than the churches have yet put forth.
TREE OUTSIDE MY WINDOW
Dropping your spent leaves
On the grass
Nor brooding over things
Brushing the sky’s
Sun-crowned by day,
Starlit by night,
You stand—God’s witness
Of grace, given
Firm ground whereon to grow
O towering Tree!
Whose roots run deep
To reach life’s spring,
Whose branches sweep
Up to light’s very source.…
Stand tall too
With thoughts lifted high
Gazing where boughs
Of a great tree
M. WHITCOMB HESS
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