Faith at Altitude

Religion and spirituality in the shadow of Pikes Peak

Friday, January 19, 2007


I admit it: I'm a stat wonk.

I love stories where I get to toss around numbers and percentages and rates of incline or decline. I get into that stuff. Odd, considering I'd rather lose a couple of fingers than sit in an eighth-grade math class again.

So I find looking into the stats behind "Boomerang Believers" pretty interesting. The study most helpful to this particular story, I found, was one conducted by The Barna Group, an evangelical research company out of California. The primary poll I used can be found here.

But while it's true that folks tend to leave church following high school and often return once they have families of their own, that doesn't tell the whole story. While my article talks about some personal reasons why people tend to gravitate away from church during their 20s, it only briefly mentions that some of those folks don't come back again, and it doesn't get into all the sociological and theological factors at play for the folks who don't "boomerang."

Steve Watters of Focus on the Family talked about the other factors that might keep people from returning to church. For one, he suggests that as people wait longer to get married and have children, their time away from the church grows, too, making it less likely they'll go back. He believes that, in faith cultures where people tend to marry younger -- say, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) -- young adults are more likely to stay in church.

I don't have any stats to back up this hypothesis, but from what I've heard anecdotally from local Mormons, that's probably true. It's also worth noting that Latter-day Saints funnel huge amounts of time and effort into their youth, encouraging them to attend daily faith classes when they're in high school and then, often, shipping them off to serve as missionaries.

Latter-day Saints are taught during their teen years about the importance of their faith. In comparison, a study done by the University of North Carolina suggested that most teens just don't feel like religion is all that important: Yeah, they tend to go to church, but faith is something that ticks along in the background.

I ran across another stat that admittedly has no direct bearing on this story, but one I found interesting: According to Baylor University's comprehensive 2006 religion survey, 39 percent of folks between ages 18-30 say they are evangelical protestants -- significantly higher than the 33 percent of the overall U.S. population that would classify themselves as such. While the rising level of non-belief has deservedly gotten attention (18.6 percent of those 18-30 are "unaffiliated," more than double the rate of unbelief overall), that evangelical-centric stat may wind up being just as significant a decade or two from now.

It's worth a story, I think. So, when you read about it later, remember you read it here first.


Anonymous Steve Watters said...

Paul, it was great to discover this blog through the Christianity Today blogpost about changes in religion coverage at the Dallas Morning News. Thanks again for running a story on the potential family life stage connection to the problem of young adult church participation. I'll keep you posted if I come across anymore stats or anecdotes along these lines.

11:40 AM  

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