Belonging to church has always been and continues to be a really important part of my life. Yet according to the 2008-09 International Social Science Survey, seven out of every 10 Australians who attended church monthly or more when aged 11 drop out of church life once they become adults. Why is it that we retain so small a proportion of childhood attenders?
The question is quite pointed for those of us in Australia for our dropout rates are much higher than the UK or the United States (71% of childhood attenders in Australia versus 57% in the UK and 47% in the USA) and young people who drop out in Australia are much more likely to say they no longer see themselves as Christians (46% young people in Australia versus 29% in the UK 25% in the USA).
The problem is long-standing. Across each ten year age cohort from 20 to 69 the dropout rate was between 69% and 83%. So it’s not a case of churches suddenly starting to lose all their young people when they retained them in the past. Rather it seems that for the last 70 years at least we’ve been losing people at pretty much the same rate. And nearly all of them are dropping out in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
There is then something about the way we are doing faith together that is failing to convince 7 out of every 10 people that it’s worthwhile sticking around. The challenge seems to be twofold. On the one hand half of those who drop out still consider themselves to be people of faith. For this group belonging to church simply doesn’t provide sufficient utility to make it worthwhile to continue belonging. The other half of those who drop out no longer consider themselves Christian. Despite belonging to our faith communities as children as they move into adulthood they are not convinced that Jesus is worth following.
This suggests we need to do some hard rethinking about how we help children transition to adulthood as people of faith and who find the church worth belonging to. If you’re one of the three in 10 of us who has stayed, I’d be interested to know why it is you stay. If you’re one of the seven in 10 who have left, I’d be keen to hear why you have done so.