The Boomerang Effect

Why some students leave the faith–and why some may come back–in emerging adult years

Matt Westbrook | Apr 11, 2006

As you and your high school seniors are preparing for graduation, you all share something in common – you’re wondering what will happen to them after they leave your youth ministry. Imagine this scenario: Rachel, Susanne and David are 18-28 year-olds in their “emerging adult” years with much in common beyond just their life stage. [[Chap Clark gives this stage of life another name: late adolescence. See Chap Clark. Hurt: Inside the world of today’s teenagers, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004). The term “emerging adulthood” comes from Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Lene Arnett Jensen. “A Congregation of One: Individualized religious beliefs among emerging adults.” Journal of Adolescent Research, (Vol 17:5, 2002), 451-467.]] They each come from families with one or both parents religiously active. The three have likely been to college (if not graduated), or have at least moved away from the daily support system of home and the network of community life they experienced as teens. All of them have internalized a great deal of what we have popularly called “post-modernity.” For them, this means that, as a personal value, they believe it is their right—even their duty—to make decisions for themselves, independent of what “authorities” and “institutions” tell them to believe.

Last, and most importantly for us as youth workers, they all have left their original faith at some point during these “emerging adult” years.

If you are a youth worker, this is no shock to you. You have seen this many times in your ministry, and painfully, even in kids you were sure were on the right track in their relationship with God. In the research world, we call this faith attrition, meaning individuals leaving the faith of their youth and doing one of the following: embracing other faiths; settling for a perpetual state of doubt or uncertainty or questioning (often called agnosticism); outright denial of faith of any kind (atheism); or coming up with a hybrid of many faiths, perhaps even including in an a la carte way portions of the faith that youth workers (and perhaps parents) thought they had delivered faithfully to the youth in their care.

As youth workers, we know this and we hand-wring, worry, read books discussing counter-strategies, try to get our hands on other materials (maybe like this article?!), or, as is more likely the case, try to put it out of our minds as either too painful to deal with or as someone else’s problem.

If you have been concerned about this for a while, or if you are one of those pioneering and cutting-edge youth workers trying to do family (i.e.: holistic) ministry, you know that there are no quick, ready-made answers to this question. The issues are too complicated for neat solutions. Instead, what I hope to give you in this article is some food for thought about what it might mean to do family ministry, what broad cultural issues are at play, what you might expect from youth leaving your care both in the short and long terms, and a deeper approach (and more serious strategy) regarding those in your ministries.


We’ll start with a surprise. The three youth I mentioned in the opening paragraph? Rachel was raised Jewish, David Catholic, and Susanne was raised in an evangelical Protestant church. Jewish, Catholic and Protestant scholars all report attrition in their youth at alarming rates. [[This was the subject of a recent conference at the University of Southern California (USC) called Faith, Fear and Indifference: Constructing religious identity in the next generation. The conference was held October 11-12, 2004 on the USC campus and featured scholars from all three religious traditions.]] This should be both comforting and disturbing for all of us. As a comfort, each of us can rest in the fact that it’s not something intrinsic to our faith that is the problem. Yet it probably makes us cringe that the world we often envision when we come up with ministry strategies, a world culture we have analyzed (and often opposed) in various ways and strategies in our youth programs, affects us in ways we still don’t understand.

Putting attrition in perspective: A society of individual choice

The independent religious spirit we examined briefly in our three emerging adults is a trait shared by most Americans. [[Wade Clark Roof and Lyn Gesch. “Boomers and the Culture of Choice: Changing Patterns of Work, Family and Religion” in N. Ammerman and W.C. Roof (eds.), Work, Family, and Religion in Contemporary Society, (New York: Routledge, 1995), p. 61-79. The authors cite a Gallup poll that showed that 81% agree that “one should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of a church or synagogue,” p. 63. All discussion in this essay of Baby Boomer research is taken from this article.]] In our country, we tend to believe that individuals should choose their religion. The sticking point, of course, is how that value plays out in real life. Among Baby Boomers in the late 1980’s, for instance, Roof and Gesch [[Ibid. The findings here were roughly the same even by geographic region (California, Ohio, Massachusetts and North Carolina were the states surveyed). Individual choice has been identified in various studies over the years as an important value to Baby Boomers. Among this same group of Boomers, for instance, 68% of those identifying as family attenders and 87% of those identifying as religious individualists agreed with the following statement: “An individual should arrive at his or her own religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue.”]] show that those surveyed were split roughly down the middle when it came to this question: “Is it important for you to attend church/synagogue as a family or should family members make individual choices about religion?” While they surveyed adults who are twenty years older than the students who are graduating from our ministries, their categories and findings have implications for us today.

Family Attenders (55% of respondents) are those who felt that families should attend church together (i.e.: whether the kids like it or not). In contrast, Religious Individualists (45% of respondents) are those who felt that family members should make their own choices about religion. [[Family Attender will be abbreviated as FA and Religious Individualist as RI through the remainder of the article.]] Their research showed that various life situations seemed to affect whether you were more likely to be a Family Attender or a Religious Individualist. For instance, if you were married, had children, were close to your parents growing up, if your parents were religious, if you delayed having children, and were in an established career, you were more likely or tended to be a Family Attender. If you were divorced, if your parents were not religious, if you had children early (whether married or not), or if you worked in a clerical job, you were more likely or tended to be a Religious Individualist. [[These general descriptors of FA’s and RI’s should be understood as tendencies, not hard and fast predictors.]]

Yet both groups share the belief that—at least eventually—people need to make their own choices about religion. They also shared two other traits. First, approximately 90% of each of the groups had been active in Sunday School and congregations as kids. Roof and Gesch point out that this is higher than any generation before them. [[Roof & Gesch, 1995. p. 68.]] Second—and this is important to our topic—each reported massive attrition (for at least two years) beginning in their late teens and early twenties. Catholics and Protestants, conservatives and liberals left the church in droves (each over 50%, similar to FYI figures in our College Transition Project among Protestants) [[See Kara Powell and Krista Kubiak, “When the Pomp and Circumstance Fades: A Profile of Youth Group Kids Post-Youth Group”, YouthWorker Journal (September 2005]]) during this period, not unlike Rachel, Susanne and David. That can be considered a mass exodus. Sorting Roof and Gesch’s data by Religious Individualists and Family Attenders, you get the following statistics [[The table is reworked, based on Roof and Gesch, 1995 data (p. 69), to show the percentage of how many Boomers in their sample ended up as church attenders later in life.]] :

As we see from Figure 1, in the survey data of Baby Boomers from Roof and Gesch, 60% of Mainline Protestants who grew up in the church were in the church (i.e.: had either never left or came back) beginning in their adult years (i.e.: post-emerging adult years). Seventy percent of Conservative Protestants and 55% of Catholics were as well. So, yes, we lose a great deal of our students in the years 18-30 or so, but the majority of those who left end up coming back. That’s good news for weary youth workers wondering if what they do really has lasting effects.

But that’s not the whole story (it never is, is it?). According to our table, FA’s and RI’s return to their faiths at very different rates. Look at Figure 1 again. FA’s returned to their faith in significantly higher rates that RI’s. As Roof and Gesch describe:

Those who think families should attend religious services together were more likely to stay involved throughout their young adult years, and far more likely to return, if they dropped out. Those who think each family member should make independent decisions are more likely to decide to leave entirely, and far less likely to return. [[Roof and Gesch, 1995, p.69.]]

Take a moment to think about the families in your church in terms of the paradigms given here. How many of your kids have an FA paradigm working in their family? An RI paradigm? How many are coming to church because their parents—themselves religiously active or not—want them to be there? How many have parents who are strongly active in the church?

Now let’s come back again to the data and examine that “magic” adult stage when so many individuals return to the church. Why do they do it? Well, the numbers for the “why” question differ significantly by FA and RI (wouldn’t you know it?): for FA’s it turns out that having a religiously active spouse helps a great deal (84% returning); compared with 30% for RI’s with religious spouses. Even more broadly, just being married at all helps (66% FA’s and 24% RI’s returning). Kids bump you to 90% if you are an FA, 41% for an RI. [[Roof and Gesch, 1995, p. 70. I know it’s easy here to focus on the differences between RI’s and FA’s and to “pass judgment” on one or the other. But remember, even the return rates for RI’s are significant. Regarding the role of religiously active spouses in the marriage: the authors make certain to point out that the spouse of this generation is not the family spiritual guardian; rather, they function best as mutual inquirer and seeker, “in a faith that ‘fits’ their own lives and family situations” (p. 76).]] A word of caution: these aren’t the only reasons people return, but they are significant ones. [[Some other reasons emerging adults are likely to return include that they have been married once (as opposed to multiple times) or their spouse is of the same faith.]]

Ministry Possibilities and Qualifications

Do these figures suggest anything to you about family ministry possibilities? Though you might be feeling pretty excited about the numbers, we all know that we can’t simply force people into being Family Attenders. That’s a recipe for losing members, and fast. After all, this “life cycle” (i.e.: people return to church when they are older and settled) holds more easily for some of the people you want to reach, but definitely not for all. In fact, what if a student in your youth group has parents who are “mixed faith”? Maybe the dad is Jewish but the mom attends your church—with her daughter—faithfully every week. Religious choice for this family is absolutely crucial to keeping the family together. Or what about divorced families who are dealing with multiple dynamics when it comes to “choice”? As you already know, ministry is messier than that.

In addition, there are some other qualifications that we need to be aware of as youth workers. It turns out that Christian RI’s are drawn more to the person of Jesus, especially as “liberator” and “challenger.” [[Ibid., p. 72.]] This is in contrast to images of Jesus as caring “Shepherd” held by FA’s. FA’s tend to hold to more conventional religious styles as well; RI’s see themselves as “more spiritual than religious” (I bet you have heard that one before). So perhaps some of the numbers of those who return can be explained, at least in part, by the “institutionalness” of the churches they left or that they have to choose from currently and how that institutionalness appeals to (or repulses) various types of people.

So how do we open the door to both crowds? Roof and Gesch suggest that churches should see themselves not as institutions of “social control” or indoctrination, but rather as institutions of “social support”. [[Ibid, p. 77.]] In other words, we can’t hold up Ward and June Cleaver as the model family to which all others must adjust or measure themselves. That smacks of institutionalism and, in a blatant pragmatic analysis, such an approach simply won’t fly for very long in today’s religious individualist climate. Nor is it biblical to push the Cleavers as either the ideal or the real-world mold for actual families in your church. Families take many forms. That means we need to recognize these various forms, and do so publicly. In addition, we should focus on providing networking possibilities and support programs for a variety of family types. In today’s climate of fractured networks and relationships, simply having networking opportunities and support systems goes a long way to attracting back a population that wants stability as they enter adult years.

What about Rachel, Susanne, and David?

Perhaps you have your own Rachel, Susanne and David among your seniors in your youth group right now. Soon you will be sending them off to colleges or other pursuits likely far and away. You worry about them. Even though some of the findings we’ve described in this article relate more to those who are a few decades older than those who are graduating from your youth ministry soon, you can’t help but wonder: Will your seniors be statistics in the “faith attrition” column of someone’s social science research? Given the statistics, two of the three will leave the faith at some point, probably in the next couple of years even. Yet, you wonder, will they be back? Will they be among those returning to the faith in the “life cycle” paradigm?

Interesting research from Arnett and Jensen [[Jeffrey Jensen Arnett and Lene Arnett Jensen. “A Congregation of One: Individualized religious beliefs among emerging adults.” Journal of Adolescent Research, (Vol 17:5, 2002), 451-467. The authors go too far, in my opinion, by suggesting that there is “no correlation between childhood religious socialization and current beliefs.” Surely the determination to “think for oneself” includes an inverse reaction to childhood religious socialization that is not teased out in this research. To suggest early religious socialization has “no latent effect” is to suggest that emerging adults have completely purged from their memories any religious participation, feeling, knowledge, etc. This conclusion, obviously, seems quite implausible and is not necessitated, in my opinion, by their research. In any case, the authors affirm that this holds true only for emerging adulthood with individuals returning to the faith (or insisting on at least their child’s participation) in some way as they “settle down”.]] conducted on young adults closer in age to our current seniors shows that although very little from childhood faith remains intact during the emerging adulthood years for most, they do remain quite religious. Atheism just isn’t that popular. Spirituality, though, remains huge. [[77% had at least moderate exposure to a particular set of religious beliefs in their sample. 52% strongly believe “God or some higher power watches over [me] and guides [my] life” and another 22% “somewhat believe this.” Lastly, 71% are at least quite certain about their religious beliefs, whatever they might be (usually quite syncretized to the orthodox eye).]] Arnett and Jensen’s research also confirms much of Roof and Gesch: social factors, usually occurring later in life, such as marriage, children, etc., tend to increase interest and participation in organized religious services. [[Arnett and Jensen, 2002, p. 458.]] But while they are in the emerging adult stage, they are quite resistant to institutional dogmas and participation. Their beliefs are extremely individualized, relying heavily on personal experience and what one “feels” about a particular belief as a major criterion for acceptance or rejection. Spirituality is hugely personal, as you might suppose. And it doesn’t matter if you were an FA or RI; everything discussed here seems to apply, for Arnett and Jensen, equally among the groups. [[Ibid, p. 461.]]

What about their return?

As I have mentioned, the Arnett and Jensen research affirms much of the “life cycle” paradigm of Roof and Gesch. It also affirms that the individualized approach is strongly present when they return. Their beliefs continue to be strongly personal, diverse and a hodge-podge of beliefs from other religious traditions (and even pop-culture), looking very little like what was considered orthodox in the tradition they grew up in. [[Ibid, p. 463.]] In other words, institutions=bad, thinking for yourself=good.

As the authors describe,

Emerging adults view their independence from their parents’ beliefs as a good and necessary thing. In their view, simply to accept what their parents have taught them about religion and carry on the same religious tradition as their parents would represent a kind of failure, an abdication of their responsibility to think for themselves, become independent from their parents, and decide on their own beliefs. Quite consciously and deliberately, they seek to form a set of beliefs about religious questions that will be distinctly their own. Forming one’s own beliefs and values is a part of the process of identity formation in an individualistic culture and part of the process of becoming an adult. [[Ibid, 464.]]

Conclusions and Responses

Rachel, Susanne and David are leaving your youth group soon. They are going to be making their own decisions, not just out of necessity because of the loss of social support, but out of what can only be described as an American value: religious beliefs are very much a personal choice. Even when they come back, much of this value will remain. They remind me of a boomerang that has traveled the (religious) world: they get thrown abruptly, disappear around the corner for a time, and return with stickers on them from all parts of the religious globe that they have encountered.

How do we respond to this as people who care about long-term transformation of students? How do we decipher the consequences of this emerging American value in terms of what we live out as a “church”?

Let’s return to Roof and Gesch’s suggestions. Building on their “social support” vs. “social control” theme within our churches and youth groups can help provide space for students and young adults to safely find space to explore community instead of pushing them toward radical individualism. In such a setting, community will be less like community “over and against” others (i.e.: those who don’t attend church, those who don’t believe like us, those we define as enemies) and more like community “for and with” those who do choose to come (more organic and less programmatic but intentional about making space for it). [[Concern for your neighbor — so deeply connected in our scriptures to love of God — means that the gospel writer John’s vision of Christ’s community (as a people of whom it should be said, “look how they love one another!”) remains radically unfulfilled in a highly individualized church culture.]] Such a welcoming approach might well be quite attractive to those not currently in church anyway!

For instance, under a social control paradigm, small groups will often use extremely popular, issue-based curriculum, say, on sexual ethics. I grew up with these. They weren’t very helpful to me because they often posed both the questions and the answers in a closed circuit with no discussion. A social support approach would have been good for me. Under such an approach, issues about sexuality arise from the group members themselves. Individuals can bring their own questions and concerns to a place where they feel it is safe to have real discussions. (It may take time, however, to convince your students that your community is safe enough for them to be honest.)

Think about your worship times. How many songs do you sing that come from some famous “rock-star” worship leader? How many are organically grown, i.e.: written by and for your group? A social control paradigm takes a cookie cutter approach to worship. A social support paradigm lets worship spring from the talents and warm hearts of those in the group, and—not surprisingly!—end up reflecting in profound ways the communities in which they are born. Of course, songs aren’t the only form of worship, either. What about poetry or other art forms? Even if you don’t have a songwriter in your group (say, if it is small), strongly encourage others to try their hands at any other creative expressions and to offer them—on behalf of the group—to God. [[Maybe you have self-conscious musicians who don’t have the confidence to venture into this territory. That’s where you come in with consistent and insistent encouragement, working to develop their skills and confidence, traits that can last well into adulthood.]] Homegrown rituals could be a good idea as well. This type of worship can also bring healing and solidarity to broken people perhaps even in deeper ways than our traditional songs (as great as they can be!).

What about your teaching forms? Are they expository, i.e.: here’s the Bible passage and everything I know about it from my concordance and seminary language training? Or try this: imagine yourself sitting in the middle of town, perhaps in a park crowded with people. You are teaching a small group of students and others can overhear. What are you talking about? If suddenly the change of scenery makes you realize that you are teaching things that only make sense inside the walls of a church, you can bet you are closer to “social control” than you would like. (By the way, do you remember anyone in the scriptures teaching in the open air? Who was he preaching to and what was he saying?)

Lastly, what would happen if your kids, themselves, were able to come up with their own ideas about an annual youth retreat—one that would apply their faith in ways that they own? That’s a social support paradigm (and it’s helping them to become faith-appropriating adults!).

Interpreting your situation is of central importance as you develop your own strategies and approaches in light of FA’s, RI’s, and the dynamics of social control and social support. Getting any more specific in this article might lead to unwelcome and unintended consequences for ministries that need to be more organic in understanding their communities. As you think about emerging adults boomeranging their way back, it’s time to start asking for yourself: what kind of church will you be when they return?

Action Points

  • If you want to do true family ministry, you might want to begin by surveying in your mind the kinds of families who are already attracted to or part of your church. Are they Family Attenders or Religious Individualists? Think about actual people here. What kinds of challenges and opportunities do these families and these individuals face?
  • Assess whether your ministry and/or church is more of a “social control” or a “social support” kind of church. If more towards the former, have you attracted families closer to the Family Attender paradigm or the Religious Individualist? How can you, based on the limitations and possibilities of your church right now, begin to move realistically more towards a “social support” paradigm?
  • If you are already within a social support paradigm, are you effectively creating space for community? Is your social support offered more institutionally (i.e.: through highly defined programs) or does it develop more organically, from the ground up, and in intentional spaces offered strategically by your ministry?
  • If you implement any of these changes, what might your church look like in 10 years? How about twenty years? How can you best discuss these ideas with your pastor or ministry supervisor?
  • Can you partner with any community organizations already in existence—either religious or not— to facilitate a social support paradigm? Do you create space for and intentionally teach about the importance of loving neighbor and the connections to loving God? Do your organic communities develop spiritual connections within their immediate groups, with other organic communities in your church, and with the local surrounding community as well?
Matt Westbrook
Matt Westbrook formerly served as Project Manager for FYI when it was first becoming the Center for Youth and Family Ministry. He holds a Master of Arts in Theology from Fuller, has a passion for college students, and is now pursuing a PhD in sociology studying youth and religious identity formation at Drew University.

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