FactChecker: Are Your Kids Likely to Lose Their Faith?

A handful of Christian authors have created a bit of a cottage industry peddling the scary news that the odds are not good that our young people stay strong in their faith into adulthood. Untrue.

There are important, effective, and relatively simple things parents and Christian workers can do to substantially increase the likelihood our young people will retain a thriving faith into and through their adult years. This is revealed in very strong, sophisticated research from some of the leading sociologists of youth and religion in the world.

Influencers of Faith

In the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR), noted Notre Dame professor Christian Smith and his team found:

• There are relatively simple factors that “powerfully shape” faith that remains strong through life.
• The biggest influencing factor is the faith of parents themselves and the practices they employ with their teenagers.
• These practices are simpler than many parents might imagine.

Increasing the likelihood of enduring faith in our young people is not limited to super-spiritual parents. In fact, the more “regular” and human you are the better. The factors, listed by the power of their influence, are:

Parents: Parents with a vibrant and lived-out faith tend to have children who have and keep a vibrant, lived-out faith. Smith doesn’t mince words: “Parents are huge, absolutely huge, nearly a necessary condition” for a child to remain strong in his or her faith into young adulthood. He concludes “without question, the most important pastor a child will ever have in their life is a parent.”

Personal Devotion: Along with at least one believing parent, it is important for the child to develop some practice and habit of regular prayer, church attendance, and reading of Scripture, growing in the conviction and experience that these practices are important for a happy life with God and others. And this practice doesn’t have to be perfect, only relatively consistent. If teens and pre-teens have this in their younger years, they are remarkably more likely to maintain these faith practices into adulthood. It is important that this practice be learned and developed as an organic, natural part of their lives, rather than something they are expected to do solely out of duty or parental expectation. A faith developed as one’s own tends to remain one’s own.

Support/Encouragement from “Satellite Adults”: Young people with lasting faith have the support of other adults around them who have a strong and inviting faith practice. These “satellite adults” who hover around our children in close relationship serve in supporting, affirming, and often times adding to the faith our children experience at home. They are powerful because our children observe, “If Coach Johnson/Principal Simpson/Youth Pastor Nigel/Deacon Stevenson/Aunt Wilma are such great people and so passionate and honest in their faith, maybe there’s really something to it beyond what my parents think.”

Our kids need to have the faith they learn at home supported and encouraged by the larger ring of admired adults around them.

Beliefs: Not as vital as the first three, but it helps if your child has some specific strongly held beliefs and practices.

First, a commitment to sexual chastity is critical for interesting reasons. Sexuality being such a powerful part of developing in one’s teen and young adult years, having strong convictions and practices here indicate the presence of other deeply held and mature convictions regarding behavior. These usually cluster with faith convictions. It strengthens what these researchers call “cognitive resistance to modern secular culture.”

Second, youth with lasting faith have the ability and support in honestly wrestling with and resolving their faith doubts. This teaches them to own their faith for themselves. And one is not likely to throw away what took hard work to develop.

Third, they should also experience and recognize God’s hand in their lives through his faithfulness, answered prayer, and meaningful spiritual experiences.

Curiously, also having been teased for their faith is shown to be a faith strengthener, for this actually increases resolve and conviction. It requires they wrestle with the question of whether faith is really worth it.

Strong Faith Begets Strong Faith

Smith summarizes his team’s findings in plain and direct language:

“religious outcomes in emerging adulthood are not random happenstance about which all bets are off after age 18. Instead, they often flow quite predictably from formative religious influences that shape a person’s life in earlier years. . . . [The] religious commitments, practices, and investments made during childhood and the teenage years by parents and others in families and religious communities, matter—they make a difference.” (emphasis added)

And these NSYR conclusions are corroborated by findings from a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life analysis of religious convictions and practices of America’s youth.

Don’t listen to the naysayers and pessimists. Their claims are as baseless as they say your child’s faith-sustaining prospects are.


Christian Smith, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, (Oxford University Press, 2009),

Faith in Flux: Change in Religious Affiliation in the U.S. (The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, April, 2009).


Other articles in this series:

Misquoting Francis of Assisi

The Cross an Electric Chair?

Divorce Rate Among Christians

Do Faithful Christians Take the Bible Literally?

Is the ‘I Only Need Jesus!’ Declaration Christian?

  • http://tomlarsen.org Thomas Larsen

    // A handful of Christian authors have created a bit of a cottage industry peddling the scary news that the odds are not good that our young people stay strong in their faith into adulthood. Untrue. //

    It’s true if you’re a statistically average “Christian” parent.

    Three things are crucial, I think:

    (a) articulate the central claims of Christianity: publicly, and to your kids
    (b) defend the central claims of Christianity: publicly, and to your kids
    (c) live out the central claims of Christianity: publicly, and to your kids.

    A couple of thoughts on application:

    Parents should teach their kids that Christianity is true, not that Christianity is nice or the answer to their desires to live a happy life.

    Parents should not teach their kids that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and God are real, and then eventually tell them that two out of the three were mere myths intended to foster good behaviour.

  • Marco Shelby

    Thomas’s comment is good. But I would suggest that teaching kids that “Christianity is true” is necessary but far from sufficient. Some people are convinced by truth claims, others are dubious of truth claims until they see it actually lived in a real even-if-messy way.
    So many people proclaim Christianity as true, but their lives are far from loving, self-sacrificial, and generous. If a person is merely truthful and judgmental, guess what the result is likely to be …

  • Matthew James

    I really enjoy most Gospel Coalition articles… However, I am sad to say that I find the overarching thesis (as I understand it) to go unsupported throughout the body of the article.

    He opens by saying…
    “A handful of Christian authors have created a bit of a cottage industry peddling the scary news that the odds are not good that our young people stay strong in their faith into adulthood. Untrue.”

    But then he provides no actual statistical evidence to support his claim… What he does provide are examples of well researched factors that contribute to a strong faith among young adults…

    But that’s not the point of his thesis. Everything he said about those factors may be well and true, but how many of our children is it true FOR?! If it’s only true for 1 out of 10 of our kids, then it would seem that the odds may be VERY GOOD that OUR young people may NOT stay strong in their faith.

    What is true, is that IF, and that’s a big IF, those factors mentioned are present, then the odds are much better for your children.

    However, I would like a follow up article that actually deals with the thesis presented at the beginning of this one, and that shows us how many of our kids are or are not walking away from the faith… Or just delete the first sentence of this article and start with the words, “There are important…”

    • http://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org Collin Hansen

      Did you read the sources linked at the end of the article, Matthew?

    • http://glenntstanton.com glenn stanton

      Collin is right. What I present is a very concise presentation of Smith’s research. There is much more that could be told of the data, but not in a short, overview article. I encourage you to read the book, particularly chapter 8 starting on p. 211. If you are interested in this topic, it is worth the price.

      And as Smith does explain, kids who grow up with these qualities in their lives are extremely likely to stick with their faith into adulthood. The actual number that Smith gives is that kids who experience all of the above qualities in their teen lives, 84% stay in the top 75th percentile of the (massive and nationally representative) study population showing strong markers of vibrant and enduring religious faith and practice in adulthood.

      It is *very* important data for parents and Christian workers to pay attention to.

      • Matthew James

        When I get some time, I look forward to reading the further information that you cited at the end of the article, and the book you are talking about… However, regardless of what information is buried in those links… I still feel as though you either need to quote the exact info that pertains to the opening sentence within your article, or remove the opening. I don’t know what you are trying to accomplish with that opening, but I think it only confuses the issue and that your article would be great without it.

  • http://www.theapollosproject.com Chap

    I am a long time reader, and strong supporter of The Gospel Coalition and what it stands for. However, this article, in its desire to be contrarian, takes a simplistic and wrong-headed view.

    It is true that some wrongly inflame fear by quoting sloppy research.

    But it is also true that a significant number of young people who grow up in church-going, Bible-believing homes turn their back on their faith or continue lukewarmly.

    Is it 88%? No. Is it 70%? No. Mark Twain’s observation about three types of lies comes to mind in those instances. In any particular study, you must ask:
    1. Who is in? Who is a Christian?
    2. What is walking away?
    3. And does the study only look at Evangelical Christians? Or all variant Christian religions (like several of those links)?

    Depending on your answers to these questions, you can get wildly differing results. And that is exactly what this article seeks to attack.

    However, serious studies have attempted to quantify the amount of young people who walk away. Most recently, Dr. Kara Powell reported in her book Sticky Faith, that about 40-50% of young people fail to stick with their faith in college.

    This number seems in line with my own experience and other pastors I talk with. As a former pastor in New England, I know of story after story of young men and women who have been raised in the faith who walk away.

    But what if it is as low as 25%? Am I ok with 1 out of my 4 children spending an eternity in hell? Absolutely not!

    I too hate hucksters who create a crisis without really examining the evidence. But those who would speak peace, peace need to be careful as well.

    Bottom line, should caring parents live in fear? Absolutely not. But should they think deeply about this issue? Absolutely.

    Full disclosure, because I care so deeply about this issue, I founded and lead The Apollos Project, a ministry to equip parents to disciple their children.

    • http://tomlarsen.org Thomas Larsen

      It is important for Christian students to seek out a Christian perspective on what they are studying.

      Douglas Groothuis: “If you want to be a faithful and godly Christian in college, you must, you must, set up an alternative curriculum giving you some kind of Christian perspective on what you are studying. That means: read more books! But first, you need a philosophy of the Christian mind. On that I strongly recommend several books: J. P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind, 2nd ed.; James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. On a very beginning, but profound, level read John Stott, Your Mind Matters. Then: out-think the world for Christ.”

      So-called “Christian education” is useful only insofar as it equips Christians to engage the world for Christ. (I’ve seen too many young people come out of Christian schools and Christian homeschooling families with very poor knowledge of concepts like evolutionary theory, Scripture scholarship, and the like – their convictions have never been tested, and their faith is like a human being without antibodies; it’s decimated, or kept hidden away, when they enter the public secular arena.)

  • http://www.FLfamily.org John Stemberger

    Glenn, good peice. But there seems to be one glaring factor that is missing in what appears to be more of sociological analysis. The intellectual factor of education. Whether the children receives a Christian education by either Christian school or a home school setting. I know this is no guarantee of outcome but this has to be a huge factor in the intellectual development that goes well beyond merely the Satellite adults. Great job once again.

  • Eric

    I have to say I was surprised that this article came out of the Gospel Coalition. Is there a formula for children to “keep” their faith? Yes, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Parents need to understand that if their children are truly believing in Christ and repenting of their sins that they will KEEP believing in Christ and repenting of their sins. If a young adult leaves the church once they are out from under their parent’s roof to taste what the world has to offer – this is strong evidence that they never were born again. “They went out from us, but they were not of us”, 1 John 2:19. I do think we need to do the practical things in this article as followers of Christ and I also think we need to warn our children that “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction”, Matthew 7:13 and they should “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” 2 Corinthians 13:5.

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  • Diane

    This article gives some great reminders of things we should be mindful of as parents–thanks for bringing attention to such an important topic. But like Eric, I was also struck that in an article that seems to be essentially dealing with the perseverance of the saints, there doesn’t seem to be mention of the Lord’s sovereign goodness, the (irrevocable) grace of the gospel, or the power of the Holy Spirit; these would seem to me to be the primary “factors and influences” upon which their salvation depends. Of course we want to cry out for wisdom and seek to be the best parents we can be, training our kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord, sowing gospel seeds in their hearts through prayer, Word, and deed. But at the end of the day, what our kids need most are not positive examples but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit — only the Lord can bring the fruit of repentance.

    My comfort and hope with regard to my children’s faith cannot be derived from statistics — it must lean wholly on Lord’s great mercy and the promises and assurances of his Word. Statistics can be interesting to look at, but as it goes, you can make them say just about anything. If statistics and suggestions are elevated above or disconnected from Scripture, we can find ourselves on slippery ground.

    Thanks again very much for sharing these thoughts; I’m sure this has likely just been an unintentional oversight — just might be good to be cautious about what we emphasize and what we omit on important topics such as these to avoid sending confusing or incomplete messages. Praise God that we have a covenant-keeping Heavenly Father and a Good Shepherd who promises to lose not one of his sheep!

    Grace and peace to each of you.

  • http://glenntstanton.com glenn stanton

    Many remarkable and smart comments here.

    Let me make an important, and hopefully helpful, clarification. In looking at this general topic, pretend we are enrolled in a seminary class on child and youth evangelism, both from parents and pastoral perspectives. We want to learn how we successfully transfer faith to the next generation.

    What I offered above is the sociological module of our class; the exercise of examining the best sociology on faith transfer to our young.

    What others of you are offering in some of these comments are the biblical insights – the theology if you will – regarding this transfer.

    We could also have a presentation on general philosophy of this topic which would draw from both and other bodies of knowledge as well as a module on how contemporary media developments and practices help and hinder this transfer, etc.

    Each offers different and important angles on the topic.

    My point being is that we should keep this in mind as we are contributing our different offerings here. Some of you might be confusing the role of one module for another. We take from sociology what it offers us. It is useful to help us see *some* important points we need to know in generational transfer of faith, but it is *not* a systematic theology or catechism on what and how we teach our young people about the faith. It is just the sociological angle.

    Let’s not limit our learning on this point, by thinking too narrowly that we should only look at such important topics either sociologically, theologically, philosophically, etc. Each can, and should, inform the others and these help us become smarter students of the topic we are looking at.

    So that said, I am only offering the sociological angle on this topic.

  • trent

    the first paragraph instantly reminded me of ken ham and answersingenesis.org

  • Blake Anderson

    Mr. Stanton,

    I would like to respectfully point out some difficulties I am having with your article.

    First, I understand the sociological view of the article and have no problem with that. It is in that same vein that I would like to disagree.

    Second, the main bulk of the article I am in agreement with and while I have not read Smith’s “Soul Searching” in it’s entirety I have studied much of it and am quite familiar with it as someone who is involved in ministry to college students.

    Here is my dispute:
    A synopsis of what I believe the article communicated could be as follows, “Those who complain of a problem are in error because if you follow the proper steps to avoid the problem it won’t exist.” This does not follow logically. How does giving a solution to a problem constitute that the problem doesn’t exist?

    Let’s posit this: The rates of crime are alarming. Then someone says: ‘This is untrue, because whenever families have a father there is much less chance of high crime rates. See this family with a father. The children are doing well (like many others with fathers). So, don’t be a pessimist.’

    You ended by saying, “Don’t listen to the naysayers and pessimists. Their claims are as baseless as they say your child’s faith-sustaining prospects are.” What evidence have you given that the claims are baseless? The fact that you offer solutions? You spend the bulk of the article giving the reasons (and good ones) that youth *can* stay connected to their faith. Yet, Smith’s portrait is a disturbing one and the statistics are not pretty. Glaringly, no where does your article justify the assertion that the statistics of youth leaving the faith are false. In fact, Smith’s statistics are a powerful counter to that assertion. As are the statistics in the other study cited above (Faith in Flux). Should we only be concerned if children in strong families lose their faith? Or if we know a solution (or part of a solution) should we not shout about it? Realism isn’t pessimism, and being real is often the first step in moving toward a positive solution.

    One other aspect of the article I want to note. I take no issue that family and commitment and mentors and moral sexual practice are all massive factors in sustaining one’s faith. I agree strongly. However, I will say that a critical point is missed when you list “Beliefs” as important but not as vital as the first three items listed. This pattern of sustaining belief tends to hold up whether in evangelical Christianity or other false beliefs. So, if you want a sustained Mormon then put them in a strong family, with mentors, with strong religious practice, and an aversion to premature sexuality. But what if you care that Mormonism is false and Christianity is true? This problem underscores the fact that belief is more primary if one is concerned with truth and not just stability (though that is good too). Furthermore, beliefs are what make someone committed to family and mentors and practice and moral convictions. Smith’s study bears out the idea that intellectual skepticism severely undermines the lasting power of “faith.”

    To investigate this aspect further, I would like to focus on a part of the study you quote in your article: “having strong convictions and practices [in sexual practices] *indicate* the presence of other deeply held and mature convictions regarding behavior.” Exactly! Conviction (i.e., settled beliefs) begets practice and then they are mutually reinforcing. Beneath the surface are deeply held beliefs. The quote continues, “These usually cluster with faith convictions.” That is, faith and ideas are inexorably intertwined.

    Further, and very notably, you say, “Curiously, also having been teased for their faith is shown to be a faith strengthener, for this actually increases resolve and conviction. It requires they wrestle with the question of whether faith is really worth it.” This is exactly what many of those who have been shouting from the rooftops the abysmal statistics of youth attrition have been saying for a long time–that spiritual content (belief) inoculation is vital. As you quoted, “It strengthens what these researchers call ‘cognitive resistance to modern secular culture.'” It is the inoculation (“wrestling with and resolving their faith doubts”) that brings lasting strength. Like biological inoculation, spiritual inoculation is the “hard work [of] developing” resistance through repeated exposure to real but controlled attack.

    Please consider that Focus on the Family, an organization who’s admirable goal is to call people’s attention to the decline of the family and its tragic influence on the culture, has itself “created a bit of a cottage industry peddling the scary news that the odds are not good that our young people stay strong in their faith into adulthood.” And justifiably so. This is no criticism of FOTF. It is an endorsement of their crying ‘emergency’ and recommending many of the correct solutions. Family structure has an incredible impact on the outcome of adolescence. So does their understanding of truth.

    However, please don’t label the alarms as false. The logic in your article does not bear that out.

    I recommend that everyone who wants to better understand how Christians can address critical youth issues read “Soul Searching,” the study and book by Christian Smith if you have not already. It’s powerful and is a clarion call to continue sounding the alarm. Pessimism isn’t in order, but solid biblical action is because the need is great.

  • barkercrowd

    This article is fine and dandy and sounds good and gives assurances to all the Christian parents out there but the reality is that we are not the Holy Spirit. A parent can do all the right things until they are blue in the face and still have a child who goes astray. Likewise, a parent can fail miserably at communicating the gospel and end up with incredibly godly children. This in no way excuses parents of responsibility but it is the planting and the watering that are our responsibility and only God can make it grow. I know that this article is talking statistics but the kingdom of God is more than numbers. There are parents out there grieving bitterly because they have not been able to do in their children’s hearts what only the Holy Spirit can do. Personally, the pressure to perform on some spiritual level in order to insure my children’s future faith is more pressure than I can handle. I am thankful that God is more merciful than that and can use even my failings for his glory. I may not have a record as a perfect parent, but his record stands in my place and I can plead that mercy for my children.

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  • Sabrina

    I can’t say that I agree with the argument made here. My parents are not strong believers. If this argument were true, their lack of faith, lack of personal devotion, and lack of daily prayer should have driven me away from faith, yet I have found my faith get stronger into adulthood. Now I am praying for my parents’ salvation. Everyone has a different story to tell in how they came to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

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  • Joe Bigliogo

    Look to the cultures past and present where a one religion strongly prevailed and you’ll find certain common denominators. These examples apply to as much to other religions as they do Christianity. The nonexistence or suppression of opposing ideas and beliefs is highly characteristic of societies where a single religion predominates. Another factor is the thwarting of free and independent thinking if it deviates or questions the prevailing beliefs of the culture. Fear is also an effective form of social regulation especially when it’s reinforced by authoritarian consequences. Hell threats have worked wonders for Christianity maintaining it’s lofty position as the most commonly followed religion. Islamic countries that brutally suppress other religions have an almost zero apostasy rate. Far back in history Christianity enjoyed this kind of success rate too.

    Maintaining a closed cultural and ethnic purity bodes well for sustaining a strong mono-theistic society as young people are not likely to adopt other ideas if they don’t know they exist. The biggest problem facing Christians wanting to hang on to their beliefs is competition from different or contrary beliefs. In the not so distant past most people were raised in monotheistic Christian cocoons and the average Joe didn’t hear much about other religions or ways of thinking. But the information age has exposed an entire generation to a diversity of ideas unprecedented in human history.

    Apart from locking kids away for twenty years or creating a closed fascist society like Saudi Arabia, there’s not a lot Christians can do to keep their kids from hearing Jerry Coin explain why evolution is a fact of science or Christopher Hitchens tear religion an new orifice. In a free and democratic society offering a blogosphere of ideas certain ideas will resonate with young people (and old people too) more than others… and that is what you see happening today. It’s why bronze age scapegoat theology is on a steady decline.