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Please, please read Bradley Wright’s new book Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites…and Other Lies You’ve Been Told. After that, pick up Joel Best’s Stat-Spotting: A Field Guide to Identifying Dubious Data. Christians have to quit believing every statistic they read and spinning them in the most sensational ways.

For example, see Brett McCracken’s article yesterday in the Wall Street Journal on The Perils of “Wannabe Cool” Christianity. Overall the article makes some fine points. It’s a distillation of Brett’s new book Hipster Christianity. I’m three-fourths of the way through the book and I really like it. Brett (he’s younger than me so it just feels like I can use his first name) is a good writer and has written an important book. I hope to say more about his book in the weeks ahead. But the language in the WSJ article is misleading.

Here’s how the article starts:

‘How can we stop the oil gusher?” may have been the question of the summer for most Americans. Yet for many evangelical pastors and leaders, the leaking well is nothing compared to the threat posed by an ongoing gusher of a different sort: Young people pouring out of their churches, never to return.

As a 27-year-old evangelical myself, I understand the concern. My peers, many of whom grew up in the church, are losing interest in the Christian establishment.

Recent statistics have shown an increasing exodus of young people from churches, especially after they leave home and live on their own. In a 2007 study, Lifeway Research determined that 70% of young Protestant adults between 18-22 stop attending church regularly.

This is a classic example of a good statistic gone bad. For starters, as Brett acknowledges in his book (but probably didn’t have space to explain in the article), the Lifeway study found that 70 percent of young adults 23-30 who attended church for at least a year in high school stopped attending church regularly for at least a year from age 18-22.

And to make matters more confusing, here’s a blog post by Sam Rainer, son of Thom Rainer and co-author of Essential Church (the book based on this Lifeway study), where the statistic morphs into “70% of those that leave the church do so between the ages of 18 and 22.” This is quite a different stat entirely. But in the book the Rainers use the original version of the stat, so we’ll stick that.

The problem is that Brett’s WSJ article takes the Lifeway number about young people leaving church for a year and turns it into this alarm: “Young people [are] pouring out of their churches, never to return.” This is simply not true. If 70% were dropping out never to return, we’d see a huge dip in the next demographic. After all, the Lifeway research was conducted with those ages 23-30. So we should see a 70% dip in church attendance and Christian affiliation among older twentysomethings. But we don’t. In fact, Wright shows (what should be common sense) that religious affiliation increases with each bump in the age demographic. Gallup has found the same trend (and, interestingly enough, that church attendance has increased slightly in 2010).

Just as importantly, we’ve seen over the past decades that the lower percentages among youth increase as the twenty year-olds become thirty year-olds, the thirty year-olds become forty year-olds and so on. Simply put, young adults (especially during their college years) are the least likely to be involved in church, but over time more and more of them (especially the ones with children) come back. Or, as the case may be, they never really meant to leave; they just drifted away for a time. Now, there’s no reason to celebrate 18-22 year-olds dropping out of church for a year, but making things sound worse than they are doesn’t help either.

Here’s how Wright summarizes his research on young people and the church:

So back to our original question: Is the church really losing the young? on the negative side, the number of young people who do not affiliate with any religion has increased in recent decades, just as it has for the whole population. Furthermore, to the extent that religiousness has changed, it has trended slightly toward less religious. On the positive side, the percentage of young people who attend church or who think that religion is important has remained mostly stable. Also, the percentage that affiliate with Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Black protestantism are at or near 1970 levels. What I don’t see in the data are evidence of a cataclysmic loss of young people. Have we lost the young? No. Sure, terrible things could happen in the future, but so could great things. (66)

It seems that Christians are, of all people, most eager to believe the worst about themselves. But don’t believe everything you read. There are lies. There are damned lies. And then there are statistics.

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49 thoughts on “Beware the Over-Hyped Stat”

  1. Joan says:

    Thanks for the healthy reminder, Pastor Kevin. I’m not one to swallow hook, line, and sinker the doom and gloom stats so often used to alarm or guilt Christians into doing stupid things so as not to “lose” any when Jesus is quite clear that He is the one to ensure that. Since I had shared the WSJ article with some people yesterday, I followed it up with yours as a clarification today. I hope they don’t think I’m just a pain.

  2. G. Kyle Essary says:

    Agree wholeheartedly Kevin. Yesterday Justin Taylor linked to a post by Jared Wilson where he said that according to two sites, only between 2-4% of people in New England attend church, and that whereas the South is on the cusp of its first totally unchurched generation, New England is already there. So I went to the links he listed, and neither referenced their sources for the stats (of course, the statements about unchurched generations were just made up).

    I checked the Pew Forum survey on religious life from two years ago, and in Vermont/New Hampshire (which ranks 45th), 23% attended a religious service at least once a week outside of funerals and weddings. 63% attend once or twice a month. Now these stats might be exaggerated, and say only 40% attend once or twice a month…but which stats are more reliable? The Pew survey of literally thousands done by a top researcher, or a quote from an evangelical website that offers no source for their data?

    It’s scare tactics used to motivate people to action. Evangelicals have been doing this (to our shame) for years.

  3. Lon says:

    While this certainly is not the answer to the 70 percent figure, one of the issues that contributes to this figure is college students who come out of local churches often get involved in on-campus ministries which do not encourage local church involvement. Some of our more solid kids went away to college and grew spiritually through the on-campus minitries. Yet sadly, the importance of the local church was lost on them. Eventually they seem to come back, just as you stated.
    I believe we have also been suckered by the stats that say Christians get divorced as much as their non-Christian friends. As a pastor, I simply have not observed that and do not believe it.

  4. Joe Fisher says:


    First of all Jared said the stat is for those who attend evangelical churches. In New England those are far and few in between. There is a UCC Church in almost every town or another liberal Congregational church, not to mention the liberal mainline denominations.

    I am not sure why the stat didn’t show up on his references but here is where most have gotten that same data.

    In Christ,

    Joe Fisher
    New England Church Planter

    or by state

  5. Brad says:

    “It seems that Christians are, of all people, most eager to believe the worst about themselves. But don’t believe everything you read.”

    This is a good point, but one that is mostly moot. The Church by in large may be holding on to converts better than expected, but it still largely ignores preaching, teaching and proclaiming the Gospel.

  6. Ranger says:

    Those stats are helpful, but I don’t think they minimize Kyle’s point. They show that as of 2000 there were a total of 150 evangelical congregations in Vermont. According to that page there are 14,759 evangelicals out of a total population of 608,827. That amounts to 2%, and is an issue. But if we are talking about “churched” vs. “unchurched” are these stats applicable?

    Wilson then takes the stats and extrapolates it to New England on the whole never including authentic believers in Catholic, Orthodox, and even Mainline denominations. There’s no doubt that there’s a need for church planters in New England. There’s also no doubt that there’s just as great of a need for church planters in Utah, Montana, Washington, Ontario, Chihuahua and about every other nation on the face of the earth, save S. Korea and a few nations in the southern hemisphere.

    I work in a city in SE Asia that has about the same population as Vermont. It’s a smaller city for the region, but has a large Christian population (about 6% of the total). The vast majority of those Christians are in prosperity type churches, primarily from a lack of theologically trained leadership who simply copy what they hear from international Christian television (think TBN). I would be thrilled for us to have 150 evangelical congregations, but there’s not enough leadership and the government restrictions on religion would never allow it. I would be thrilled for us to have half the competent evangelical leaders as can be found in Vermont.

    This isn’t to minimize the need for Vermont, but let’s be honest in realizing that New England is no better than most areas internationally, not to mention some in Canada and the US. We need more church planters in general, across the spectrum…both locally and internationally.

  7. G. Kyle Essary says:


    Thanks for the statistical backing to Jared’s post. That helps give a better perspective for the stats he was using, although I still think he is using them as scare tactics, and can find no justification for saying that New England is therefore “unchurched” or that the South is on the cusp of its first “unchurched” generation. I retract my point about him using that as a scare tactic.

    Still, as my co-worker and friend Ranger has pointed out, there’s a need in so many places that we need to be careful how we use the statistics so as not to emphasize one calling over another. For those of us who do international church planting, you used to be special if you went to China (of course, now it’s one of the easier fields to work in), and today it’s probably certain Middle Eastern countries or Pakistan.

    Whether you are called to Pakistan, Nanjing, Hartford or Biloxi, the Lord needs you there, even if the population may claim to be 80% Christian. I doubt you would disagree.

  8. G. Kyle Essary says:

    Ummm…that was confusing.

    I meant to say that I think he is using the unchurched generation statements as scare tactics, but retract my saying that he was using the 1-3% stat poorly.

  9. Jared Wilson says:

    Kevin, good post.

    Mr. Essary, I appreciate your zeal for the truth.

    I don’t believe my piece on New England’s need relied on statistics, really, but I do think they are indicative. I did not mean to use them as “scare tactics” but illustrations of the need, just as many missions organizations use them to illustrate the need for the gospel in nations around the world.

    If I wanted to use stats as leverage, actually, I would have listed the numbers of denominational and network church plants planned for New England contrasted with the numbers for other parts of the nation, not to scare people but to show the discrepancy. The need is great everywhere, of course — which I say in the post — but for some reason fewer seem to be called up here. Or are they? I think that’s a legitimate question.

    Again, thanks for pushing in on the statistics question; I do confess to relying on the “experts” for those, but I plead innocent to trying to scare people with them. I was only trying to illuminate the depth of the need here. But that is something most in New England recognize already without “benefit” of statisticians.


  10. Matt says:

    On a quick note, coming from a background as a scientist, my mentor drilled into me always press the statistics (or figures people show). Statistics (and/or figures) are great and can be very useful to show what you’ve found, but also that every presenter is telling a story. Statistics can (wittingly and unwittingly) be spun or interpreted in a way that does not do justice to what was really seen or has such a microscopic view that doesn’t address the whole.

    Thanks for the helpful post Kevin and for calling us to ask the hard questions about what statistics are saying, their methodologies and to put them in context!

  11. Rick Weiss says:

    Figures do not lie, Yet Liars figure, Many people in history have pushed there agenda using stats, there is nothing new under the Sun.

    Yet the rate of young people leaving religion is a huge Problem, and I wonder, as a society have we litigated real hurt and pain out of existence for kids? is that way adrenalin sports and cutting of self has risen because the parents coddled the kids? and If Church kids were not taught what real salvation looks like and what the real penalty of not having salvation is, Its no big deal to them to sleep in on Sunday. IN our Baptist Church a high percentage once graduated from High School,,,,,,,Gone..

  12. Kenny Taylor says:

    Kevin – I recently heard you reference a statistics website that has been very helpful for you – ARDA. May I ask, how do you use that site and their stats? It seems to be a wealth of information, but I’m not sure of the best way to tap into it. Thanks

  13. Really good points. It reminded me of another stat that I dislike: “Divorce is as bad in the Church as it is in the world.” Ever hear that one? Apart from the slippery use of the word “Church” which makes many stats about the Church fuzzy, this one leaves the impression that people growing up in the Church are divorcing at fifty percent. Closer to the truth is that many people find the Church when their marriages are in trouble or when they’ve gone through the devastation of divorce. They become part of the church and stats are built…you know how it goes from here. So true, be careful about the use of stats! Good word!

  14. As the father of two 20-somethings, I’ve been concerned about their “apathy”. I wish they would get fired up about their faith. I too have seen the stats about the tidal wave of young people who leave the church. But your article is a great reminder to trust God.
    Latest post, “Deep Fried Twinkies: Confessions of a man who can’t get enough of a bad thing”

  15. Phil says:

    Love this post. Thanks Kevin. There’s more to that research regarding the 70 percent that leave church. I like Matt’s comments about pressing the statistices. The Lifeway findings say that only 35 percent of those 23-30 year olds that were surveyed make their way back to church again. That means the other 35 percent don’t. As a father of three children, that still “scares” me. Or maybe it just humbles me. I don’t know. Half of the 70 percent, who grew up in our churches, are not coming back to church.

  16. Great great article. Good job Kevin! You hit it on the nose.

  17. Steve says:

    While I agree that the stat is misused and misleading, it is certainly not much better of a stat, even taken correctly. It is nothing to be celebrated or feel good about.

    If 70% of those who leave do it when they are young, it should say a lot. Sure, it speaks to human nature, but it also speaks to the failure of the church to speak a language.

    I’m all for accuracy, but I’m also all for looking past the stat and seeing what lies behind it.

  18. chris says:

    I’m not sure the purpose of saying this stat is overhyped. 1) If a vast majority is leaving, even for a season, then something is drastically wrong. 2) We can’t be sure what percent is returning. Just because previous generations (those born in the 70s) have higher church participation, who’s to say what percent this generation will have? We just don’t know yet. Overall, I think the stat (which is substantiated by several research groups) points to a real problem. I mostly agree with McCrackens overall point. I can see your point as well, but I still think this stat points to a real problem that many churches focus on gimmicks rather than doctrine and the gospel.

  19. John says:

    People leaving church is a sign of increasing intelligence and education. There is a significant negative correlation between income and church attendance.

  20. Mark Brewster says:

    “It seems that Christians are, of all people, most eager to believe the worst about themselves. But don’t believe everything you read.”

    Except the bible ofcourse!

    The author has opened the box of pandora. Ofcourse Christians believe what they read, it is the source of their faith. If Christians had the ability to read critically, they wouldn’t be Christians.

  21. Jerome says:

    “But don’t believe everything you read.” LOL.
    Most Christians do believe everything they read in the fairytale cold bible, don’t they?!

  22. Jerome,

    It is even harder to be an atheist. I am not saying this is your position just making an observation.

    Eight reasons it is hard to be an atheist:

    I hope there is no God:

  23. Phil says:

    Chris, the same research says that 35 percent of the 70 percent come back to church at some point, just to speak to #2 in your comment. And, yes, Jerome, to answer your question. I believe it all. Hook, line and sinker. Without God’s unthinkable love for me, I’d be a perfectly happy human being living the American dream. Talk about a cold fairy tale story.

  24. KS says:

    I didn’t realize that McCracken is so young–it helps to explain his movie reviews and some of his uncharitable statements (e.g., maybe Karl Rove has no conscience).

  25. Jason says:

    Frank Turek uses “alarmism” in the same way on his website, He emblazes “3 out of 4 Christian teens walk away from the church after they leave home” at the top of his site. He never points out that many return by their 30s, even in the section of his site where he goes into more detail.

    I emailed him about this many months ago, but never received a response, and it’s still up there.

  26. Drake says:

    this was a great eye opener for myself who works in youth ministry. Especially since this stat is thrown around A LOT! I have had lengthy conversation about how to stop this ‘great exodus’ and even read many books on it. I guess I need to be better at getting my facts straight before reacting and maybe sometimes over reacting.

  27. jerry reingardt says:

    I have just finished reading chapters 2and 3 of Revelation. The New Christianity book is exactly what we are as Christians warned that would be taught in the latter days. I have for sometime been upset in my churches that I attend that the love of God without judgement is being taught from the pulpit and in the classes of studies. After reading this book this week I could not wait to tell people the misdoctrine the false asumptions this book preaches even though the author says these are only questions, I cannot help to believe what his his answers are. Becaused I have nver bloged before I will end here and see how this method of comunication works.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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