The Vanishing (Reformed) Youth

May 12, 2015

Today, the Pew Research Center released some of the first data from its 2014 research on the religious affiliations of the populace of the United States. With the comparisons made to a similar 2007 study, there are a lot of interesting tidbits floating in the data, but there are also some concerning trends. Reformed folks may find one statistic particularly troubling: Pew’s data shows that only 34% of Americans raised in a Reformed church will continue to attend one as adults. That puts us near the bottom of the pack among Protestants, and even religions generally.

It may be easy to respond to these numbers by dismissing them. Since the Reformed make up a small number of the U.S. population, these statistics may well be subject to the tyranny of small data sets. Similarly, we could locate the problem among whatever other Reformed denomination or churches we happen to dislike, saying it’s really their problem, not ours. However, I would urge all of us, whether Reformed or not, to take this report as a rallying call not just to understand our own faith but to renew our commitment to cultivating a faithful vibrancy in our children as well.

The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

To parse out why I interpret the report in this way, it’s important to look at the 34% statistic in context with some of the others that the study gives about Reformed folks. The relatively good news is that the Reformed population has remained stable over the past seven years. While the Pew research shows a large number of youth leaving Reformed churches, a similar number of new people are coming in. At the same time, most of those who leave Reformed churches are not abandoning the faith entirely, as 42% end up in other protestant churches and 4% join the Catholic Church. The really ugly statistic though is that 20% are leaving the faith entirely, with 18% becoming totally religiously unaffiliated.

So what do these other numbers mean? Well, the good news is that it suggests that Reformed churches are not failing at their work of evangelism. Those who’ve left the tradition as they grew up have been replaced by new folks attracted to the theological richness and depth that the Reformed tradition has to offer. At the same time, it seems that the message that is enticing to others is missing many of the youth who grew up in Reformed churches. Losing one in five children from the faith entirely is a deep tragedy, and while we’re not alone in that problem (our Presbyterian cousins lose one in four), the result is not foregone: for instance, the Anabaptists only lose 5-8% of their number to unbelief.
It seems clear then that we need to do something that better communicates the same message to our children that other Christians are finding inviting later in life.

Keeping the Faith: A Reading List

While I can’t offer some twelve-step plan to solve for all our problems, the data Pew released isn’t totally without precedent. We’ve heard some of these same cautions before, and my preparation for the regular conversation we have on this topic in Dordt’s core capstone class has led me to some authors with great insights into this issue. What follows are a few of those gleaned insights and resources for where to go to dig into these issues further:

1. Our Faith Must be a Way of Life. In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean reviews her work with the National Survey of Youth and Religion, which found the predominant religion among American teens to be a watered-down legalism that’s been called moralistic therapeutic deism. In this book, Dean also looks at the teens who have maintained a vibrant, articulate faith, and for these teens “religion is not simply a matter of general identity or affiliation or cognitive belief. Faith for these teenagers is also activated, practiced, and formed through specific religious and spiritual practices,” particularly those practices that reflect “an ethic of self-giving that reflects Christian views on the nature of God.”1

2. Life is Worship, and Worship is Formative. James K.A. Smith argues that our lives are defined by liturgy.2 For him, liturgy is how habitual practices can powerfully shape our beliefs and identities. Our habits speak strongly to what we love, and our habitual practices orient us ever more to those loves.3 Smith calls these liturgies “embodied repetition” and his Discipleship in the Present Tense makes a powerful case for Christians not to flee or devalue religious ritual (such as Sabbath observance or regular communion) when we embrace it in so many other parts of our lives.

3. Our Worship is About Inviting In… In The Bible Makes Sense, Walter Brueggemann describes the Bible as “covenantal history. It speaks of a peculiar memory and promise, a very particular identity and vocation.”4 Our task as Christians then is to nurture what he calls a “Historical Imagination,” which is to “share in perception and nuances so that our life-world conforms to what is central to the Bible.”5 In other words, the goal of our worship, just as with our devotions, is to seek to enter and welcome each other into a covenant identity and embodied life outside of ourselves, outside of our comfort zones, but rooted in Zion.

4.…Not Dumbing Down. Often, our response to shrinking numbers, particularly among the youth, is to reach out and try to tailor our practice more and more to what we perceive that group to want. However, as Thomas Bergler argues persuasively in The Juvenalization of American Christianity, this often results in dividing the youth away from the rest of the body and teaching them to seek after church that’s more like youth group. Bergler argues that these programs should be a vital support for, rather than an impediment to, the robust intergenerational life of the church. Our goal then, is to welcome the youth into the worship life of the whole church, cultivating an embodied faith that is tied in rather than parallel to the rest of the congregation.

5. We Should Have an Ecumenical Spirit but a Confessional Practice. One thing that may have struck you from much of the above is that it will necessarily be rather particularized. A common theme of many of the authors I’ve mentioned is the vital and central role that a local church should play in our spiritual formation, as well as that of our children. We may worry then that this would just increase a schismatic tribalism that works to divide rather than invigorate our churches. Ross Douthat has an encouragement, however, in his excellent book, Bad Religion. In referring to popular pastor Tim Keller, he says “while Keller is ecumenical in public dialogue, he is proudly confessional in worship and communion.”6 Ultimately, Douthat urges us to be in a friendly dialogue with one another, but that “a conversation has to reach conclusions in order to actually stand for something; a community has to define itself theologically in order to be able to sustain itself across the generations.”7

Again, I can’t claim that these ideas are a panacea, but they may be a start. Perhaps your church already embodies these ideas, maybe without having named them as such. What would it look like for us to pursue them in practical terms? What other ideas should we be mindful of? How can we renew our efforts to instill a vibrant faithfulness in our children?

About the Author
  • Donald Roth serves as Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Co-Director of the Kuyper Honors Program, and Director of the Master of Public Administration Program at Dordt University.

  1. Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford 2010) p. 69-70. 

  2. See his books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom for more on this. 

  3. Some great examples of this include habitual practices around watching sports, but it can also include seemingly neutral things like shopping at the mall or even the grocery store. For more on this, see Desiring the Kingdom chapter 3. 

  4. Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense (St. Anthony Messenger Press 2003) p. 25. 

  5. Id. 

  6. Ross Douthat, Bad Religion (Free Press 2012) p. 288. 

  7. Id. at 287. 

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  1. For so long the Reformed churches have looked to ethnicity and tradition to hold the church together. No wonder the statistics are looking grim.

    1. No ethnically defined form of Christianity has ever lasted long in the west, fared well under conditions of pluralism anywhere, or grown beyond those boundaries even when/where they seem strong. It seems like creating an in-build limit on the scope of the church, the gospel, and grace itself — or how these things are lived.

      @Donald – Conservative reformed denominations have typically refrained from ecumenical dialogue , especially in bodies like the World Council of Churches. Do you think that ought to change? Some would ask, what is there to talk about or even to learn when your particular confessional commitments are clear, distinct, and in many cases quite opposed to other traditions.

      From the perspective of reformed theology too I have never understood what the basis is for such concern with outcomes, or the idea that they can be managed or controlled. If the church, particularly a notion of membership in “a church,” is not the same as or even indicative of a person’s election, then what business does one have lamenting the decline (or cheering the growth) of institutional membership and participation? I think there are answers to that and would like to know yours, but I do think the answers must stress that church membership — especially as a numeric measure of “success” — cannot properly be linked to the church’s mission in the world. Perhaps it should have only an accidental relationship to the proclamation of the gospel, but the response to that proclamation may take many forms — not necessarily the ones we want. Such thinking can help prevent making our construction of “the church” into an idol.

      On Anabaptists, could we not say that conservative Christianity of any kind but maybe especially North American Reformed Christians have been “too Anabaptistic” in their tendency toward separatism and if not withdrawal from “the world” then reactive engagement with it in a rather us vs. them way that can be highly unproductive? To be fair, the Anabaptist traditions most connected to other traditions and the world seem to take pains to avoid this and have a thick notion of proclaiming (living by) the gospel in the world in ways that have generally been far too theoretical and academic in reformed circles.

      Finally I would note that the apparent “secularization” and decline of the church in some places and traditions by certain measures may not reflect anything like a rejection of the gospel or the church. Most Americans attend churches at the same rates as Europeans, but the majority here regardless of their church attendance profess a belief in God as creator of the world. Many simply do not seem to find their values, beliefs, and questions as potentially harmonious with traditional church institutions. Do you think this may be due to historic churches becoming distasteful for their politicization and tactics in “the culture wars,” or their tendency to assert theological dogmas over against science or other fields (modern critical thought generally) in ways that are poorly considered?

      1. Thanks for the comments, John.

        I think part of the question with ecumenical dialogue is what form that exactly takes. To some degree, there is a tendency in Christian circles to think that the end goal of ecumenism is federative unity. While we may dream of that in an ultimate sense, it’s often not practically feasible in today’s world, and it’s possible that conservative churches have failed to pursue it because we too often think in those terms.

        However, as a bit of a counter, many pastors do participate in regular meetings of area ministers from many denominations, and of course many Christians in particular Congregations associate with and even identify in a common cause in many ways with their brothers and sisters. Douthat makes a good point when he’s talking about the public discourse and public face of the church. Ministers and congregants should be approachable, winsome, and willing to enter conversations with a broad body; however, worship requires reaching conclusions on theological issues that makes practical unity often impossible.

        One way I’ve seen this spirit born out in a narrowly confessional setting, though, is the way many Reformed churches go about fencing the table. In my church, for instance, we welcome everyone who is a member of a Bible-believing church to partake, recognizing and affirming the validity of the faith of those from many different backgrounds and the fact that the sacrament unites the Church in all places and across all ages as one body.

        While I agree with you that membership in a local church is not an equivalent thing to the question of whether one is saved or not, it is not so unrelated that we should be unconcerned with it. Believers cannot live alone, and we are called not only to fellowship, but to corporate worship. We cannot be what we are and not worship in a local body or put ourselves under its discipline and care. In other words, I do think that the vibrancy of a local church is absolutely a measure of how the church, here particularized in a local expression, is faring in its calling. Similarly, the issues I mention in this article are tied to what happens to those who are raised in the church, and as much as our mission is about evangelism or care for the world generally, it is also centrally and vitally linked to raising our covenant children in the fear of the Lord, something which does tie into membership concerns.

        Those are a few general reactions. With grades submitted for coursework today, I can’t guarantee that this was all terribly coherent, so my apologies for any failings on that point, and I invite any other responses or push back you might have.

  2. The United States is just one part of the picture. In the global context the largest churches in the continental reformed tradition are in Madagascar (3.5 million), Indonesia (3.1 million), Zambia (3 million), the Netherlands (3.5 million), Cameroon (2.5 million), Switzerland (2.4 million), Timor (2 million), and the list goes on. The largest North American churches in this tradition (RCA and CRC) are at the lower middle of the list. Most of these others are, I believe, experiencing conditions of growth.

    This too is not necessarily cause for pure celebration. In Africa and Asia the embrace of conservative protestantism seems often tied to the legacy of colonialism where the churches once identified with the (formerly white European) ruling class and the official or unofficial state church still enjoy a special superior status. In many such places the rise of formerly subjugated groups to economic and political power too often repeats what was done to them or maintains conditions even conservative western Christians will question. When basic civil rights are denied to tribal/cultural/linguistic minorities, to women, to non-Christians, to people of no religious affiliation, and increasingly to gay people this does not seem consistent with a true Christian witness. In the Netherlands itself conflicted pluralism under new immigration pressures keeps these issues active too, and conservative religion is asserted as a bulwark against the threat of the alien other.

    Perhaps we should observe that neither growth nor decline, apparent liberalization or conservative reaction are what we should look at to assess the health of the church but what it is teaching and doing in people’s lives.

    The world situation is increasingly worrisome to me, for wherever pluralism is threatened the church must take sides if only through the complicity of silence or by affirming that people are “neither greek nor hebrew, neither free nor slave” in Christ. One may preach a merely “social gospel,” and one may also preach a theopolitical reaction to the expansion of equal freedoms to all groups in a civil society. I imagine this problem is relevant to declining church membership in places like the US as well as increasing membership in the southern hemisphere. It is not a simple good vs. bad picture. You must consider each situation and each history, testing its spirits.

  3. We need to look at things from the perspective of the youth. They leave Reformed churches because they see them as “old fashioned, stodgy.” Their friends attend a church with exciting youth groups and dynamic services. So they drift to the anabaptist and calvinistic dispensational churches. Those who leave entirely drift from the non-Reformed churches because they find them shallow.

    Most evangelistic efforts of Reformed churches that I have seen are paltry at best (e.g., singing at old folks centers). One non-Reformed church nearby has an event called single-parents day. On a Saturday, they will have over 300 single parents (mostly mothers) invited to the day where they can receive free oil change for car, have their hair/nails done, receive legal help, learn about baby care, etc. as well as receive info about the Gospel. Last year many came to faith and now attend the church. Those churches are creative and thinking “outside the box.”

    Most church growth in Reformed churches is biological. Those who come from non-reformed churches or other denominations are not new converts. They are people who are not happy with the shallowness of their former church which has abandoned the hymns of their youth and exchanged pulpit preaching with platform entertainment.

    My point is that Reformed churches are not evangelizing our young people, nor reaching out to others in the community. The thinking is simply, don’t bother about evangelism, we’ll make up the loss by having more children.

  4. My son wrote the following:

    For any young person’s departure from a Reformed church, I suppose there are a number of reasons. Young men abandon the faith most often, I suspect, because they want to sleep with their girlfriends, but there are doubtless deeper reasons worth exploring too. But there are also exceptions, kids who had all those negative factors in their church situation but who stayed faithful.

    That said, it seems to me that we could think about some possible reasons kids in our churches might grow up to drift away from the Reformed church or even from the faith. Here are a few suggestions:

    * Covenant presumption: “Our kids are in the covenant and therefore they’re bound to turn out fine.”

    * Doctrinal preaching: There is a kind of preaching in which the text becomes a springboard for a discussion of certain doctrines — Reformed doctrines! — and the text itself gets left behind. You can preach about “election” as a topic from 2 Thess 2:13 but leave out the pronouns so that you’re not proclaiming 2 Thess 2:13 as good news to the actual people in the pew in front of you.

    Some parents like this sort of preaching. They want to hear the comforting sounds of good ol’ Reformed doctrine Sunday after Sunday. Nothing that might challenge them. Nothing that might shake them up. Just the same old stuff their catechism teacher told them when they were 15, so that they can know that their kids too are hearing “good Reformed teaching.” And so long as the kids are hearing that good doctrine (“blah blah blah predestination blah blah blah election…”) they’ll stay Reformed….

    * Eschatological defeatism: I had an elderly Reformed minister once say to me, when I had asked him about the lax morals of some young people in a congregation, “The Bible says there will be a time of great apostasy” — as if that time was NOW and there was NOTHING HE COULD DO ABOUT IT. I’m not so concerned about what I regard as the error in his eschatology; I’m more concerned about what seemed to be defeatism, as if no matter how much one might wish the young people would be faithful the apostasy was going to happen.

    * Exclusive focus on justification: Preaching law (to convict) and gospel (for justification) without a focus on sanctification, on growth and maturation and development as a Christian. But the major theme of the Bible from Genesis 1:1 on is not redemption (that’s Genesis 3 on) or holy war (arguably Genesis 2 on, given the hint in the word “guard”) but maturation, development, glorification. Redemption restores man so that he can now begin to mature and grow from glory to glory.

    * Lack of vision/goals/hope for the future: What is Christian upbringing aiming at? What is the point of Christian education? What do we want our children to do? If kids don’t grow up with a sense that they are called to use and transform and glorify the world to the glory of God, if they don’t have a biblical sense of progress and purpose, they’ll end up adopting some other model of progress and purpose — for instance, the idea that the good life they’re aiming at consists of getting a good job (by which we tend to mean: one that pays a lot), a good wife, nice kids, and so on.

    * Spectator liturgy: In many Reformed churches, there is little for the congregation to do, especially if you’re a kid. Your job is just to sit down and be quiet. The pastor prays the prayers. The pastor recites the Creed (in some churches, only the pastor). The pastor preaches (long; it’s the central thing in the whole service). The people sing, and if you can’t read yet, you can’t participate. In some churches, the kids are sent out for the service; in others, they’re present but inactive and don’t feel like participants for the simple reason that they aren’t participants.

    * Profession of faith: In many Reformed churches, profession of faith is tantamount to graduation from catechism class, in spite of the fact that many Reformed people and pastors would protest that profession of faith has nothing to do with age or knowledge.

    Kids are told that they MUST make profession of faith but that they must not until they are READY to do so, and what that readiness is they aren’t told. Is it age? No…. Is it knowledge? No…. Is it some kind of dramatic experience, as in certain Reformed churches? No…. Is it faith? Well, yes. But the young person has had faith since he was a child, and yet when he asked if he could profess his faith, he was told “No, you’re not ready yet.” So what is it?

    Kids are told that they are full members of the congregation. But they are not treated as full members.

    * Reformed Rumspringa: Add that some Reformed people treat kids who have no made profession of faith yet as if they have a King’s X. The kid is up to no good. He’s involved in one form of wickedness or another. “But,” someone says, “he hasn’t made profession of faith yet.” As if that lets him off the hook, spares him from discipline, or somehow excuses his wild behavior — as if we were Amish and the teenage years were an ongoing Rumspringa period, where our children can live as they please aren’t held accountable yet until they make a decision to profess their faith.

    * Fathers who don’t sing or won’t sing vigorously.

    * Fathers who are angry or grumpy or won’t talk about their faith.

    * Christian education that mimics the world’s standards and values: Christian schools that don’t pursue a distinctively Christian education with distinctively Christian standards and goals. We train kids in the same subjects, for the same exams, with the same extracurricular programs, with the same classroom structure, and so on … but with Bible or prayer or chapel or some talk about Christ added in. Perhaps the goal is to out-do the world in turning out really good students, but are we educating kids to live as Christians in a way that transforms the world?

    * Present-oriented culture: Our kids tend to listen to the same music ( or at least the same musical style) as everyone else, watch the same TV shows and movies, and so on. We live in a present-oriented culture. Pop music isn’t created to last. No one a hundred years from now is going to want an album of the Greatest Hits of Britney Spears, though I venture to suggest that a hundred years from now people will still listen to older pop music (e.g., the Beatles) and that a thousand years from now people will still want to listen to Bach. Present-orientation leads to a demand for immediate gratification and a sense that nothing matters much.

    I’m sure that there are a hundred other things I haven’t mentioned, but perhaps these suggestions might spark some discussion.

  5. While it is true there is a secular (i.e. long term) decline in oldline conservative confessional Protestant denominations and much of this decline is actually transfer to other, typically Evangelical churches, the 20% that becomes “unaffiliated” should not be assumed as “lost” to non-Christian faiths or no faith at all. A panel of leading Evangelical experts at Baylor have responded to the Pew report ( and note that many active non-denominational Evangelicals respond to surveys by saying they have “no religion.”

    In this light perhaps many people now see being a “none” as essential to their understanding of the Christian faith and church. While this may seem baffling if you have been in a historic denomination all your life, it does seem to reflect the experience of Americans for whom these boundaries are fluid to non-existent and even disagreeable. Notably the current Pew report includes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the “Christian” category. Another recent Pew report noted how American Jews no longer regard messianic Jews as Christians or “non-Jewish.” They can be regarded as Jews, Christians, Evangelicals, all of the above, or none or something altogether different. The real story being missed here is how the context and framework for what it means to be religious and Christian is changing. The demographic figures are fairly meaningless unless we understand this context and what people mean when they call themselves such and such or reject a certain label.

    At the Baylor conference Gordon Melton similarly described “neo-atheism” as a religious movement and is not alone in contending that unbelief, skepticism, free-thinking, universalism, deism, and Unitarianism are very old religious movements in Europe and North America. They have organized communities, churches, schools, and theological traditions that in some cases connect to Protestant and early Christianity. To describe them as “non-religious” is inaccurate, and overall the Baylor argument is that the world is increasingly religious. In places like Latin America and Africa it is also increasingly Christian but not reducible to clear-cut denominational categories.

  6. Sometimes trying to keep people “in the fold” is the worst thing for them and can backfire. Many born-again Evangelicals of my generation who came of age in the 1960s and 70s grew up in conservative oldline churches and found them spiritually dead. There will always be congregations like that, and moving on to a more spiritually vibrant community is not a bad thing. Some of us even came back eventually to traditional denominations, if not the ones we were raised in.

    This sort of leaving and returning narrative is just my story and does not say much about churches. When I settled later in life in a conservative reformed church, the congregation had just removed a pastor whose idea of doctrinal fidelity was antagonistic and divisive. He was replaced by a gentler soul whose convictions led him to a different, non-reformed denomination, and years later the original pastor went back to his own Catholic roots. Our congregation has always been a reformed and evangelical mix of people who care for each other. We are not a portrait of instability, wishy-washiness or salad bar faith. I think we are a portrait of the post-ethnic American church when faith is a very personal and daily considered decision along a path of decisions. In can takes us through many different doors.

    You may be interested in John Hawthorne’s work on this subject. He has some expert analysis of the recent Pew report on his blog where he has shared his knowledge for quite some time. He points out than in 2007 four in ten of the people surveyed said they were “born again,” but this included 15% of Catholics and 28% of Mainlines. I think this is a good reason to start considering the “Evangelical” label a very ecumenical one and not as a proxy for “conservative Protestant” or “fundamentalist.” Hawthorne has also noted that 1 in 4 Evangelicals rarely attend church, but more than half of these rare attenders say religion is very important to them. I would guess these are often people who are between churches, hurt by a church, or Evangelical by family ties but convictionally attached to a different expression of Christianity.

  7. The comments below may reflect that which I have experienced.
    The topic here at hand seems to be a quiet matter of concern within many a church community.
    A Christian Life is not of tradition , nor a life of following mutually accepted behaviour.
    Our life is a response to that which we have been given.
    We (Christians) must know and believe that which we do is much more foundational and greater than that which we say (with or without all our heart)
    How do we respond to the Word in our relationships? In our marriages? In our employment? In that which we call ‘mine’? In our biological environment? ….every square inch.
    May Christians hear the Word to be true in every human context (nay to subjectivism).