Predictors of Youth Returning to Church as Adults


Lovett Weems reviews a study of participation in church by adults who had dropped out of church as youth.  Of all the variables studied, only one was predictive of whether these youth would be active as adults – the extent of their involvement in a youth group.

A longitudinal study of youth in the suburbs of Washington, DC, followed youth who were active in the church at age 16 to see if they were active at age 38. The purpose of the study was to determine if there were significant variables that might serve as predictors of which youth would be active as adults.

Youth Drop Out

One clear finding was the pervasiveness of the pattern of youth dropping out of church at some point. Overall, 79 percent dropped out at some time, and of them, 56 percent returned by the time they were re-interviewed as adults.

Adult Experiences Most Significant

The research found that the adult experiences of the persons in the study were more important in determining their church involvement as adults than youth influences were. Religious upbringing, practices, or beliefs did not stand out as predictor variables.

One Major Exception — Youth Groups

While none of the other variables in their youth experience could be found to be a predictor that these youth would have active church involvement as adults, there was one major exception — youth group participation.

So, what religious aspects of childhood and youth have the most long-lasting effects on the personal adult religious involvement of middle-class youth? To the surprise of the researchers, it was not parents’ church attendance, the amount that parents talked to their children about religion, frequency of church attendance as a youth, years in a religious school, or years in Sunday School. It was the amount of involvement in church youth programs. Youth of all denominations who were more involved in church youth groups of any kind were also more involved in church and in personal religious practice as adults.

All Things Are Not Equal?

In all aspects of ministry, we need to identify not just good things to do but things we can do that will make the most difference in lives. Every dimension of youth ministry contributes to their formation as Christian disciples. However, this study signals us to assess in a special way the youth group ministry and participation in our churches. Perhaps the level of youth group participation becomes one of the key indicators of the spiritual health of the congregation that you and church leaders monitor and work diligently to improve.

It is easy to see youth group ministry as something beyond the primary sight of the pastor, especially if there are staff and volunteers responsible for youth ministry. This research indicates that participation in church youth groups may need to move to the center of focus.

The article relies on “The Relative Influence of Youth and Adult Experiences on Personal Spirituality and Church Involvement,” by Thomas P. O’Connor, Dean R. Hoge, and Estrelda Alexander, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41:4 (2002) 723-732.

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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems Jr. is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.

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