Why do so many children leave church when they go to college?

There was a very interesting finding in Survey: High School Seniors ‘Graduating from God’, Christian News.  More critical thinking leads to better transitions.

Whether it was with the youth group overall or with a specific adult leader, students who had the opportunity to struggle with tough questions and pain during high school seemed to have a healthier transition into college life,” stated the study by Powell and Krista Kubiak, youth worker and graduate of the Marriage and Family program at Fuller.

And youth workers play a significant part in such conversations involving struggles and tough questions. But in the big picture, youth groups are leaving out any preparations to help students make a successful transition.

Now that doesn’t surprise me.  I’ve always felt that youth groups that focus on entertainment, “walk the talk” and similar themes aren’t preparing youth to go to college where their faith will be challenged from all angles.

I’m glad to see the surveys show that the atheists have it all wrong.  No amount of “brain-washing” works if people think critically.  The faiths that last are much more likely to have been thought through carefully.  The ones that crumble didn’t know what faith really was.

Oh, and you can’t just throw stones at the youth groups.  It is the parents job first.  The biggest fault of the churches is not holding the parents primarily accountable.

Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

So, how are you doing with that?

19 thoughts on “Why do so many children leave church when they go to college?”

  1. Have you ever seen the documentary “Divided: The Movie“? It looks at the way that the modern church has become divided into age groups, rather than the Biblical example (both Old and New Testament) of families worshiping together.

    I agree with you that it is the parents’ job first to teach their children; but I would say that the existence of “youth groups” (which is not a Biblical concept) is probably the main reason/way that the church is not holding parents accountable. In fact, it seems to me that youth groups usurp the authority of the parents (fathers particularly) and weaken the family.


    1. Good points, Kathy, and thanks for the link! Hadn’t seen that but I’ll check it out.

      I just visited with a friend last week whose church makes it a point that everyone worships together, and teaches why and how the husbands should lead the families. The church is thriving.


      1. Are the makers of the movie suggesting that churches should eradicate age-specific worship?

        My church has both: age-oriented activities during the week and before/after the main service in which EVERYONE (except small children) worships during the three Sunday morning services.

        I see no problem with this. I happen to think that other Christians who are close to my age are the ones most likely to be at a similar place in in their own lives, and therefore most likely to understand when I speak about some victory or some struggle I’m having.

        It is more difficult to do this around people who are 20 years away from me in either direction.


      2. You can watch the movie and see for yourself. 🙂 I guess you could say that’s sort of the premise or “take home message” from it; but what they really suggest is that churches should look to the Bible for what they do, and age-segregated worship is nowhere found in the Bible, and every time children are mentioned, especially when it comes to inculcating them with moral principles and teaching about God, it is within the context of the family, and the parents (especially the fathers) are the ones who are to teach their children, not the priests/preachers/pastors. This is in the Old Testament as well as the New, with the Proverbs especially directing fathers and mothers in the spiritual training of their children; and children in the NT are always mentioned as part of the family and under their parents, not under the leadership of anyone else.

        While there is no Biblical invective against age-segregated worship, so one might say it’s “Christian liberty” to have it, there is no support for it either, and every example of a church is families worshiping together, with people from all walks of life coming together as one body. At the least, I do not think that children should be separated from their families for religious instruction, but rather that the parents should superintend their religious education; and if the fathers/parents don’t feel like they can because they don’t know enough, then that should be an inducement for them to study more, so that they *can* lead their families as God has instituted, rather than to shrug off their duties and give them to someone else.

        While there may be a place for different groups of adults to come together from time to time, as they share common life experiences, there is a downside to this — by separating yourself from those who are older, simply because they are older and not in your exact age bracket, you are cutting yourself off from the wisdom and experience of your elders. Sure, they may not be currently trying to find a spouse or struggling with raising small children, but they can say, “been there, done that, and here’s what I learned.” That wisdom and experience can be invaluable! Far better is it for people to learn the easy way (by reading the Bible and listening to those who have already passed that way, and learning from *their* mistakes), than to surround themselves only with their peers who are also struggling, and have no more wisdom than themselves have.

        I think of the story of Solomon’s son Rehoboam when he became king, and his bad decision that ultimately led to the split of the kingdom of Israel into Israel and Judah. The people of Israel came to him to ask him to reduce the tax burden; Rehoboam asked the old men who had advised Solomon (and likely gained a lot of wisdom and experience, just by being around that wise man for years, in addition to any wisdom they gained from the passage of time), and they advised to reduce the burden as the people said, and said if he did that, the people would happily stay ruled by him; but then he asked the men who were his age, and they advised him the opposite, saying that if Rehoboam gave into the people’s request, that the people would think he was weak and would rebel. So, Rehoboam listened to his peers instead of his elders, and suffered for it.

        And there I will stop this already long comment. 🙂


      3. “Sure, they may not be currently trying to find a spouse or struggling with raising small children, but they can say, ‘been there, done that, and here’s what I learned.'”

        The older men you’re referring to said the exact same thing, when I happened to mention the age difference.

        There may be some wisdom to this, albeit limited. For a while I started going to a Bible study that met in the mornings, during the week. I attended this particular study because I work non-traditional hours and days. Most people are at work when I’m off, and vice versa.

        I was easily the youngest person there. Another member was in his 40s and I think unemployed. The rest were all older than my dad and retired.

        Our study consisted of simply reading the Bible out loud from cover-to-cover over the course of several months. Every few verses we’d pause for discussion. The trouble began when I noticed the old men would stop in the middle of Psalms to carp about what was happening to our county in general, and complain about Obama in particular.

        Of course, I’m as concerned about the course of current events as anyone, and I disagree with our president’s policies very strongly. That said, it didn’t seem like the time or the place, and I was suddenly reminded of all the things I’ve heard old men gripe about that mean nothing to me.

        I’ve been a Christian my entire life, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone even suggest there’s anything wrong with age-segregated worship and study. Do the proponents of this view also take issue with gender-segregated worship and study (mens’ weekend retreats, womens’ retreats..?) Because I think that’s absolutely essential to getting down to the nitty-gritty of what is retarding our spiritual growth.


  2. As an ex-youth group leader I have almost nothing but regrets looking back. By the end of that time I threw out the church curriculum and replaced it with the Bible. Why would you entrust your children to a twenty something youth leader with spiked hair and no children of his own. Kathy is right about their being no biblical basis. I’m tired of the saved by grace, freedom from the law so you can justify your tattoos and body piercing drivel. Let the church train parents to do what God entrusted only them to do. He didn’t entrust them to the state, school, or any other man-made institutions. Church will never work until family works.
    P.S.: Let me clarify that we are saved by grace, but the whole council of God needs to be taught and rarely have I seen that kind of maturity in the level of leadership so easily bestowed.


  3. This is why I am thrilled that my oldest (college freshman) has found a great church as well as some wonderful Young Life folks who have really welcomed him into their lives.


  4. I don’t have any experience with youth groups. I would imagine they are each as different as the people and churches that host them. My daughter, who is almost 16, has been spending a week each year at a massive youth group in Troy, WI called Camp Timber-Lee. This last was her fifth or sixth year and she really enjoys it. Her faith and belief and interest in Christ and Christianity is quite strong for a teen girl. She also has several close friends that are, to one degree or another, involved in various church youth groups or events. She is joining a friend in a youth group that is part of the new church we’ll soon be joining. It will take place on a week night. The church has similar groups and gatherings for men and women and other age groups, but Sunday service is always for the whole family. I believe there is also separate Bible study classes for varying groups after the early Sunday service.

    Thus far, I’ve had no problem with the various venues for Christian instruction to which my daughter has been exposed, even the lame Bible class she attended at the UCC church we are leaving. Her own interest has always been rather strong and she asks me questions often and to this day. Our talks are key. It gives her a chance to bounce off of me the things she hears and learns, as well as to help her understand how events in her life should be viewed and negotiated from a Christian perspective. She even has a few atheist friends and it seems to me that she is more an influence on them than they are on her (as best I can tell).

    I’ve been pleased to know that the types of groups to which she’s been exposed do not seem to be the type that has drawn concern here.


  5. Matt,

    Age-segregated worship, has been common for at least the last 50 years, if I remember correctly from what the documentary said, so that’s likely why you haven’t heard anything against it. It started with the Sunday School effort in (I think) the 1800s, and even then some church leaders and pastors warned against it, saying it likely would lead to an end of family worship. Whether that was the primary or secondary cause or not, we certainly do see that few families in the church have family worship these days, with the fathers teaching Christian principles and doctrine to their children.

    The documentary (which was primarily by a young man who wondered why so many of his peers left the church as they grew older) focused mainly on youth groups in churches, and did not really single out things like women’s groups or other adult-focused groups that met outside of “church” (i.e., not as the regular Sunday service), nor did they mention “children’s church” or having a nursery for infants and toddlers, except those could be included in the general subject of families worshiping together; and while they touched on things that youth groups do, like go to concerts and such (and generally looking like and acting like the world at un”Christian” rock concerts), they did not mention occasional youth get-togethers (like a group of friends going bowling) nor things like women’s Bible studies. The focus seemed to be solely on regular age-segregated worship, where the family is split apart to worship, with the adults going one place, and the children each go in one or another room for religious instruction, and that, and that alone, constitutes “church”.

    Something else that I learned in the documentary, is that the concept of age segregation in the church stemmed from age segregation in the classroom; and *that* came from evolutionary philosophy! It taught that younger children were more ape-like in their skills and abilities and thus should be separated from older children, much as our alleged ape ancestors separated from the apes and became a separate (and more intelligent) species. And that was the beginning of age segregation in the classroom. I thought that was a fascinating historical tidbit; and it resonated with me, as someone who attended a small Christian school and always had a multi-grade classroom — usually 5 or 6 grades at once, but the fewest was 3. [Btw, I learned a lot, too, listening to the older students’ lessons. :-)]

    You’re right that discussions on current events, politics and condemning the President have no place in a *Bible* study; and while this particular group may have been more likely to digress than one of a different age bracket, the problem was the digression, not particularly the age difference. Had you been in a Bible study that was your own age group I daresay you would have had the same problem, only the topic may have been different — frustrations with wives/girlfriends or raising small children or problems with the boss, etc. Ideally, someone should have spoken up, to keep the Bible study on *the Bible*, and other topics should have been tabled for coffee at McDonald’s.

    Even if you don’t have time to watch the documentary right now, you can download it today or tomorrow and watch it when you do have time. I would highly recommend it — what if it’s right? What if a major problem with the church is that age-segregated worship has split apart the family for church and resulted in a fractured and weakened family at home? What if children learned to go to their fathers for spiritual counsel and to answer questions about the Bible, instead of going to their Sunday school teacher or youth pastor because Dad just doesn’t know? Don’t we conservatives always talk about the family being the basic building block of society? Doesn’t it sound like it would make for a stronger, more cohesive family, to have Dad be the authority in the home and the spiritual leader — truly the spiritual leader of the family, rather than one of a dozen Sunday school teachers or youth pastors? Are we “Sola Scriptura” or not? When the Bible teaches on a subject, I think we tread on thin ice to ignore that teaching, with every man doing that which is right in his own eyes.

    If you can watch that documentary and “study the Scriptures to see whether these things be so”, and come to the conclusion that age-segregated worship is equivalent to or superior to family-integrated worship, that’s between you and God, and I am in no way your judge. But as you say, you’ve never even had the concept challenged, so you have never critically examined it. If they’re wrong, then you’ve spent an hour or an hour and a half in vain; but if they’re right, and the church is getting weaker because of what is common practice in most churches today, then some things need to change, and you can be part of that change.


    1. Even if I watched the documentary and reached the same conclusions you have, what of it?

      I’m not in any position to go down to the church I’ve been attending for a few years and start reorganizing the way they do things. I suppose your reply to that is that my next would be to get into a position where I can influence the leadership, and/or get current board members and the pastor to watch the movie.

      Being that I’m an adult and my child is still being left in the nursery on Sunday mornings, it’s suddenly dawned on me that I have no idea what happens to the grade schoolers, much less the junior and senior high kids on Sunday mornings. I never really looked to see if they were in the sanctuary with us or not; the only people I’m sure of seeing in there are other adults, plus babies under a year old. I do see some children there with their parents from time to time.

      I think most of the kids from 6th-12th grades go to separate buildings on the church campus, while the adults head for the sanctuary. I must admit this does strike me as a bit odd, because when I was a kid Sunday mornings at my parents’ church were a two-parter: a “corporate worship” in the sanctuary which everyone attended except for children too young to sit through it…supplemented by age-segregated study classes either before or after the main service (“Sunday School”).

      I have found myself wondering why there doesn’t seem to be anything for adults on Sunday mornings other than the main service; all the supplemental class studies and whatnot are during the week. It’s actually a bit frustrating because my work schedule precludes me from attending most of them. I’ve stayed in my present church because I do enjoy the preaching and contemporary worship music.


      1. Bing — at least download it and burn it to DVD, and get your pastor to watch “this thought-provoking movie”. If your pastor or church was promoting something that you knew was not Scriptural, would you hesitate to confront them on it?

        Included in the documentary are some supplementary clips, including one by Paul Washer (a fabulous pastor and teacher), in which he makes the following analogy:

        What if your wife went out shopping, and out in the parking lot, one or more men grabbed her and raped her, while other men stood by doing nothing. They could have tried to help her, but felt it was too much trouble, or perhaps that they couldn’t stop them, so they just did nothing. And then you found out about it. Sure, you would be angry at the actual perpetrators, but wouldn’t you also be angry those who stood by, watching your wife get raped, but stayed silent and did nothing?

        The church is the bride of Christ, His wife; if false teachers are wreaking havoc in the church, it is as if they are raping Christ’s bride. If you stand by and say/do nothing, are you complicit in their actions?

        I don’t think that most people who have segregated services *intend* for it to be wrong or unbiblical or weakening to the family and by extension the church; they just are doing what others have done before them, and/or it seems like a good idea, and they likely have not really considered what the Bible has to say about corporate worship and the spiritual training of children. And that’s why I think that every pastor and parishioner needs to see this movie — because it has been accepted as good for so long, when it simply may not be, and in fact, may be harmful for the church.

        Yes, it will cause churches to do things differently, if they believe that what is in the movie is Scriptural — but this is a good thing. And if the church has gotten weak and is getting weaker because of unbiblical practices, then the remedy (“when all else fails”) is to “read the instruction manual” (the Bible) and see what the Maker, Master, and Owner of the church says about how it should work. It might take some time to transition from the current system to the Biblical system, but it is a process worth doing, because God’s way is always worth doing.


      2. Okay, tell me that you didn’t just compare age-segregated Bible study to a woman getting raped in a parking lot while bystanders do nothing. I’m going to have to roll my eyes at that one. It would be one thing if you were talking about those who teach that Buddha or Mohammed or Confucius’ teaching is on a par with that by Jesus, but that’s not what we’re talking about.

        I’m not yet ready to call age-segregated classes “unBiblical” the way you and Vender. on the other thread seem ready to do. Food for thought? Sure.

        Wrong? I’m not so sure. Neither am I particularly seeing the disadvantages of it, and in fact I see plenty of reasons it makes perfect sense. There may be something to be said of the wisdom of elders, but then again there’s that old saw: “There’s no fool like an old fool.”

        Lots of people reach their 70s and 80s and can still steer a young person wrong. I don’t think spending all my time at church with seniors is the be-all, end-all, and neither would I want to spend all my time there trying to mentor children and teenagers.

        It seems odd that in a hundred years of contemporary American Christianity, we have yet to see a big intra-church “movement” of people wanting to do away with this. It’s been done at every church I’ve ever attended, and there have been many. Were they all wrong?

        (I would go on to say that if this really were that serious, more Christians would make an issue of it…but then you’ve got plenty of alleged believers who refuse to expunge teaching that clearly is “unBiblical.”)

        It’s the same reason that children are segregated according to grade level at schools. It simply isn’t appropriate to put 6th graders in the same class as 11th graders. The two groups couldn’t possibly have less in common.

        Age-integrated adult classes do exist, and then the members break-up according to age group for other studies they’re involved in. The Bible study I was complaining about earlier was open to everyone – women as well as men across the age spectrum. At the same time, I don’t have an issue with my church holding activity and study groups that are geared only to the 65+ members of the congregation.

        A lot of what separates one church from the next isn’t even doctrinal differences, rather, ones of style. You’ll notice that even when different churches disagree on some point of Scripture, each side is complete convinced that they’re the ones who have the market cornered on God’s heart and mind.

        I think there are way too many people among contemporary Christianity who will look at these style differences and call them “unBiblical.” Many of them are likely of no greater consequence to God than whether a believer puts mayonnaise or mustard on his sandwich.


      3. It’s your opinion that there’s nothing wrong with age-segregated services, and that’s between you and God; I’m not your judge. But if it *is* wrong, and you refuse to even question whether it is Biblical or not when confronted with that possibility, then I don’t know what to say.

        First, is it Biblical? No, there is no mention of anything like age-segregated worship in the Bible (although one could possibly make a case for sex-segregated separate classes, as older women are to teach younger women; yet I would think that is likely to be in a one-on-one, in-the-home basis, rather than a classroom setup). You may say that it’s not strictly prohibited either, so it’s “Christian liberty”. That’s possible. Yet what the Bible says is for our learning and instruction, and it seems to me that if it were so beneficial and important to separate children from their parents and/or to teach them in age-homogenous groups, that it would have been mentioned or at least hinted at, at least once. But it isn’t; I repeat myself: every time the spiritual instruction of children is talked of in the Bible, it is parents doing the teaching. It is not up to me to prove that this provides superior results to what churches and parents commonly do, in sending children off to separate rooms to be taught away from their parents; rather, it is up to you to show that doing what is not taught nor even hinted at in the Bible is superior to what *is* shown and described.

        Next, your appeal to tradition falls on deaf ears, and I would remind you of the many times Jesus upbraided the scribes and Pharisees for relying on man’s tradition and the teaching of men, rather than on what God actually said. Yet, if we are to appeal to tradition, I can appeal to a much longer tradition, since you can only point back to about the last 100 years or so, and I can point back to the past couple of millennia.

        Finally, your comment about mixing 6th graders with 11th graders made me laugh, because you’re describing the small Christian school I attended for 12 years (the students were divided into two and at most three rooms); and far from being “inappropriate” and having “nothing in common”, I think it was much better preparation for real life, in that we are not placed in life in homogenous groups, but have to mix and mingle with people from all walks of life and especially all ages. [I actually learned quite a bit while listening to the older kids’ lessons, and that made it even easier when I was in the same class; plus, I was often able to help out the younger students when the teacher was busy with another grade.] But I agree with you — churches do segregate children based on age because they are age-segregated at school, but why do they do that? I already mentioned it in a previous comment, but this strict age segregation started as a result of evolutionary thought. Evolutionists believed that we were descended from apes, and that through the millennia, smarter apes segregated themselves from stupider apes, and eventually speciated so that they could no longer inter-breed, and by this lengthy process, we became fully separated and fully human, while the other apes remained in their animal stupidity. In like manner, and only because of this false teaching, small children were considered to be like the lower apes, and were considered a contaminating influence and should be kept away from middle-school and upper-school children, just as apes should be kept away from humans and not allowed to interbreed.

        And if you look at the historic times of education from since about the 1600s onward, you see that most of the time the schools were either parents teaching their children, tutors or teachers teaching single children or a few children of various ages at one time, or larger schools teaching multiple children all at once (I think of Dickens, Jane Eyre, Laura Ingalls Wilder, John & Charles Wesley’s mother, Abraham Lincoln, Sir Isaac Newton, and many other descriptions of these one-room schoolhouses and other small/home schools). While the children were occasionally so numerous as to be able to be divided into a few different groups, generally segregated by age, the standard of these times was to have children of all ages in one room. These schools produced some of the best scientific and literary minds of all times; I’m afraid modern schools are a faint shadow of these schools which in your opinion inappropriately combined children of all ages. While I don’t lay all the blame for the failure of modern public schools, esp. in America, at the feet of age-segregated classrooms, you also can’t point to them as a shining example of superiority to the one-room age-integrated schools.


      4. You also said something along the lines of, “if this is such a big problem, why don’t we see the church abandoning this practice on a wide scale?” I think we are in the beginning stages of this; you can read this article for more about it. There are some 800 churches who are part of the family-integrated worship movement, and the church I grew up in, as well as all those of the same denomination never started age-segregated worship, never did the whole “Sunday school” thing, yet I’m reasonably sure they haven’t officially joined the FIC movement, so the numbers are likely higher.


  6. I did not read the entire contents of all the replies, but I am a “youth pastor” who DEFINITELY sees a problem in the youth group where the parents EXPECT you to not only be responsible for THEIR children’s spiritual well being but an activities director as well. Something needs to change and be addressed and I am working on what to do in my local body as I write. Thanks for the thought provoking article and responses.


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