Teenagers Ditching Youth Group & Church

photo by marcia furman

USA Today published a short piece on how the days of overcrowded youth groups and church trips are over.

Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.

A few individuals guess why kids are ditching:

“Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook,” says Barna president David Kinnaman.

“I blame the parents,”who didn’t grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan. … “Remember, 80% of kids don’t have cars. Their parents could be lazy or the opposite — overstressed and overcommitted. If parents don’t go to church, kids don’t, either.”

Don’t forget the overcommitted teens themselves, the recession and growing competition from summer mission trips, says Rick Gage of Go-Tell Youth Camps, based in Duluth, Ga.

But then this quote sneaks in at the very end without any explanation or curiosity from the authors:

“I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do or if I just went because my friends did,” says Atkeson, now 18. “It just wasn’t really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn’t consider myself a Christian anymore.”

This is where I think the article would get interesting! Why did they stop there? This may be the most important issue—beyond lazy parents and facebook.

There must be more to kids leaving Christianity other than “I’m not attending church” or “I’m not going to camps with my youth group.” Many Christians often say things like, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a mechanic.” If Christianity and faith is so much more than just attending services, then what’s causing this shift in teen commitments?

My “Youthgroupie” Days

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-youth group. A lot of fun and character-building can happen in that kind of setting. I was a very active member of church youth groups from the ages of 10-18. My best friends came out of those groups, and I got the chance to do a bit of traveling (mission trips), go to a lot of fun events, concerts, and camps, and have a good time in a safe, parent-free environment. I lucked out, to be honest; I’ve heard some horror stories, but I thankfully survived just fine and had a good time in the process. Besides the religious training and evangelism that I could have done without, I consider it a great point in my development.

What if I hadn’t attended church or belonged to a youth group? Then I hopefully would have found another group of kids to hang out with and had other fun things to do.

Other Activities

So what are these straggling kids spending their time doing? My cynical mind assumes they’re just being silly, social butterflies who have sex too early, are glued to their phones, and try out every illegal substance they can get their hands on. But then again, I don’t expect much from most teenagers. Just call me ageist.

I hope there are enough attractive alternatives to churches out there for teens. I can think of some awesome things I wish I had been doing outside of school: community theater, another choir or orchestra, volunteering, a sports team, gaming, taking more fun classes like photography or language, etc. But I’m an adult now, and those things may not have seemed so fun to me at the time.

The constructive fun can come in many forms—not just from churches. Let’s just hope kids  find a great secular way of keeping out of trouble ;)

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August 11, 2010  |  christianity, religion, society

27 Comments


  1. I am very happy that there are less teens going away to indoctrination camps. Believe me there are non-harmful things that people that age can be doing that doesn’t involve crazy superstitious God Fairy stuff.

  2. Where are the lame roller-rink outings playing bland Jesus-rock? Where are the trips to blood-on-the-ice minor-league hockey games? Where are the trips to the park with trying-to-hard deacons struggling to look hip?

    How tragic. That one guy’s quote about lazy parents couldn’t be more obviously defensive. The question isn’t where are the going, but why don’t they feel compelled to stay?

    For the record, though I am not in touch with the Christian community at all anymore, I *can* tell you that – anecdotally speaking – the politicization of the American church has done nothing to help membership rolls.

    I’ve talked with a few people that find the buy in to a church’s politics (*not* theology/dogma) has done much to keep them away from services and Church community events. Maybe focusing on living a good Christian life is more important than imploring them to attend Tea-Party hate-ins.

    Just a thought.

    • it could just be that it’s harder to insulate kids from other kids-facebook and twitter, sure, but how about news sites, oped pieces, and just plain old information gathering? kids aren’t just kids anymore. it’s our mistake in not seeing that lots of them, compared to you and me at our age, are staggeringly more intelligent. for us, mastering the card catalog at the library was hard. for them, googling “hate speech” or “atheist” is ridiculously simple-and they’re learning that religion is just mythology-and they’re not buying.

  3. I had read somewhere recently (and I forget where I saw this) that the numbers of people who identify as Christian has remained fairly flat over the last few decades. This suggests that people leaving and rejoining the church is a cyclical thing and these youth groups have nothing to worry about – a few will close, some will expand, some new ones will come about.

    Maybe it’s an issue of “too much choice” – all the groups are pretty much the same;small variations in tolerance is all that sets them apart.

    That said, it would be cool if secular organisations could fill the gap with community events – sports teams, discussion groups, etc. Maybe this should be seen as an opportunity to show that there is an alternative.

  4. I think a lot kids grow up and realize that Christianity is bullshit, but of course the journalist isn’t going to look at that. It’s safer to just blame the parents and facebook.

    • yeahhhhh it really is.. those youth groups are pretty sketchy.. when i was younger and attending youth summer camps, i felt like i was the only person who wasn’t brainwashed.. one day i went to the only phone in camp and called my dad to come pick me up , some staff member hung the phone up right after it started to ring and told me, “the phone is only for emergencies.” i replied, ” this is one, want to go home and am not happy here. ” they responded with some question that required me to answer them only to have them ask another question… started to notice the staff was trying to get me to forget about the phone all together and the fact that i wasnt happy . . i told them that if they didn’t let me call my dad , i was going to have my them sued for not allowing me to contact my guardian and keeping me against my will . threw some bs their way about how my dad was a lawyer.. never saw someone bust out pocket change for a payphone faster… bottom line, christian youth camps that dont allow cell phones are a really bad idea.. well, any christian camp is a bad idea..

      • brainwashing just doesn’t work the way it used to-can’t keep ppl isolated enough, for a long enough time to make it stick. boot camp was 4 mos of no tv, news, phone calls, anything but letters from home, and that crap wore off soon as I graduated-if it ever really took. imagine now: cell phones, twitter, facebook…indoctrination can’t stand the flow of information, that’s just fact.

  5. Definitely second the ol’ Gee-Gee when she says: “A lot of fun and character-building can happen in that kind of setting. I was a very active member of church youth groups from the ages of 10-18. My best friends came out of those groups…”
    and also: “What if I hadn’t attended church or belonged to a youth group? Then I hopefully would have found another group of kids to hang out with and had other fun things to do.”

    I wouldn’t trade the years I spent in youth group – even for a king’s ransom in beer. Of course, without the experience, I could hardly appreciate any volume, no less a king’s ransom of beer in quite the same way. Granted, as GG was (I mean, same place, basically same decade…) exposed to particularly honest and free-thinking youth groups, I was. But the groups certainly instilled important values in me and my peers.
    Speaking of those peers, many, many of them have grown up along with me, and we now find ourselves ALL questioning those things we were taught – some resentfully and angrily, some with careful consideration. It’s a great dialogue to have among adults who have come through a process of….well…indoctrination to assess the positive and negative things we learned – and share them with others! (Sharing, not, of course, proselytizing, thank the universe…)

    As a final addition, in response to Andrew Hall’s comment: “there are non-harmful things that people that age can be doing…” A fair assessment. And probably true. However, I feel like teens don’t usually choose the non-harmful route (adults, too, bee-tee-dubs. Humanity and all that.) I feel like if it wasn’t Imaginary Friend Camp, it would be something just as bad, ultimately. But then again AH probably took this into consideration. You do not seem a fool, sir.

  6. I never went to a youth group. (My family’s not Christian.) I did go to Islamic Sunday school, but it was for a very brief time. It was mostly religious, and I didn’t enjoy it; perhaps if there had been some other activities involved, I would have enjoyed some parts of it.

    Personally, I was never the kind of teen who went out and did the kind of things you’re suggesting. I always loved to stay in and read. I hope more teens do that.

    Thanks for writing!

  7. I had odd parents who for some reason didn’t care for me hanging out with the church kids Friday nights. Maybe it was just them not wanting to truck a kid into the city and back every week just to hang out, but maybe more of it had to do with the church aspect. As far as I can figure, I’ve been an atheist all of my life. My parents certainly didn’t put any pressure on me to be anything else, even with my first years of Catholic school behind me. They didn’t encourage me into a religion of any kind but I didn’t realize how fortunate I really was because of that.

    I did wind up doing some youth group related events sometimes, but only if it involved the kids of a neighbour my parents knew. Then it seemed to be okay to let me spend the night at a church. Trust issues, I guess. Most of the time I really had no interest in hanging out with my religious (and really only) friends outside school hours.

  8. This article was very timely for me. I was just the sole atheist in a friends youth group trip to a theme park. I didn’t notice any religion at all there, save for the prayer at the beginning of the day. Altogether, it was nice

  9. When you think about it, it’s probably the case that many teens used these youth groups for social networking purposes as much as they used them for spiritual fulfillment. It was a way to make new friends or to meet members of the opposite sex.

    Then along came the web with MySpace and Facebook, and teens probably don’t need these kinds of groups anymore.

    Probably not the whole reason why they’re no longer interested, but could be a small part.

  10. There isn’t much doubt about the Barna research, but there can be a lot of debate on the “why.” Still, it is important to note that youth groups still reach 25% of American teens. There aren’t many activities that reach that high. And even though it turns out to be a bad experience (or at least a non-formative one) for many students, there are still tens of thousands that find it helpful and meaningful.

  11. We have one in Frankfort, IL. across the street from our soccer fields. Unfortunately, this camp is still very, very popular. And, I know some of the families with attending children; they take their faith extremely seriously.

  12. Have they asked the questions of why kids are still attending? I’m thinking that they don’t want to admit it, but horny and lonely are somewhere on that list.

  13. Now you know USA Today can’t have a positive portrayal of atheists. Think of all the nasty letters they would receive.

  14. I remember being 7 years old and not liking anyone at (atleast 15 ) all Baptist Churches.. Everyone seemed to be very unfriendly and fake. I finally stopped with the hollllyyy rollers when I was 18.

    A child should never feel unloved anywhere…
    I’m 24 now. I Love life to the fullest without Christianity in my life and I hope Christians will be fine with that way of thinking someday.

  15. I Was A Pentacostal Christian Until September Of 2009.
    Now I’m An Atheist.
    I Find The Psychology Of Religion To Be Fascinating.
    I’m 17 Btw…

  16. Hey there!

    I just recently found this blog and have been reading through the archives voraciously. I am still working out where I stand on religion and the ideas that come with it. For now, I just say I’m agnostic, until further notice.

    This story really hit home with me because I had a very rough time in my church youth group growing up.

    I grew up in a very liberal, laid back Presbyterian church in a college town. I started going to a “mini” youth group, called LOGOS, when I entered first grade. From 4-7, I got to have play time, “song” time, bible time, and then dinner.

    Unfortunately, my group as a child was less than welcoming. I made one friend there, and he continues to be my greatest friend. But, I was also bullied constantly. Every week, the same three boys targeted me and my friend and verbally harassed us. On occasion, I was physically assaulted. In a church. As a third grader.

    I came home in tears more than once on Wednesday night, and even though I told countless church and youth group leaders and my parents, nothing was ever done. I begged my parents to let me stop going to youth group. But, I was a child. Why would they listen to me?

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I love and adore my parents. They are wonderful and caring people. I only assume they wanted me to have a fulfilling spiritual life, or at least have some good times, like my two older siblings had. But, I am NOT my older siblings.

    For years, through sixth grade, I went on Wednesday nights and put up with boredom and abuse. Then! Joy of joys! I could join the middle school youth group! I could get confirmed into the Presbyterian Church!

    This took place after dinner. Middle and high schoolers shared dinner with the younger kids, then they went off to do Jesus stuff. I was excited. I was certain this would be the turning point. I would make friends. I would belong. I would figure out what the big deal about God was.

    It never happened. I was as alone as ever. All through middle and high school, I got the feeling that I just didn’t “fit”. I was friendly. I tried to be outgoing. I tried to read the Bible (unsuccessfully) and have valid points to bring up in relevant discussions.

    But, I was constantly ignored by my peers. They were, how shall I say, very cliquey. They hung out with each other at school and at church. The best I got outside of youth group was a head nod or a vague smile. I was benignly ignored.

    But, I still tried. I desperately wanted to feel what my siblings had felt. That feeling of belonging to a group, of discovering myself in a deeper, more meaningful capacity. I went to church most Sundays (and slept through it or read a book), and I joined my church’s hand bell choir.

    Surprisingly, I found the friendship I wanted in that bell choir. Where the members were well beyond my age by a good thirty or forty years. But, they welcomed me. They loved my enthusiasm to play music and to be a part of the group, to hear the stories of my days at school and of my friends.

    I had no such luck with the youth of my church. More and more, I found myself skipping youth group on Wednesdays, spending it on something else that was “more pressing”.

    Even through my Senior year of high school, I tried to force myself to go. I went on three mission trips, my first three years of high school, and I was determined to see it through.

    But, I didn’t. By the winter of my Senior year, I had given up. There was no place for me at my youth group. I was an outsider. An odd duck. No matter how well liked my siblings had been there, I wasn’t THEM.

    In the end, I just stopped going. I spent my time with my high school tech crew in the theater, doing homework, reading, and spending time with my (then new) boyfriend. I felt more fulfilled spending my night reading or finishing a homework assignment than I ever had at youth group.

    I stuck with my bell choir to the end, if only for the friendship and love they showed me, and my own love of music. They even gave me a shirt for a graduation present, and I’m the only one in the world that has one. They designed it for me.

    Maybe the fault didn’t lie with my youth group. Perhaps my personality turned them off. It’s happened before. I’m a bit too “ME” for some people. Perhaps I gave off an air of “I’m only here for the free food”, which was a very big motivator.

    But, I still can’t help feeling that it was my feeling of misplacement. That I didn’t fit in with the “cool” kids. I thought it wouldn’t matter at church, where everyone was supposed to love and cherish and accept each other just as they are. Perhaps I expected too much out of a bunch of high school students.

    I was never very into religion, so I didn’t feel bad leaving it behind me. I felt more like I had spent time on something that I simply couldn’t understand. And that broke my heart a little, knowing how hard I had tried.

    Looking back, I wish I had left my youth group sooner. Not my bell choir, because I know I still love them to bits. But, I hate knowing I wasted so much time with people that didn’t understand me, or want to understand and know me. I could have spent more time with my father and mother, or my siblings, or my friends, or my dog.

    It’s only been two years since I gave up on going to church and youth group. I don’t know who I am spiritually anymore. I don’t really feel like I have anyone I can talk to about my struggles that can give me some sort of advice.

    All I know is, I’m never going back to a youth group again. Maybe a feeling of miserableness and loneliness is what’s keeping other kids from bothering to go. I would believe that.

    My apologies for the book on this topic, and my life in youth group. It’s not terribly exciting. Also, I apologize for posting on an old post. I just had to comment on this.

    I love your writing and your stories, and I very much look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

  17. That, or kids are seeing the brainwashing techniques, and cheap enticement techniques that are being used. I know I certainly did. Old friend came up to me and asked me to “hang out” with them because I was so “cool”. Let’s see, went to coffee shop with “friends” and they talked about nothing but the bible. Went to video store, got Christian propaganda films and talked about the bible. Went to her house and they talked about the bible… I finally complained and decided to leave. The next words out of her mouth were “you should join us for youth group, we don’t talk about religion there. There’s free coffee and food, too!”. The next words out of my mouth were, “you’re kidding, right?”, and I slammed the door shut and walked the eight miles home.

    This, of course, is what prompted me to look into their church and evidently finding out that it was a cult that used and abused kids (and even kick started my path to atheism). I found it quit strange when one of my friends decided to cross rush hour traffic during a green light and said, “Jesus will protect me”, and it gave me that itch to do the research.

    I also blame the internet, too. Along with extremism, the internet is going to KILL religion. Today’s youth are watching Thunderf00t and everyone else on Youtube, and getting the actual facts of life straight instead of filling it with religious inebriation.

  18. I kind of feel lonely when i went to youth group the couple of times i did. I felt that i was just not religious enough to be there. I just couldnt get into it.

  19. I am truly sorry for each of your bad experiences. It sounds like many of you have been very hurt by the church. I read each of your stories and I found the common thread was the lack of a sense of true community and belonging.

    We were born for that.
    We thirst for it.
    We’ll do anything for it.

    I cannot deny how much I truly love Jesus and the grace he has shed on a broken, sinful human like me, but its unfortunate to find and hear that a youth group turned you all away from the grace I experience in my absolutely imperfect life everyday. I am really sorry on behalf on Christians that this is what the result brings from our ignorance.

    • You’re “sorry on behalf of Christians” for what the result brings? Why? If indeed these young people have liberated themselves from the “ignorance” of Christians and their beliefs, then they are to be congratulated not pitied for it is they who are the enlightened ones.
      Why is it so hard for you to understand that just maybe—what you believe is fraud? if you cannot examine your beliefs critically and without fear then you will never grow.

  20. Why can’t Christians accept that some people including their own kids just don’t believe the same as they do? Accept, it deal with it and leave non-believers alone.
    As a young atheist I claim the right to my own religious views. Attempts by Christians to indoctrinate me with bronze age nonsense only pushes me away all the more.

  21. Hi there i am kavin, its my first occasion to commenting anywhere, when i read this post i thought i
    could also create comment due to this brilliant article.

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