December 8, 2014 / Praxis
Karen Swallow Prior meditates on the slow marriage of North and South.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Drew, thank you for talking to us about your new book, Generation Ex-Christian, and your recent article in Christianity Today, “The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church” (November 19, 2010). Let me start by simply asking about your research and findings: what was your methodology in researching young Christians leaving the church and what trends did you find? 
Drew Dyck (DD): There have been a lot studies recently that have given us insight into the younger generation’s patterns of religious belief and involvement. I’m not a sociologist or statistician, but I knew that as a journalist, I could provide profiles of some of these real-life “leavers” and show people the faces behind the numbers. So I tracked down dozens of people, mostly twentysomethings, who identified as ex-Christians and listened to their stories. My “methodology” was hardly scientific. I talked to friends and friends of friends. I sent out a message on Facebook and placed an ad on Craigslist asking for interviews. At first I thought it would be difficult to find enough people to interview, but I found that many leavers were eager to tell their stories.
The interviews brought many interesting things to light. I quickly realized that we Christians tend to oversimplify the reasons people leave. Whenever I ask people inside the church why young people leave, they usually cite moral compromise. They adjust their creed to match their conduct, we say. Although I’m sure moral compromise often plays a role, most cases I encountered seemed to be more complicated. They had intellectual, emotional, and psychological reasons for leaving.
The interviews also convinced me that churches do a poor job of helping young people resolve doubt. Almost to a person, the people I interviewed reported being shut down brutally when they expressed doubt in the church and at home. They were mocked. They were given trite answers to vexing questions. One person was literally slapped across the face. So my conversations showed me that we have a lot of work to do on that front. When you try to squelch a young person’s doubts, those doubts don’t go away. They just come back bigger and darker.
TOJ: In your book, you talk about different kinds of leavers: Drifters, Neopagans, Rebels, Recoilers, and Modern and Postmodern leavers. Who are these groups and what groups do you find particularly strong, or rather, what groups represent the majority of leavers?
DD: No two leavers are exactly the same, but some patterns did emerge. Postmodern leavers reject Christianity because of its exclusive truth claims and moral absolutes. For them, Christian faith is just too narrow. Recoilers leave because they were hurt in the church. They suffered some form of abuse at the hands of someone they saw as a spiritual authority and God was guilty by association. Modernists completely reject supernatural claims—God is a delusion and any truth beyond science is dismissed as superstition. Neopagans are those who left for earth-based religions such as Wicca. Not all of the people I refer to as neopagans actually cast spells or participate in pagan rituals, but they deny a transcendent God, and they see the earth as the locus of true spirituality. Spiritual Rebels flee the faith to indulge in behavior that conflicted with their faith. They also value autonomy and don’t want anyone—especially a superintending deity—telling them what to do. Drifters do not suffer intellectual crises or consciously leave the faith; they simply drift away. Over time God becomes less and less important until one day he’s no longer part of their lives.
The Drifters are definitely the most numerous. The 2009 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, Faith in Flux: Changes in Religious Affiliation in the US, shed light on the reasons many young Protestants are deconverting. The top reason cited by survey respondents had nothing to do with beliefs or practices. Almost three out of four who departed their childhood faith, 71 percent, reported that they “just gradually drifted away.”
These groupings I came up with were not meant to be scientifically precise; their value was diagnostic and utilitarian. The factors that lead people from the faith often serve as the barriers that prevent their return. I wanted to help people understand why young people abandon the faith and to give Christians tools to engage leavers in meaningful conversations about God.
TOJ: A common trend I’ve noticed among my peers is leaving evangelical churches for Catholic or mainline Protestant churches. In your study, did you find some movement toward different denominations from evangelical churches, or were you looking at all Christian churches?
DD: I was really looking at all Christian circles, and specifically at those young people who had left not just a denomination but the faith altogether. Most of the young people I interviewed had been evangelical, and some had tried out different kinds of churches (mostly mainline Protestant churches) before eventually leaving. For them, leaving an evangelical church and trying out another tradition was an attempt to salvage their faith. For many that works, but, of course, for them it did not.
TOJ: This brings us to the question of the church. What did you find out about how evangelical churches are responding as institutions to secularizing cultural shifts? How is the church responding individually to the doubting parishioner?
DD: I think the Western church’s response to the secularization of culture has been counterproductive. Not that we shouldn’t be concerned—we’re in the middle of a societal experiment to basically expunge religious expression from the public square, so the consternation is understandable. The problem is that when we adopt a shrill tone, outsiders (and young insiders) balk and pull away from the church. I heard a lot of young people decry what they see as the entanglement of American evangelicalism with conservative politics, and that has turned a lot of them off church. And that’s a shame. If they are going to walk away because they don’t believe in Jesus or because they have a problem with some essential doctrine of the faith, so be it. But if they walk away from church because of our particular political loyalties, that’s unfortunate. That’s not the hill I want to die on.
When it comes to what the church is doing to help doubters, it’s fairly simple: not much. When I wrote a feature story for Christianity Today on this topic, I was asked to include a sidebar featuring some programs addressing this problem to highlight the church’s response. I ended up not including that sidebar because there just weren’t enough programs out there, at least that I could find. Churches have programs geared for gender- and age-groups and for those struggling with addictions or exploring the faith. But there’s precious little for Christians struggling with the faith. Not that the answer is another program, but we need to somehow provide space for young people to air their doubts, ask questions, and receive thoughtful answers.
TOJ: In your Christianity Today article, you noted David Kinnaman’s findings in unChristian, that most unchurched Americans are in fact dechurched—they were once a part of the fold but they no longer attend church. In this vein, does your project have a corrective or prophetic message for evangelical churches in terms of how they have imagined evangelism and ecclesial practice?
DD: Basically what the statistics from Kinnaman showed—that 65 percent of young people have made a decision for Jesus—was that we’re pretty good at getting them to say some kind of salvation prayer. Of course saying a prayer is a far cry from becoming an authentic disciple of Jesus. So I think we need to focus on discipleship. Ideally, that starts before they leave home and go off to school or into the work world. And it has to happen in the church and the home. At youth group we have to provide more than just pizza and video games. We need to shift the focus to spiritual formation. And parents can’t think that dropping their kids off once a week for a couple hours is going to make their kids passionate Christians. They can’t leave it for “the professionals.” They need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith inside the home.
When it comes to evangelism, I think we need a complete course change. We tend to put the easy stuff up front (God will make you happy, give you a better life, etc) and then hit them with the demands of the gospel once they come to church and get involved. It’s the old bait and switch, and it inoculates people against the true gospel. Years ago, I was listening as a speaker from a large youth ministry spoke to a room full of high school students. “Becoming a Christian isn’t hard,” he said. “You won’t have to change. You won’t lose your friends. Your life will be the same, just better.” Of course I was ready to scream, because his words were such an obvious reversal of Jesus’s own warnings about the hardship of following him. Fortunately, the teenagers weren’t even listening. Why should they? I wondered. Who cares about a gospel that involves no adventure, no sacrifice, and no risk? Certainly not young people. If we hope to awaken younger people to the reality of Christ, we need to tell them the truth about following him—that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition, a cause to live and die for. Not only is that more faithful to what Jesus taught, it’s actually the kind of message that will resonate with them.
 Dyck, Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith . . . and How to Bring Them Back (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010).
 Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity . . . and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Drew Dyck is the associate editorial manager of BuildingChurchLeaders.com and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN. He received an MA in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is a former youth pastor.