Timothy Paul Jones writes,
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had conversations of this sort with hundreds of church leaders. The denominations have differed, the locations have spanned the globe, and the churches themselves have ranged from minute rural chapels to suburban mega-churches. Yet the script inevitably runs something like this: Eighty percent, maybe even ninety percent, of students are dropping out of church after high school! Can you help us launch a family ministry program to fix this problem?
In these statements, ministers and church members are simply aping the conventional wisdom that they’ve heard at conferences and read in Christian books. According to these widely-proclaimed assumptions, one of the most pressing ministry problems is the high percentage of students whose church involvement can’t seem to persist more than a year past the pomp and circumstance of their high school processionals. A recent Internet search revealed nearly a quarter-million references to the infamous evangelical dropout statistic.
This shocking dropout statistic represents a starting point for all sorts of demands for modifications in ministry practices—including the launch of family ministry programs. The logic throughout most of these references runs something like this: The standard for youth ministry effectiveness is retention of students beyond high school, and an overwhelming percentage of students are dropping out after high school. Therefore, current strategies for youth and children’s ministries are clearly not successful. If only churches could come up with more effective ministry practices, they could fix the dropout rate and become more effective.
Jones goes on to show where this 90% theory came from:
In the first place, when did conference speakers first begin to claim that the vast majority of youth were exiting the church before their sophomore year of college? And was their research reliable?
The first references to the dropout statistic come from the late 1990s. That’s when a well-meaning speaker reported a post-youth group attrition rate of 90 percent.
And how did he obtain this number?
The speaker’s information was based on the “gut feelings” that he gathered and averaged from a roomful of youth ministers.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking a few people how they feel about an issue. Yet the communal hunch of a single group rarely results in a reliable statistic. In this case, an informal averaging of personal recollections resulted in a wildly overstated percentage that received tremendous publicity. As a result, over the past couple of decades, many youth ministries have leaped from one bandwagon to another, driven by the unsubstantiated estimates of a few youth pastors. Another popular percentage—88 percent—has been traced back to the estimates of two youth ministry experts, based on their own experiences.
So, why do the dropout percentages represent an insufficient reason to reorient your ministry toward an emphasis on family ministry? In the first place, it’s because many of these dropout numbers—particularly the nine-out-of-ten ratio—have little basis in fact. This infamous evangelical attrition rate does not rightly describe the present reality, and it probably never described any past reality.
Read the whole thought-provoking piece “The Big Lie AboutNine Out of Ten.”