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July 8, 2010

Mark Chaves: Evangelicals lose fewer youth than liberals

Evangelicals care more than mainline Protestants about keeping their young people in the faith.  This is the striking conclusion James Wellman reaches in his fascinating book, “Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest” (Oxford). Based on observations, interviews, and focus group discussions with people from 24 evangelical and 10 mainline churches, all vital churches with stable or growing memberships, this lively book compares these two religious cultures in many ways. How people think about youth and youth ministry emerges as a key difference: “For evangelicals, if children and youth are not enjoying church, it is the church’s fault and evangelical parents either find a new church or try to improve their youth ministry. For liberals, the tendency is the reverse; if youth do not find church interesting it is their problem. Evangelicals are simply more interested and invested in reproducing the faith in their children and youth and their churches reflect this priority.”

Even though evangelical and mainline churches both lose many young people to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, and even though both groups lose more young people than they did before, evangelical churches still lose fewer young people than liberal churches lose. Evangelical families emphasize religion more than mainline families do, and evangelical churches involve young people in a denser social web of youth groups, church camps, and church-based socializing, all of which increase the chances that a young person will remain in the fold as an adult. This is one reason that evangelical denominations have not suffered the same membership declines in recent decades that more liberal, mainline denominations have suffered.

Results from the National Congregations Study (NCS) confirm that religious groups prioritize youth ministry differently. Whatever the religious group, churches with more teenagers will of course be more likely to have programs for those teens. But the above graph shows that, in churches with 50 or more teenagers, white evangelical churches are substantially more likely than white mainline Protestant churches to employ a full-time youth minister. Fifty-nine percent of evangelical churches with 50-99 teens have a full-time youth minister, compared with only one third of white mainline churches with that many teens. And nearly all (87 percent) evangelical churches that have 100 or more teens have a full-time youth minister, compared to only 55 percent of mainline churches with that many teens. Catholic and black Protestant churches are even less likely to employ a full-time youth minister, but this is partly because they employ fewer staff of all sorts, as I documented in an earlier post.

(A technical note: The numbers in this graph give the percentage of churches with between 1 and 6 full-time ministerial staff who employ a full-time youth minister. Churches with 7 or more full-time staff are not included because the NCS didn’t ask for job titles if there were 7 or more staff).

Interestingly, mainline and evangelical Protestants do not differ on other indicators of programming for youth. Evangelical and mainline churches are equally likely to have youth groups, teen choirs, and teens speaking at a worship service, and they are just as likely to have sent some of their teens to church camps. Mainline churches are more likely than anyone else to involve teenagers in church governance, and black churches are more likely than anyone else to have a teen choir.

But youth groups, teen choirs, and teen-led worship services are inexpensive compared to hiring a full-time youth minister, and having a full-time youth minister surely enhances the quantity and quality of a church’s teen programming. It is difficult to know for sure, but evangelicals’ deeper concern to reproduce the faith in their children probably leads to hiring more full-time youth ministers, which probably leads to keeping more youth in the church. Evangelical churches invest more than mainline churches in youth ministries, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this investment difference reflects a difference in the priority placed on keeping young people in the church.


Mark Chaves is a Professor of Sociology, Religion, and Divinity at Duke University and Director of the National Congregations Study.


The Church's role in Youth Ministry

Great article. Kenda Creasy Dean has a terrific new book out called Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, in which she concludes that it's the church's responsibility -- not solely the youth minister's -- to embody vibrant missional communities of faith that are able to tell their story as well as "be" their story in the world. It's a great wake-up call for the mainline church and invites us ALL to be youth minsters by living our faith in visible and intentional ways with our young people. I interviewed Kenda recently at Patheos.com here: http://bit.ly/cVklia. This is an important conversation to be having!

theological differences ...

In your last paragraph you talk about investment - an investment of time and money into staff and a congregational culture that expects church to be relevant and engaging for young people. This is important.

But I wonder about the theological differences - why are evangelicals more concerned than mainliners with the faith formation of their children and youth? What commitments does the mainline have that, for whatever reason, might hinder the faith development of our youth, or might get in the way of their commitment to church?

Why the difference?

Chris asks a key question: Why are evangelicals more concerned than mainliners with the faith formation of their children and youth?

I'm speculating here, but I think the answer is that evangelicals (on average) place a higher priority on religion--their own and their children's--than mainliners (on average) do. I think even religiously active mainliners who are disppointed if their children leave the church are more likely than evangelical parents to believe in their hearts that their children will lead full, rich, moral, happy lives even if they are not religious.

To say this another (perhaps exaggerated) way, I think having kids who leave the church is considered something of a disaster by evangelical parents while it's considered something perhaps a little sad and unfortunate, but hardly a disaster, by mainline parents. And that different assessment of how important religion is to their children's well-being translates into a different level of investment in youth ministry.

Social Justice

Thanks for the article, Prof. Chaves! It fits with what I just read in Bob Wuthnow's piece, "After the Baby Boomers", even though that book is about the next stage of 20- and 30-something year olds.

I wanted to know, however, how this all fit with an emphasis on social justice? I've heard a lot about how churches that emphasize faith through action, not merely faith through faith, get a more positive response from youth than others.

Again, this is just what I've heard. I haven't seen any numbers on it yet.

Interesting question

Alfredo's question is interesting. I don't know of any research that establishes a firm connection between a social justice emphasis and youth involvement.


we didnt need a study to know that. just visit any liberal or evangelical church picked at random. also, the actual content of the two programs will be very different.

The Other End of the Spectrum

Thanks for this article, Mark (a friend passed it on to me). One thing I wonder about as I read it (and as I'm presently writing on the Gaither Homecoming phenomenon--an entity comprised mostly of older evangelicals) is what the future might hold for such youth-driven evangelical communities. To be sure, I think senior evangelicals can and do thrive in many churches, but I have visited an increasing number of huge (and relatively new) evangelical churches where there are hardly any sixty-year-old-plus members. I know of a couple churches that have yet to bury a member after over a decade of existence. Aging and death simply are not visible.
I would be interested to hear what people think about what the current demographics portend for the future of evangelical churches. If we can assume that evangelicals will continue to place a high priority on youth culture (and, concomitantly, "young family culture,"), what will evangelical churches look like when (and if) the currently young grow up and still "want church?" I know this requires some serious conjecture, but any thoughts?

I agree with all of these

I agree with all of these points completely and I think I can speak because I grew up in what you would call an evangelical (youth emphasizing church) and I'm now a youth minister at a mainline church and have been for a few years. I can see some definite trends. I do believe that it dosn't necessarily have to be a full-time youth person but could also be a good team of volunteers who are committed to discipleship through relationships building! I also think that social justice will play a big part in that!

The heart of the matter

In the evangelical world, young people leaving the church has been much discussed recently, so it's interesting to read your thoughts comparing evangelical and mainline churches.

As a longtime member of an evangelical church, I think that the fundamental difference between the two is that evangelicals believe any lasting change begins in the heart (as in the Sermon on the Mount), rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Not even the most well-conceived program or gifted youth pastor can persuade youth to remain unless this heart-changing relationship with Christ is the foundation. (This foundation is also faithfully reinforced at home by many evangelical parents.)

When Christ changes lives from the inside, then church involvement flows from deep within, out of gratitude to God and a desire to participate in His work, instead of being just another virtue to put on when expected, convenient, or needed.

The role of pastors

Having worked in an Episcopal church setting as a youth director and now as a Baptist student pastor, I agree that one of the contributing factors to this is that Evangelical churches value a personal relationship with Jesus more than mainline churches. So, they see a need to invest in ministry to teenagers (more than just a weekly Sunday school meeting led by a volunteer coordinator). However, I see another contributing factor: most mainline churches (especially Episcopal and ELCA Lutheran, but also Methodist and PCUSA Presbyterian) give the pastor/priest a much more sacramental role than most Evangelical churches do. Of course, this is a generalization, but the end result is that a pastor in a mainline church--because of that sacramental role--is far less likely to have a position in a church where his/her sole responsibility is over the youth ministry. A mainline church will more likely hire a layperson to do that, but because it's a layperson, the pay and benefits make it far more difficult to do that as a lifelong calling, and so in many cases it's a part time position, even if there's enough work for it to be full time. In most Evangelical churches that have a full-time staff member over the youth ministry, that person is more likely to be an ordained or licensed pastor than in a mainline church.


Feeling unwanted

I remember getting the feeling as a teen that my church didn't really know what to do with us. We had a youth group, but the leadership kept being passed around like a hot potato, which made me feel as if it were a disliked job. Church is seen as where you go when you are raising a young family, or elderly. Teens and twenty-somethings are in the minority and very out of place.
A few years back I read an article in First Things called "Mainline Churches: the Real Reason for Decline". http://www.leaderu.com/ftissues/ft9303/articles/johnson.html
Its description of "lay liberals" sounded exactly like my parents and their friends. My parents never really discussed religion with us outside of church, and got a deer in the headlights look if we asked them about God or the afterlife. So I started looking for answers on my own and found them in modern Paganism and Unitarianism.

Returning to faith?

I'm curious about follow up research. Do youth who leave the church tend to return more or less frequently in mainline or evangelical traditions?

Any ideas anyone? Thanks.

Great post!

Great post and Blog! I'm glad i stumbled across your site here!

I agree with one of the other posters,"
Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church" is a great book on this subject.

If you have a chance, check out my site dedicated to Youth Ministry

Great Post

This is a great artical about keeping students plugged into the church and when when spend resources we have a better chance at keeping our students.

My daughter is interested in

My daughter is interested in many of the same things. She's at a point in her life where she wants to learn more about her religion and wants to travel and volunteer this summer. We're very proud of her. Thanks for your article!!


A lot of the problem is that the church is losing touch with reality and a rapid rate of knots! Sometimes you have to look back in order to move forward.

I’m delighted that I found

I’m delighted that I found this site. Finally not a junk site, which we can come back to frequently. Thank you for sharing this with us.

You ought to actually think

You ought to actually think about working on creating this site into a serious authority on this subject. You certainly have a grasp of the subjects everyone seems to be interested in on this site anyhow and you might even make some money off of some banners. Only a thought, best of luck in whatever you do!

I have to confess that I

I have to confess that I sometimes get bored reading the whole thing but I feel you can add some value. Bravo !

Great Article

Great Article

Youth Ministry

Youth ministry is so important for today's churches. We are seeing such a flux in younger people joining churches and getting involved. It's really good to see.
chad with Orlando Church

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