Thoughts on 2017 Lifeway Research Study on Why Young Adults Drop Out of Church

Today my mother-in-law sent me an article about why 18-22 year olds drop out of church from Lifeway Research. She knows I enjoy reading about what other researchers have found related to church worship, discipleship, and the like. The article she sent me led me to find the actual report, which includes the methodology, data, and results. Here is a link to the report:

Lifeway Research Study 2017 on why Young Adults drop out of church.

As I read the data, I couldn’t help but notice a few things that really stood out to me. While there are many points of data worth discussing, especially related to the “life changes/situations,” I want to focus on just a few that really should cultivate further conversation related to church and pastor related issues.

  1. Relationship issues mar the dropouts. The top responses for many of the questions related to church/pastor related issues include “church members seemed judgmental or hypocritical,” or “I didn’t feel connected to anyone in my church or others weren’t welcoming and friendly.” I have no doubt this is an issue; I hear it all the time. One solution, although not the only one? Make intergenerational ministry your church’s priority. Create a family atmosphere and build relationships among the various generations in the church. Model mutual submission in all you do. If unity is the aim, and I believe it is, then the 18 year old going to college will feel LOST at college without the support of a church that values intergenerationality.
  2. Very few (13 percent) indicated that worship style is what kept them from coming. To me this just continues the point I’ve made for years—worship style is NOT the most important factor of growth/retention in a church. Worship style should be based on the church culture, actual culture/demographics of your area, and the resources and talents of all ages God has brought to you. Intergenerational worshiping churches will not look exactly the same and that’s GOOD. What will be the same? Use of various generations in worship leadership.
  3. Of those who stayed in church, among the top answers was “church activities were a big part of my life.” I agree that those youth who are connected to the church in other ways outside of worship and Bible study (i.e. serving) have a purpose/”skin in the game.” My personal experience is that all ages are more connected when they are pouring into the life of the church. We’re in this together—the church needs me to be there. I’ve found this especially easy to accomplish by involving as many in music ministry as I can. I’ve watched many, many students grow in their faith because they loved to play and/or sing and felt compelled to be here every Sunday. Yes, we are teaching “holy habits,” but we are also reinforcing the ideology of not simply being a consumer Christian, but part of the BODY of Christ. I think those students who leave for college who’ve been serving for years will be more likely to do so into young adulthood.


Until My Voice is Gone–Serving with Vocal Nodules

“You have a vocal nodule on your right vocal fold.” This is the phrase I dreaded hearing from my ENT doctor in November of 2010. 4-6 weeks of complete vocal rest were ordered. After that, he wanted to re-check to see if I needed to see a surgeon at Emory for further steps. So many questions came through my mind…what if I lose my ability to sing or talk if I have surgery and it goes poorly? What if my church decides 6 weeks without me is too much and decides I need to move on? How did I let this happen in the first place?

I knew something had been up for most of 2010, but I ignored it because it wasn’t consistent. There was evidence, however. There were certain parts of my mid-range that voided when I tried to sing. I was raspy after rehearsals and Sunday services for about a day afterwards. I ignored it for much of the year because I thought If I just tried to ease up, I could prevent any actual damage from happening. When I finally got an appointment to see the ENT, I instinctively knew what he’d fine. In that moment all I remember thinking was, “how could I let this happen to me? I know better than to overuse my voice.” I talk about appropriate vocal hygiene everyday with my choir and personal voice students. I felt like a fraud. My worst fear? I was afraid it would prevent me from remaining in music ministry.

Rather than provide too many details on the process, I want to brag on how the Lord used those weeks (yes, even through the crazy Christmas season) to eventually teach me greater humility, patience, and trust.

While I was a trooper the first few days, I slowly melted into a self-deprecating, fearful, angry human being as I began to deal with the reality of my diagnosis and possible future. I felt so guilty for not being more careful. It was frustrating.

New habits had to form quickly. The way I communicated to our then six year old twins and two year old were the most difficult. Who doesn’t have to use their voice to get the attention of three boys multiple times a day? Professionally, it was most difficult to be banned from singing anything for that period of time. Leading rehearsals and worship services was a great challenge as I depended on my team to do all the singing for me. I’m still grateful for them.

One day early in the healing process, I remember telling my wife that I wondered if God was trying to prepare me for a different ministry outside of music. The next few days I spent crying out to God in prayer. I declared to Him I was willing to be obedient to however He wanted to use me and I meant it. If I NEVER sang another note, I would praise Him from the keyboard or in another way, but my voice was HIS for the using. In the days that followed, I felt the peace of God melt my fear of losing my “job” and ability to sing as He remind me that music is a tool for ministry; it’s certainly not the only way for me to serve. I was content with whatever He chose to do…heal my voice or open a new door for me.

Just before Christmas I went back for my follow-up scope and the node had shrunk completely. My doctor reminded me that there would always be scar tissue and if abused, the node would certainly return (a good reminder not to abuse it again). I was overjoyed and thankful. In those weeks of heartbreak and questioning, God showed me a few things through this process:

  1. I needed to spend more time investing in others rather than using my own gifts (singing/playing ability) in worship leadership. I try to minimize the times I sing or play alone throughout the year.
  2. I need to protect my voice when leading, singing, or teaching. This is the most difficult for me.
  3. I don’t need to raise my voice to my children or loved ones (ouch–still a work in progress)
  4. God loves me! He loves me so much to remind me that everything I have is on loan…everything. I MUST use it for the glory of God.

To this day I have periodic times that I can tell my voice needs a rest, but thankfully I’m restored vocally. When those times arise of vocal tiredness, rather than be annoyed that the scar tissue is there, I quickly alter my speaking or singing and smile because I am reminded that my voice is a gift from God and I will use it until I can’t any longer. It keeps me in check. I am thankful.

So I will go about Your altar, O Lord that I may proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all Your wondrous works.
Psalm 26:6b-7 NKJV

Testimony from a Gen X Choir Member

Lest anyone think church choirs are full of only “old” people that will make choirs obsolete in the next few decades, I’m here to report that choir is alive and well among the under 40 crowd in my choir. A couple of weeks ago, one of our younger members, a married woman in her late 30s with three small children at home, sent me the note below (I’ve edited a few things to protect her identity). She grew up singing in choir in high school and college and longed to continuing using her gifts in worship leadership. Her story reminds me that church choral ministry can be a powerful tool for leading worship.

Around the time that R and I left our former church, they were starting a praise team group with two ladies that I loved singing with and they asked me to be apart of it. I was heartbroken that I was going to miss that opportunity. I knew we couldn’t stay, God was leading us to leave. We visited many different churches and the ones that seemed like they might be a good “fit” for us, did not have a choir. Finally, I had to come to the mindset that I might not ever have the opportunity to sing in the choir again. I put it to the bottom of my list because my desires could not, and would not, be more important than what R and I needed as a family [spiritually]. When we found Ivy Creek online, R and I were drawn to the sermons and the Awana program. By then, I had let go of trying to find a church with a choir. When we came to visit, I was excited to find out that the church had everything on the top of our list, even a choir. Not only that, but it was an awesome choir! What a gift from God! When I put my hope and trust in Him, He orchestrates things that I can’t even imagine. It took me a while to join the choir. Through that time, God really worked on my heart in many areas. He helped me to see that there were times I had been singing for my glory and not His. It’s just so amazing how everything falls into place. Thank you Will for everything you do. I feel so blessed to be able to sing with you all.

You know, some might say, “Why do you need a choir? You can sing from the congregation.” But, it’s just. not. the same! Not everyone around you sings or is passionate about singing. There is nothing like coming together with other singers and musicians and uplifting the name of The Lord.

I love hearing stories like this. I know personally how difficult it is for a young mother to juggle getting to rehearsals with three small kids. I know there are sacrifices that must be made in order to serve faithfully. I believe people make time for those things and activities for which they are most passionate. Because of that truth I hold, I aim to make sure that the musical experience in our groups is both fun, challenging, and purpose-driven. I want our people to feel valued as much as possible. It’s essential in retaining folks for the long haul. 

Singing together with other passionate singers is truly powerful! A church choir allows singers of varying abilities the opportunity to work together in unity—the experienced helping the weaker and the weaker gaining strength from the stronger. Together we are moving towards the common goal of leading the congregation (fellow worshipers themselves) in musical praise and worship.