Chapter 3

Not What You’d Expect

Part 1: An Epidemic on Our Hands

by and on ; last featured October 3, 2015
Featured in Already Gone

On the surface they appear to be very similar. As we studied the research findings further, we soon found we were dealing with two different types of individuals who were no longer attending church.

God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. (1 Sam. 16:7)

This Sunday, William and his family are going to sleep in. Across the street, Karen and her husband are going to do the same. The day will look much the same for each of them: breakfast in pajamas, the Sunday comics, a few chores around the house, an afternoon filled with some sort of an outing, movie, or a visit with family and friends.

On the outside, their lives look about the same—typical middle-class suburbanites, living out their days in the midst of the nine to five. Yes, Karen and William have a lot in common, but they also share something that isn’t quite so obvious: Karen and William are former church kids. Two names out of the thousand that we surveyed. Perhaps they represent your neighbor next door, perhaps they are your siblings . . . perhaps they are your kids. Karen and William spent the better part of two decades in church on Sunday mornings. No more. They are already gone.

When dinnertime rolls around, however, we see something is drastically different about them. Before the meal is served, William and his family join hands and give sincere thanks for God’s provision. Karen and her husband talk about current events in the news and the week ahead. When the dishes are done and the kids are tucked in, William will plop down on his bed and read the Bible he keeps on his nightstand. As the living words of Scripture resonate in his soul he senses the familiar and calming presence of the Holy Spirit in his heart. He dozes off in sincere prayer, asking for God’s guidance and grace for the days ahead. “Maybe next Sunday . . . ,” he thinks. “Yeah, maybe next week I’ll go back.” Karen and her husband, on the other hand, will catch a re-run on the television, make a few plans for the upcoming week, and turn off the light. If they think about God at all, the thoughts are skeptical. And going back to church never even crosses their mind.

Monday morning, William and Karen will wave to each other as they pull out of their driveways and head back to their jobs. Yes, on the surface they appear to be very similar people. But they’re not . . . and that’s not what we would expect.

The Dividing Line

When we commissioned Britt Beemer to study the kids who are leaving church, we knew that we could not be satisfied with superficial answers. We wanted to know who, why, and what. If there were simple answers to those questions, someone would have certainly found them by now (and would have become famous by applying the one-size-fits-all solution that would have solved the problem once and for all). Of course, that’s not the case. Epidemics are never simple. There are root causes. There are things that cause them to accelerate. There are things that can be done to curb them from spreading. There are things that can be done to help those who are already sick get well.

Britt’s data, as we expected, went deep. Rather than being satisfied with obvious observations that profile people like William and Karen, Britt went for the heart. And what he found proved to be profoundly descriptive and yet very simple and practical.

You simply cannot explain the behavior without understanding the beliefs behind the behaviors.

Central to this study was the issue of belief. You simply cannot explain the behavior without understanding the beliefs behind the behaviors. “Belief ” is invisible. The only way to see it is through actions—yet the same actions might be the result of different beliefs. Remember that everyone in our sample of 1,000 grew up regularly going to church but seldom or never go today. Britt asked several questions to determine whether biblical belief was at the root of the exodus from the Church.

This was one of several “watershed questions” of the survey because those who accepted all the accounts and stories in the Bible had a much different viewpoint throughout all the questions in the survey. These questions and the results revealed in the survey helped us discern when these people’s belief in the accuracy of Scripture began to be eroded in their thinking.

“Do you believe all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate?”

  • a full 38% of people who left the church answered yes
  • 44% said no
  • 18% didn’t know

So it could also be said that a full 62 percent of the sample did not believe all the accounts and stories in the Bible. Affirming our earlier conclusions, most of those who do not believe in the full accuracy of the Bible began to doubt in elementary, middle, and high school (88 percent), while only 11 percent began to doubt in college.

You might think their belief systems were alike, but when Britt started asking further questions, it was clear that they were flowing in one of two different directions. We seemed to be dealing with two groups of people when it came to belief: those who believe the Bible and those who harbor serious doubts about the Scriptures.

We asked numerous questions about the Bible. Some of them related to evolution and the age of the earth, others questioned belief in specific historical biblical events. In our opinion, 88 percent of the people in the survey incorrectly answered at least one of these questions, particularly questions dealing with the age of the earth.

But 12 percent of those surveyed answered all the questions correctly. So why did those 12 percent leave? They all went to church growing up. They still claim to believe the major tenets of the Christian faith . . . but there they are on our AWOL list. Clearly, factors other than their belief in the Bible and traditional Christian values have influenced their decision to leave. As we crunched the data from our survey, it became apparent that commonly held stereotypes of those who are leaving the Church are not altogether accurate. Church attendees tend to blame the epidemic on those who have left. We label them as apostate, insincere, uncommitted, lazy, or indifferent. You can believe that the Bible is true and intellectually accepted but still not feel called to go to church on Sunday. As we studied the research findings further, we soon found we were dealing with two different types of individuals who were no longer attending church: those who come at least during Easter and/or Christmas—and those who don’t come at all.

If you are a regular church attendee, these numbers will not be surprising to you. Christmas and Easter are definitely the big days at church. The irregular regular attendees almost always show up and you see this flood of new faces. They are not a regular part of the congregation yet have come to celebrate and remember the birth and Resurrection of Jesus Christ nonetheless—and they are probably parking in your spot and sitting in your seats. You might be surprised to be sitting next to one of those 20-year-olds during a Christmas or Easter service.

“Do you attend church services at Easter or Christmas?”

  • No. 49%
  • Yes. 51%

And then there were those who never come to church, not even at Easter or Christmas. Over 30 percent of those who never go to church also say that they “don’t think of it at all.” For them, church is out of sight and out of mind. (These guys are really already gone.)

What is one of the core issues that predict that someone will go to church to celebrate the Christian holidays as opposed to staying home? It appears that belief has a lot to do with it.

 Attend on holidaysNever attend
Do you believe all the books of the Bible are inspired by God?72.8% said yes50.2% said yes
Do you believe in creation as stated in the Bible?87.2 % said yes55.9% said yes
Do you believe in the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?91.3% said yes50.6% said yes
Do you believe all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate?52.4% said yes23.8% said yes
Do you believe you are saved and will go to heaven upon death?72.2% said yes58.7% said yes

In fact, when we asked them if secular science caused them to doubt the Bible, 56 percent of those who never attend said yes. A much smaller portion of those who worship on Christmas and Easter said yes (36.8 percent). Significantly, 44 percent of those who never attend church believe in evolution; while only 12 percent of those who visit on holidays believe the molecules-to-man theory.

Of those who don’t ever come to church, 24 percent of those who believe that the Bible contains errors pointed to Genesis. Compare that to the group that still comes to worship at Christmas and Easter and we find out that a much smaller group falls in that category. Genesis issues are certainly an important contributing factor. Surprisingly, a full 50 percent of the people who do not go to church at all still believe in the creation of Adam and Eve, so there are obviously other issues that collectively are keeping them from church. Many of them believe in the Genesis accounts (though what many mean by this might not be a young-earth perspective), but they still don’t go to church for other reasons.

The data support the idea that those who go at Christmas and Easter are still genuine believers who want to have a group worship experience and celebrate the most important events in Christianity. The non-attendees are much more prone to doubt.

Other questions gave more insight into the hearts of those who grew up in the church and yet do not regularly attend anymore. When we asked, “Is there any part of the church service that you miss today?” 72 percent of the holiday attendees said yes. (Only 27 percent of those who never attend said yes.) The Holy Spirit never gives up and will continue to challenge these 20-year-olds due to this void in their spiritual lives. I believe the Holy Spirit is still speaking to these people. They feel the void. They know that something is missing. They know that the Church, for all its flaws, still has something to offer that they need.

Those who miss church gave a lot of different reasons. Some miss the teaching, some miss the special events. (Only about 7 percent said they missed the music, and nobody was missing Sunday school!) Most of them simply said, “I miss worshiping God.” That’s a powerful statement if you think about it—and it should remind us that we are dealing with souls and not statistics. In fact, it might be one of the most heartbreaking statements to come out of this entire survey: “I miss worshiping God.” Of those who don’t attend church anymore, half of them really do miss it. And of those who missed it, more missed “worshiping God” than anything else. Fifty Sundays of the year they choose to sleep in. But on Easter and Christmas, the pinnacles of Christian celebration, the lure is so strong that they can stand on the edge no longer, and they take their place in the corporate celebration of Jesus Christ.

Those Who Will Come Back When They Have Kids—and Those Who Won’t

In our study, we wanted to probe another commonly held notion about those who leave the church. Most people believe that these young adults will be back when they have children of their own. According to the LifeWay survey,1 24 percent of those who return do so because “I had children and felt it was time for them to start attending.” This reason was significantly more common for women than men (31 percent versus 13 percent). Also, 20 percent “got married and wanted to attend with my spouse.” We wanted to find out much more, so we started with the following question:

“Do you expect to attend church regularly when you have children?”

  • Yes. 38%
  • No. 32%
  • Don’t Know. 30%

These are fairly standard results. Other people who have researched this come up with about the same numbers. About four in nine expected to go back to their same denomination, perhaps even the church that they grew up in. So there was almost an even split there as well. Let’s read a little bit more into that: it would appear that about half want to go back to their roots—back to the same community in which they grew up. This is where they are comfortable; this is the experience that they want to pass on to their children. The other half are clearly looking for a change. They want something different. If they go back to church, they’re going to break ties with their old ways, burn some bridges with their old denomination, and chart out into some new territory.

If the authority of God’s Word is undermined in the first book...this leads to a slippery slide of unbelief about the whole of the Bible.

Things got interesting when we compared these results to their levels of belief. Take a look at these results! Notice there is a significant correlation between believing in the creation account and whether they will come back! There is a tie between what they believe about Genesis and their attitude toward Christianity—which is understandable. If the authority of God’s Word is undermined in the first book (Genesis, as we outlined in the previous chapter), this leads to a slippery slide of unbelief about the whole of the Bible.

Amazingly, the research also showed that of those who expect to come back to church, 77.7 percent believe that they are saved. Only 8.4 percent do not believe that they will go to heaven upon death! (The rest didn’t know.) That’s a huge number. The correlation between what they believe, how they view Scripture, and what they plan on doing is huge. If we can do a better job of teaching proper belief, we will at least increase the possibility that these kids will return after they have children. It seems pretty obvious to me that if we had done this in the first place, many of them might not have ever left!

 Planning on returningNever coming back
Do you believe all the books of the Bible are inspired by God?76.4% said yes41.9% said yes
Do you believe in creation as stated in the Bible?92.1% said yes47.8% said yes
Do you believe in the creation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?91.3% said yes50.6% said yes
Do you believe all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/ accurate?58.5% said yes16.8% said yes

So about a third said they were never coming back and about a third are planning on it. What about the rest? When asked whether or not they would return to church after they have children, 30 percent said that they “don’t know.” The “I don’t knows” from most surveys tend to get overlooked. We tend to think that these people are apathetic (“I don’t know” = “I don’t care”). I see something else here. I see an opportunity. Consider this seriously. A third said yes, they’re coming back, a third said definitely no—but in between is an equally large segment who is hanging in the balance. They sincerely haven’t been able to make up their minds as to whether they’re going to return or not.

Half of those surveyed have friends that still go to church. More than half have been asked by their friends if they want to go to church with them. That’s very encouraging, and that’s probably why they’re thinking of coming back. And what an opportunity for those who go to church.

This is what I see: I see a window of opportunity that any church-goer can take advantage of. Two-thirds of the people who have left the Church are either planning on coming back or they might be considering coming back. All it might take is a sincere invitation from a friend to encourage them to make the jump. But this window of opportunity is slowly closing. Consider this result from one of the Barna surveys:

Even the traditional impulse of parenthood—when people’s desire to supply spiritual guidance for their children pulls them back to church—is weakening. The new research pointed out that just one-third of twenty-somethings who are parents regularly take their children to church, compared with two-fifths of parents in their thirties and half of parents who are 40 years old or more.2

Two Questions, Two Groups

As you can see, we gained a lot of insightful information by asking the questions Do you plan on returning to church after you have children? and Do you attend on Christmas or Easter?

Because these questions are related, it’s not surprising that respondents tended to answer them the same:

69 percent of those who plan on returning when they have kids also attend during the holidays

64 percent of those who do not plan on coming back never come on holidays

Based on these two questions, we can identify two groups that represent the extremes of those who have left the Church:

Group 1: Those who never come to church at all and who never plan on returning (20.7 percent of all surveyed)

Group 2: Those who come at Christmas and/or Easter and who plan on returning after they have children (26.4 percent of all surveyed)

When we compare these two groups with their levels of belief discussed on the previous pages, very powerful correlations can be seen. Significantly, belief in the Bible is a major predictor of behavior in both of these groups!

Group 1 thinks that the service is boring, the agenda is too political, and that the Bible is not relevant. These people have a low level of belief in the Bible.

When reporting what they miss about church, those respondents in Group 1 said that they miss the music . . . but that’s obviously not enough to persuade them to come back. They point to significant questions and scientific objections that they have with the Bible’s reliability. They don’t like the people and they don’t believe the message, so there’s really no reason for them to come back at all. The Bible is irrelevant to them and the people are too. They won’t come back unless something changes on this level.

Group 2, on the other hand, has a much higher level of belief in the Bible. Three-quarters of them believe that they are saved and report relatively high levels of belief in biblical accuracy, authority, and history. The obvious point here is that over half of the people who have left the Church are still solid believers in Jesus Christ.

When asked what they miss about church, they report that they miss the pastor’s teaching. What they object to, however, is hypocrisy, legalism, and self-righteousness. The Bible is relevant to them, but the church is not. This group needs to be convinced that Christians in the church are living by God’s truth, and are living in a way that is relevant to their lives (such as being a positive influence on their children).

We could even create a separate subgroup from this group. Let’s call it “Group 2+.” This group represents a full 12 percent of all the people in the survey. They answered every question about the Bible correctly and take a serious literal interpretation of the historical events in the Book of Genesis. Many of them still come to church on Christmas and Easter, and many of them are planning on coming back after they have children. These are the ones who miss worshiping God the most. They were most turned off by the hypocrisy that they saw in the Church. It’s likely that they have a growing disdain for this—or perhaps they have been personally hurt in some way because of it.

They see a great discrepancy between what the people are saying and the way that they are living; they may have been torn by what they heard a preacher preaching and what they saw him doing. I believe it very likely they have heard the pastor compromise in some way on Genesis—and they see this as hypocrisy when the Church claims to believe the Bible as the Word of God. These people want authenticity. They want grace, truth, and relevancy in the Body of Christ. They’re not going to come back unless something changes on this level.

All of the people in this survey, to some extent, are having their hearts tugged on by the Holy Spirit. Out of a thousand people, there was not a single person who gave us all the wrong answers all the time. There were some items that everyone believed. They just couldn’t suppress the truth that was in them. Even though they may not be walking in a spiritual Christian life, there might still be some light—a residual gleam—inside of them. They may have left the Church, but they still have a hope of the Church in them. If they find a church that is vibrant, authentic, defends the truth, stands solidly on biblical authority, and lives by the truth, they very well might come back.

There’s one other interesting finding from this portion of the study that I want to bring up. In all honesty, I’m not exactly sure what to think about it, but the numbers are powerful enough—and the issue is so dominant in our culture—that it cannot be ignored. When asked this question, “Is premarital sex okay?” this is how many people answered yes:

Attend on holidaysNever attend
Plan on coming backNever coming back

Wow. Those are huge numbers, but what do they mean?

  1. Is this group turned off by what the Bible has to say about premarital sex?
  2. Are they sexually active and feeling internal guilt and condemnation?
  3. Have they been shunned by the church because of their sexual activity?
  4. Have they been rejected by the church because of an unwanted pregnancy?

Without further study, we can only speculate. But this is certainly an area that deserves further research. The spread on these numbers is even greater than the spread regarding people’s belief in the Book of Genesis (and yet, of course God’s plan for male and female marriage is clearly founded in the Book of Genesis!). Clearly, something is going on here.

So we have Group 1 and Group 2, and their beliefs make all the difference. This key observation opens the door to powerful practical application. And that’s what we’re really trying to get to in the first place, isn’t it? We know there’s a problem out there; we now understand much better who is leaving the Church and why they’re leaving the Church; but what do we do about it? Based on other questions that we asked in the survey, two general powerful application points can be made:

  1. To defend and teach the Bible from the very first verse—the great need for practical and relevant apologetics teaching for all ages
  2. To live an authentic, biblically based Christian life as individuals and as a church, so people will see Christ reflected in all that’s done. Stop the hypocrisy!

In Part 2 we will expand on these two applications in great detail. Be encouraged—there is much that can be done and there is much to do. But before jumping in headfirst, we need to backtrack a little. In order to fully understand where it is that we need to go from here, we have to understand how we got here in the first place! Certainly, the decrease in the belief in the Bible and the embarrassing un-biblical atmosphere in many churches did not happen overnight. The spiraling descent can be described in one word: IRRELEVANCE. And by the time you finish the next chapter you will know exactly what that means and why it is so vital in the life of individuals and any church that wants to be relevant in the world and be a healthy, life-giving place to those who worship there.

Britt’s Bit: Crunching Numbers

The fascinating and powerful thing about analyzing data and interpreting it correctly is that you can see things that are otherwise unseeable. If the research is done carefully and the numbers compared appropriately, the statistics allow us to describe behavior and also to understand the belief behind those behaviors.

One of the wonderful things about studying human behavior and the data collected from individuals is that you can sort and divide the data into subsets very quickly. The click of a mouse can instantly render visible data that was apparently invisible. Comparisons that took me days in 1979 can be accomplished almost instantaneously today. For example, in our survey we asked the question “Is there anything a teacher or professor did or said that caused you to doubt the contents of the Bible?” Depending upon their answers of either yes or no, we could separate the data to identify the true influences of those teachers or professors.

We interviewed 1,000 20-year-olds and asked them 78 questions, which can give you an idea of how much information we could learn from these non-churched individuals. Their responses can be compared and contrasted ad infinitum. However, one should never become carried away with the amount of data they collect, but how it can be used to answer the questions facing Christian leaders like Ken Ham. Just because you can compare doesn’t mean that there’s always anything really important to discover. But if you are willing to dig around in the numbers, every once in a while you strike gold and discover some things that can change the course of your whole life (or, as in this case, two things that could change the course of the entire Church).

Already Gone

The “Beemer Report” reveals startling facts of a thousand 20–29 year olds who used to attend evangelical churches, but have since left it behind. The results are shocking.

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  2. Barna Research.


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