"I don't know what they're doing with their lives"


“All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road”

Bob Dylan: Tangled up in blue

I’ve been attending our very middle class church for more than 13 years now, and in that time we’ve seen so many people come and go.

What are they doing with their lives? Are they still on the Way?

Demographics explains a few things

Our church is in an affluent middle class suburb that was developed from semi-rural to suburban over the last three decades or so. So there was a growing population, mainly young families, and the church reflected that. For years it grew as new residents joined, and then in later years, as their children grew through Sunday School and youth group age.

Large and boisterous youth groups, such as we have, attract other teens, so now there are 170+ teens and maybe 50 leaders there every week. So what happens next?

Between the idea and the reality …

The plan has always been that the teens go on into some form of Young Adults group, eventually get married and raise christian families. And the beat goes on.

But it hasn’t always worked out that way.

It seems that, in the past, maybe half the teens have dropped out of church, and likely dropped out of the faith, within a couple of years of leaving school. The ones that stayed seemed to struggle to find their place, and in many cases to find a soulmate, and some eventually left, leaving perhaps only a quarter still going as christians by the time they left tertiary education. Many of those who made it this far and did marry seemed to drop out of ministry and become less active christians.

The picture seems to be more positive in recent years, with a coherent group of young adults doing a lot together and supporting each other well. But the dropout rate is still higher than I would like.

Overall, there’s still a good number who make it through to being active adult christians, but I can’t help feeling we can do better.


Of course I only know a few stories. But I know one strong christian who is now an atheist, and several apparently strong christians who left our church looking for something better, didn’t find it, and seemed to just drift to the outer edges of the christian pool, or beyond. I know of teens who found university challenging to their faith, and mid-twenties who found professional work likewise. Others seemed to find having a family just took too much time, and church (maybe even God, who knows?) had to take second or third place.

Some of these had significant issues with questions about their faith, but I don’t think that was anywhere near the major cause. For most of them, life just seemed to get in the way, and faith faded, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.

Why is it so?

I ponder often why this is the case, and what we should be doing about it. It is easy to give glib answers, and they are probably right a lot of the time. But glib answers don’t solve the problems revealed by all this.

I am a leader (a virtual grandfather and kitchen hand) in the senior high youth group, so I have been able to observe the trajectory of many teens as they grow. I have some ideas, but before I offer them, I’m interested to hear the experiences of any readers – your own as a teen and young adult, or your observations of others.

What ideas do you have?

Photo: Flickr Public domain

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  1. I think the answers will vary from case to case but the one big one I will suggest is that I believe that churches with a strong relational focus rather than a program driven one seem to have a better success rate in terms not only of youth sticking around but also in other areas like lower divorce rates etc. I wish I could remember where I heard the stats from, if I can find it I will link it later but I think the main point I am trying to get across is that people want something more than the right sermon, worship experience or youth group. They want something that carries over into their real lives outside of Wednesday and Friday evenings and Sunday morning meetings.

  2. Most children I know including myself went to Sunday School and Church because we were sent there by our parents. I think it’s not so much a case of ‘drifting away’ from a faith as not genuinely having it in the first place.

  3. Hi Wesley, that’s a very interesting observation. I certainly think churches that are relational and are relevant to “real life” are best, though I don’t know if I have seen any evidence that they retain people better, so I’d be interested if you can find those stats thanks.
    G’day “West”, that is fair comment. perhaps one difference is being sent vs being taken. Perhaps that makes a difference to whether childhood acceptance (I think most children accept what they are told for a while) carries over into personal belief.

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