Why Kids Leave the Church After High School

The Youth Transition Network has released the results of research about why 70% of students in high school youth groups have left the church within a year after high school graduation.

One big reason is the unrealistic expectations that our young people sense from parents and church authority figures. When asked, “What does it mean to be a good Christian,” students responded with a long list of do’s and don’ts, always and nevers:

No sex
No secular music
No fun
No profanity
No bad attitudes
Be perfect
Be a virgin
Be wholly devoted to God
Be righteous
Be a role model
Don’t doubt
Have all the spiritual answers
Always be positive
Always be in a good mood
Wear proper clothing
Go to church all the time
Always read your Bible
Always be praying
Know the whole Bible
Get along with everyone
Always be happy
Never talk back
Do not fail
Do not fail
Do not fail

Wow. And that’s a PARTIAL list! If someone said to you, “This is what it means to be a Christian,” would you want to sign up?

What’s also heartbreaking is what ISN’T on the list:

Reveling in God’s love for me
Appreciating His gifts of grace and mercy
Loving God back because I am so moved by His tender love for me

No wonder so many students live a “goody-two-shoes” Christian life on Sundays and Wednesday nights, and a completely other, separate life the rest of the week! No wonder they don’t see the point of staying connected to a church once their parents stop making them go.

So many of our students feel that they can’t be successful Christians. They think it’s hopeless to live up to the expectations they sense. They think that being a Christian is just too hard.

Sounds like they need to be introduced to what grace looks like. Sounds like they need to have it modeled to them. Sounds like the rest of us need to embrace it ourselves and live it out so they can see it up close and personal, and see why following Jesus is so much more than checking off the boxes on our spiritual report cards!


This post was originally published on April 27, 2009.

Sue Bohlin is a speaker/writer and webmistress for Probe Ministries, a Christian organization that helps people to think biblically. She loves teaching women and laughing, and if those two can be combined, all the better. She also loves speaking for MOPS (Mothers of Pre-Schoolers) and Stonecroft Ministries (Christian Women's Clubs) on the topic How to Handle the Things You Hate But Can't Change, based on her lifelong experience as a polio survivor. She has a freelance calligraphy business in her home studio; hand lettering was her "Proverbs 31 job" while her children were young. Sue also serves on the board of Living Hope Ministries, a Christ-centered organization that helps people struggling with unwanted homosexuality and the family members of those with same-sex attractions. Sue never met a cruise ship she didn't like, especially now that God has provided a travel scooter for getting around any ship! She is happily married to Dr. Ray Bohlin, writer and speaker on faith and science with Probe Ministries, and they have two grown sons. You can follow Sue on Twitter @suebohlin.


  • Meanmommie

    Leaving High School and Christ behind
    I agree with the comments in this article. We saw a distressing amount of our Christian high school graduates-walk away. I think some of it is the 19-13 year “who am I itch” and some of it was hipocracy seen and lived in the homes of parents-not necessarily blaming parents, but in quite a few cases I saw good Christian parents defending bad children’s behavior. [Much to the discomfort of their math and english teachers] Our school did a good job teaching apologetics and our students attended religion classes as well as chapel every week. I think we need to intervene and discuss more “real” issues at the dinner table-that’s providing of course that anyone sits down to dinner anymore.

  • tori

    kids leaving the faith
    “Sounds like the rest of us need to embrace it ourselves and live it out so they can see it up close and personal,”
    Yes , Yes Yes–and why are we so afraid to do just that?? Why do we waterdown that vibrant life intruding relationship to a long list of rules NO ONE can follow??
    Why do we shy away from the living God. It must break His heart–it does break ours..even when we dont feel it.
    More importantly HOW do we change?? How do we enter into a truly living relationship with God that is more than just fire insurance.
    How do we have God so alive in us that our kids dont doubt because they can sense Him around us,see us laughing ,talking, dancing with Him.

  • anv

    wrong bible interpretation leads to wrong doctrine, which leads to wrong behaviorance modells, which leads persons to believe what God is not and them selves are not at all, and finally when the wrong doctrine has pressed the person of young human being down about 20 years the bublle breaks and it might cause even lost of faith or self destructive behaviorance.

    Righteousness is gift of God it is absolutely something what we self can achieve, through the faith in Christ, so that no one can boast about it. which means I am accepted and loved by God if I Believe in Jesus. He loves me unconditionally.

    I have to just receive this free gift in faith to Christ redemption. And this causes the sanctification in my life, not so that it is my own work without Holy Spirit, not to have press it in my own power, thousand scriptures in day fasting 100 days, no by his might by his power…if He created us to be his image, why He gave us our emotions, why we want to f.ex. paint, sports ?

  • WRO

    I think hypocrisy is the
    I think hypocrisy is the root of that list. We speak of a Gospel of behaviorism, yet we as parents can not live up to the same list. kinda life ‘do what I say, not what I do’! We can’t preach behavior until we preach sinfulness, salvation, and sanctification. The Christian life is one of inner change, outward growth, and striving to live with the heart of Christ in our motivations.

  • James M Rohde

    Why Kids Leave the Church
    Another COMMANDMENT trampled underfoot by men’s traditions: “What, then, is it, brethren? Whenever you may be coming together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a language, has a translation. Let all occur to edification.” (1 Cor 14:26, CLV) People go to these stage shows featuring professional soothsayers telling us about our “personal” salvation, that we can have it, it’ll be alright, you’ll make it…and the idea of a many-membered Christ (cf., 1 Cor 12:12), every member participating, never crosses their minds. We’re taught a isolated individualistic salvation that we are responsible for ourselves. Where’s the many-membered body of Christ we’ve been baptized into?

    How much of the following numbered points, 1 thru 10 corresponds to the concept of Christianity as constant indoctrination which the present “sermon every time we meet” practice implies? 2 Timothy 3:10-12 (CLV): “Now you fully follow me in my 1.) teaching, 2.) motive, 3.) purpose, 4.) faith, 5.) patience, 6.) love, 7.)endurance, 8.) persecutions, 9.) sufferings, such as occurred to me in Antioch, in Iconium, in Lystra: 10. persecutions such as I undergo, and out of them all the Lord rescues me. And all who are wanting to live devoutly in Christ Jesus shall be persecuted.” Around 10 %? Yet the present evangelical practice is more like 90% doctrine.

    You are meant to come into the image and likeness of God. How if the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit are forbidden? How if you are not on the program? It can’t be so hard to understand: THE CHURCH IS NOT ON THE PROGRAM!!! We are all meant to exercise to our own spiritual development and critique each other’s expression. But, stay in Babylon and after forty years you’ll still only sit down and shut up. That’s all you’re allowed. Specially if you’re a woman! or young…really, for all of us in the audience, our presence makes no difference to the outcome of the meeting! While the Ritualistic churches increase the nonbiblical clergy/laity system, those in Reformation meeting style churches with “all a sermon” maintain non-participatory heirarchialism, only they’re less self-conscious about it. By how we do Church we’re taught we don’t have, we can’t do, we have paid professionals who preform for us here.

    Yet, “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.” (Lk 6:40, KJV) Christ is the express image of God. We are His flesh and bones. (Eph 5) How will we come into functioning even as Jesus if we never exercise to develop expressing Him? We are to do this together when we meet, and critique one another’s expression.

    So, in this study, 70% of the kids become turncoats, rejecting even Jesus in their late teens and early 20’s, particularly as they attend college. In the simple church fellowships that MEET WITHOUT HUMAN HEADSHIP, usually in their homes? They say it just doesn’t happen. The kids are expected to receive and impart Christ in the meetings. Their lives matter! They know God in others and they are professionals in entering into God and imparting Him to others. They learn by doing! In the Pastor dominated churches we learn by NOT doing.

  • VisitorSillyJilly


    If kids are truly captivated by the love and grace of Jesus, they won't ever want to walk away.  The things of this earth won't hold any appeal to them, because they have tasted the goodness of the Lord and nothing else compares.  As we teach them in church settings and at home, our goal should be teaching toward an encounter with His presence…not just filling their heads with more info, lists of do's and don'ts, not just putting on a show…but experiencing and enjoying His presence.  I believe a major issue in kids walking away is that they don't really know their true identity.  We must teach them that they are His beloved, they are His ambassadors, they are joint heirs with Jesus, they are valued by the Most High God!  We as leaders and parents must understand that it is our role to teach and live it out, but leave the transformation to the Only One Who can truly transform – The Holy Spirit.  

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