What Keeps a Young Adult Active in the Faith?

The praying hands statue in Web City, Missouri  (click for credit)
The praying hands statue in Web City, Missouri (click for credit)

We’ve all heard the story before. A child grows up in a Christian home and seems completely committed to the faith. When the child grows up and leaves home, however, he leaves his faith behind. This, of course, is devastating to his parents, and they wonder what they did wrong. Should they have spent more time at church? Should they have emphasized apologetics (reasoned arguments in support of the Christian faith) more? Should they have limited his circle of friends more? Should they have sent him to a Bible college before letting him go off into the real world? What could they have done to make him realize that faith is important throughout the course of his life?

This is a real fear for many parents. They understand how important faith is in a person’s day-to-day life, and they want to spend eternity with their children. How can they avoid the heartache of seeing their children leave the faith? Not surprisingly, there are people who offer answers to that question. Some groups insist that children must be firmly grounded in a Christian worldview. As a result, they offer courses that they claim will help young adults keep their faith in a hostile world. Others insist that the problem lies in the fact that most young adults don’t know how to defend their faith against attacks. Thus, you need to firmly ground them in apologetics in order for them to keep their faith.

The core assumption involved with both of these “answers” is that young Christians just don’t know enough. They don’t know how to analyze the presuppositions that people use in forming their worldviews. They don’t know how to answer the objections that those who are skeptical of the Christian faith raise. They don’t know what parts of the Bible to read for guidance. If we could just teach them all the things they need to know, they will be firm in their faith for the rest of their lives.

Unfortunately, that core assumption is wrong. As a result, while things like worldview classes and apologetics books might be useful and helpful, they will do little to keep a young adult in the faith. What actually keeps a young adult active in the Christian faith? The answer might surprise you, but it really shouldn’t.

A book entitled Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, published by Oxford University Press, discusses results from The National Study of Youth and Religion. This study interviewed 2,400 subjects at three different stages in their lives: ages 13-17, ages 15-19, and ages 18-23. Based on their interviews, the sociologists in the study ranked subjects as nonreligious, moderately religious, or highly religious. They found four factors that contributed to a subject staying highly religious throughout all of the interviews. Before I share those four factors with you, let me give you the effect that they produce:1

…a teenager who among his or her peers scored in the top one-quarter of a scale measuring these four factors…stands an 85 percent chance of landing in the Highest category of religion as an emerging adult; but one who scores in the Lowest one-quarter on that scale stands only a miniscule chance (0.4 percent) of landing at the high end of religion when he or she is 18-23 years old.

Does that grab your attention? According to the research, there are four factors in a teen’s spiritual life that, when emphasized, will make him or her 85% likely to still be seriously practicing his or her faith as a young adult. Without those four factors, the teen is less than 1% likely to be serious about the faith in early adulthood. Would you like to know those four factors? Here they are:

1. Parents who were deeply committed to their faith and practiced it on a regular basis

2. A belief that their faith was extremely important in the day-to-day aspects of life

3. Frequent personal prayer

4. Frequent reading of the Scriptures

Notice what’s not on the list. Understanding a Christian worldview isn’t there. The ability to answer the objections of skeptics isn’t there. A specific set of knowledge isn’t there. Being taught the right things isn’t there.

The fact is that intellectual knowledge doesn’t keep us in the faith. It can certainly help, but it is not the driving force. What’s the driving force for keeping the faith? Look at the four factors. They all help to make a person’s faith real. When you see your parents living a Christian life from day to day, you see how real it is. When you believe that faith is important in the day-to-day aspects of life, you use it frequently, which makes it more real. When you pray frequently, you enter into God’s presence regularly and come to understand that He is real. When you read the Scriptures frequently, you are internalizing God’s Word and making it real in your life.

A real faith is an abiding faith.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that teaching your child about different worldviews and apologetics is bad. Indeed, I was argued into the kingdom. If it weren’t for apologetics, I seriously doubt that I would be a Christian today. Even though apologetics led me to my faith, however, it’s not what keeps me in my faith. I am firm in my faith because it is real to me. It is not some abstract, intellectual thing. It’s not something someone taught me. It’s something that became real to me because I practiced it.

If you want your child to keep the faith after he or she leaves home, make it real to him or her. Emphasizing the four factors listed above is a good start.


1. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Oxford University Press 2009, p. 220
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15 thoughts on “What Keeps a Young Adult Active in the Faith?”

  1. I am sorry to say that those four things did not work either. I can honestly say that they were part of our family life. My elder son was interested in defending the faith well into his twenties. He became doubtful of the preservation of scripture and went on from there to a place where he thinks he needs to study all the philosophies of men and have the answer to every possible question. He describes himself and adopting the philosophy of Stoicism at this time.

    1. Remember, Holly, the research indicates that those four things make a person 85% likely to continue in the faith. They don’t guarantee that the person will continue in the faith. Also, please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is your son’s final position when it comes to faith. Lots of people leave the faith and later come back to it, once they realize the alternatives don’t work.

  2. I’m sure its some stock photo that you put at the top of your article, but it includes Jehovah’s Witness study material (in Spanish). Just found it curious.

    Concerning the article, I believe the conclusions are correct. Living one’s faith reinforces faith.


  3. What would the percentage be if you added in: ” Understanding a Christian worldview, the ability to answer the objections of skeptics, a specific set of knowledge, and being taught the right things”?

    1. Plato, I suspect that the percentage would go up if you added those things. However, it could only go up another 15%, which is very small compared to 85%. Thus, if those things help a person hold on to the faith, their contribution is small compared to the first four factors.

  4. This is why I love your site. I’m getting ejumacated ev’ry time I read it. Fascinating study. Notice also, that although we are committed to the efficacy of home education, that’s not on the list either. Some advocates of ‘education otherwise’ oversell it.

  5. Sorry, Dr Jay, my comment was rather opaque. What I was referring to, was the oft-quoted idea that home-educated youngsters are way more likely to remain in the faith than schooled children. It’s based on one study,and is presented as a solid reason for ‘educating otherwise’. I’m not sure we should do that. Home educating is a great way to teach and learn, and it makes it easier to rear your child in faith, but it’s not fire insurance.

    Hope that makes it clear what I meant by the word “oversell’ in my previous comment.

    1. I understood your original comment, Anthea, but thanks for clarifying. I absolutely agree. Some advocates of homeschooling oversell it as a sure-fire way to keep your children in the faith. Like apologetics, I think it can help, but I don’t think it’s the driving force.

  6. Very interesting study Dr Wile.

    I have a few thoughts to consider. A skeptic might look at those four categories and argue that it is simply a form of indoctrination that causes these youth to stay in their faith.

    A family that is very sincere in it’s righteous living, prayer and Bible reading may (in the confines of a study like this) be indistinguishable from an overly pious family in which a child grows up blindly accepting their parents faith.

    I am only guessing, but it’s not too hard to imagine similar statistics would follow for children raised in other religions also (especially religions with far less of a commitment to intellectual defense).

    In either case, that an apologetic defense of the faith is not a factor on this list makes one wonder; What kind of Christians are being raised in these homes?

    Please don’t get me wrong, I certainly agree with the importance of a strong Christian faith, walking the walk for sure. But experience is showing me a blatant lack of interest (perhaps even a disdain in some cases) for a solid and reasoned defense of the faith amongst the greater body of ‘walk the walk’ Christians today. CMI for instance is rightly concerned I think when Christians consider Genesis creation (and apologetics in general) a ‘side issue’.

    Possibly all I’m trying to say is that there is much more to this issue than merely ‘keeping up the numbers’.

    Note: I do not speak on behalf of CMI, nor do they necessarily endorse any opinions shared by me.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Geoff. I have no doubt that a skeptic would look at those four factors as indoctrination. However, I would simply point out that skeptics have their own form of indoctrination (avoiding non-evolutionary views, carefully controlling what is read, etc., etc.).

      You also may be right that it is hard to distinguish a sincere family from an overly pious family in a study like this. However, the interviews were with the subjects themselves, and they asked questions like, “How important is your faith on a day-to-day basis?” Now, of course, it is possible that the subjects just parroted what they thought their parents would want them to say, but since the interview was just between the subject and the interviewer, there is a better chance that it probed the subject’s actual views.

      I also agree with you that apologetics is important, but the numbers indicate that it is not the driving force in keeping the faith, and I think that stands to reason. After all, if your faith is real to you and you see it working in your daily life, you are less likely to abandon it, even if you can’t answer every question the skeptic brings forth.

  7. As a confessional Lutheran, I can’t help but think in terms of what actually keeps people in the faith: the Holy Spirit, who works faith in us through the Word and sacraments. We come to faith through hearing the gospel, because that is the mode through which God brings us to Him. By having parents who regularly attend church and take Christianity seriously, by reading the Bible regularly and praying regularly, and by actually going to church regularly to hear the law and gospel and take communion, young people are bombarded with the thing God says won’t return to Him empty. This is what the Word is designed to do, and it does it successfully.

    And so I’d say that nothing we do of ourselves is actually what *keeps* us in the faith, though people in the faith are going to be doing the things through which God works to preserve our faith. So I don’t think it’s a good idea to distinguish between the sincere family and the “overly pious” family, if both contain the four factors above: to do so implies that we actually have the ability to create sincerity within ourselves, and that sincerity/goodness/whatever is necessary for us to be saved in addition to the Holy Spirit’s work through the gospel. I’d argue that the “overly pious” family should rather be called the pharisaical family, believing in its own goodness and not in Christ. But then I’m not sure I’d say factor 1 is true of such a family, and either way everyone in it would be constantly exposed to the gospel, which again is what brings us to faith.

    So in this model, it shouldn’t be surprising that knowing apologetics isn’t much of a factor towards staying in faith. That’s because faith is more than knowing the evidence: you can study all the apologetics in the world and still not have faith, because the cross is foolishness to the world. This is why we have to be born again, and that happens when the Spirit works in us through the preached Word.

    I should say, though, that the gospel follows along with apologetics, because the point of apologetics is that the gospel is *true*. That the gospel is true is part of the gospel, after all.

  8. Speaking from my own personal experience (I’m in my 40s), I lost my way a bit in college and doubted my faith to a degree. What made my faith stronger and turned me back to church was having my own children and realizing how much I valued my Christian upbringing and how that responsibility to give my children that same upbringing was now all on me. Also, going through a particularly trying period in my life turned me heavily back to prayer, scripture and my beliefs. I think many who are young have not experienced true difficulties in life nor do they have children to make them rethink their own childhoods and what their parents did for them.

  9. Well the assumption is that obedience as a child equates to salvation as an adult. The truth is even when a child is raised in a house who never teaches the the gospel and never goes to church he can still come to know Christ. This is the way I was raised and I am a pastor to this day. We don’t use studies to find ways to increase the “chances” of our child’s faith. We raise them as abiding parents, but ultimately He determines who will be saved. This is the hardest truth parents will ever come to know. I can do everything right and my child can still never come to know The Lord. Ultimately this is an individual responsibility.. In the end we praise God for all His grace, even the ones we cannot understand. Ephesians 1:3-14 “He is the One who brings everything according to the fullness of His plan.”

    1. That’s certainly not my assumption, Michael. Salvation depends on faith and faith alone, and each person comes to that in his or her own way. The question is once a young person is practicing his or her faith, what keeps the young person practicing that faith into adulthood.

      You are most certainly correct that the actions of the parent cannot determine the salvation of the child. Only the child’s faith can determine that. Once again, however, that’s not the issue addressed by this post. The post deals with young people who have already expressed faith.

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