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Why do 18-22 year olds leave the Church?

Our stake recently began a new push to get our college-age students attending our singles branch. There are some 500+ single adults in our stake, and about 30 of those attend sacrament meeting in the branch. While some of them do hold callings in home wards, most of them have simply stopped attending church altogether.

The question of how to support the young single adults comes up frequently. Kids who attended every mutual activity in high school are suddenly flaky. Some drop off completely. It's a constant battle to contact these youth who are "just so busy" they can't attend church or return phone calls, and yet somehow find time to spend hours on Facebook or run out with friends at the drop of a hat. I struggled to contact this age group as RS president -- I learned to text and use Facebook trying to maintain contact our young single adults. While I did find them much more willing to text or chat with me on Facebook than on the phone, I can't say any of that extra contact was successful in bringing them back to regular attendance.

Losing young adults in the 18-22 slot isn't a problem unique to Mormonism. Here are the reasons formerly churched young adults reported for not attending:

The most frequent reason for leaving church is, in fact, a self-imposed change, "I simply wanted a break from church" (27 percent).

The paths toward college and the workforce are also strong reasons for young people to leave church: "I moved to college and stopped attending church" (25 percent) and "work responsibilities prevented me from attending" (23 percent).

In addition to moving to college, others simply "moved too far away from the church to continue attending" (22 percent) and, it can be assumed, did not find a closer church. (

There's only one word for these excuses: weak.

I could pick them apart, but even those making these excuses have to agree that they're pretty lame. You've got the time. There's a church around the corner. Even when you work Sundays you don't work EVERY Sunday.

So let's be real. Many 18-22 year olds are not attending church because they are choosing to use their new freedom to act in ways that do not jive with the teachings in Church. Our society teaches youth that the time between high school and marriage should be time to let your hair down and party. While a very few may not attend because they are too shy to search out a church themselves or are inordinately busy, I suspect a majority choose not to attend because of a conscious desire to escape Momma (Church) and do "whatever I want, whenever I want" without being reminded that what they're doing is wrong.

The other attitude I think preventing attendance is the idea that Church is for families, not individuals. This idea is so prevalent that it affects divorcees and active singles, too. Many of those who return to church activity do so because they'd like their children to have a church influence.

How can we combat these two attitudes? Church goers are definitely in a different place than the frat-boy/hookup lifestyles of many college students. Young Adults will push limits on their new freedoms. It's a necessary part of growing up. Perhaps we should target some of our youth lessons in YW/YM on preparation for life beyond/without the mission. (Or single life after age 25, for that matter.) Where are the lessons on why it's important to attend Church when you're a young adult? Single? Divorced? Not on a mission? Not going on a mission? The cliche' reasons you attend church as a kid--fun--or a parent--help with kids--or young single--get married. How can we teach that Church attendance in the 18-22 years is not simply about getting married -- that it's about strengthening your personal relationship with Heavenly Father. We're so busy trying to put youth "on track" that we ignore the real heart of the reason we should all be at church.

I've said it before: when you understand who you are in relation to Heavenly Father, everything changes. If we could help more of our kids develop a strong personal relationship with Him, we could save more of them.

The second issue is a cultural issue. We do place a huge emphasis on family relationships in the church. Rightly so. But are we emphasizing family relationships to the exclusion of personal relationships with God? We talk so much about how important it is to spend time together as a family--Family Prayer, Family Home Evening, Family Scripture Study, Wholesome Family Recreational Activities, being sealed as a family-- but do we spend as much time talking about personal prayer, personal study, and how vitally important it is to develop a personal relationship with God?

Maybe the answer is simple: people have to develop personal relationship with God to be active in Church. I guess my question is, are we ensuring that our members know--in their hearts--that Church is the place to get and keep working on that relationship AND that their lives will experience an increase of joy when they do?


Jenny Smith
Jenny Smith is a designer who started blogging in 2004 to share lesson and activity ideas with members of her home branch Mississippi. Her collection has grown, and she now single-handedly manages the world's largest collection of free lesson help for LDS teachers with faceted search. Her library includes teaching techniques, object lessons, mini lessons, handouts, visual aids, and doctrinal mastery games categorized by scripture reference and gospel topic. Jenny loves tomatoes, Star Trek, and her family -- not necessarily in that order.
Jenny Smith is a designer, blogger, and tomato enthusiast who lives in Virginia on a 350+ acre farm with her husband and one very grouchy cat.
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