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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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20 years after confirmation

Why do young adults leave the church or stay? We asked them.

"Do you suppose they'll be back next week?" Some middle-aged worshiper utters that question at virtually every confirmation service. It recognizes a trend sociologists and church leaders have been trying to understand for nearly three decades: The young are leaving mainline churches at earlier ages and at greater rates.

The decline in the membership and influence of mainline churches has long been traced to the departure of young adults. But why do so many leave while others stay? Are they bored, busy, disinterested? Do they lose their faith? Do they go to other churches or no church at all? Why do some return after years away? Have those who stayed had more positive experiences?

The Lutheran asked those questions of members of the 1978 confirmation classes from two ELCA congregations — Our Redeemer Lutheran, Helena, Mont., and West Koshkonong Lutheran, Stoughton, Wis. Their answers appear in the stories that follow.

We also asked Dean R. Hoge, professor of sociology at Catholic University, Washington, D.C., for his perspective (page 13). Hoge has been plumbing the religious behavior and attitudes of mainline church members for more than 15 years. His view, which is consistent with our interviews, is that the church has "four commodities" young adults are seeking: religious education for children and family support; personal support and reassurance; a sense of community; and inspiration and spiritual guidance.


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