Yearning for Connectedness


Two decades ago, in 1996, a so-called “Silent Exodus” was declared in the United States, drawing attention to the incessant—albeit hushed—departure of young Asian Christians from their respective Asian ethnic churches. This phenomenon was paralleled by the growing number of young Christians leaving the church as a whole in the United States. In 1999, George Barna estimated that two out of three teenagers are likely to quit attending church after they leave home. Likewise, over the years, many leaders of Asian Canadian church congregations in Canada have expressed their concern about the number of young adults who, although deeply committed to the church throughout their secondary school years, have tended to leave the church upon graduation from high school.

The Centre for Asian-Canadian Theology and Ministry conducted research specifically targeting 1.5- and 2nd-generation Asian-Canadian Protestant young adults. By recruiting research participants with varying degrees of church involvement, the research aimed to address the question, “Can a Silent Exodus be verified?” And in doing so, this research attempted to demystify relevant religious attitudes, beliefs and commitment in relation to participants’ current involvement in the church.

The research recruited 300 post-secondary students of Asian background in Ontario, and asked each student to complete a paper-based survey questionnaire. The demographics of survey participants were as follows: 153 students of Korean descent, 116 students of Chinese descent, and 31 students of Taiwanese descent, all ranging from 17 to 29 years of age.

One hundred and thirty-three students were male and 167 students were female; 107 students were born in Canada and 193 students were born outside of Canada. All survey participants self-identified as Protestant.

The 74 survey questions were both multiple choice and descriptive, covering a wide array of topics including demographic information, students’ church experiences while they were in high school, their current church and spiritual life, their parents’ church life, as well as their ideas and expectations about the church and youth ministry.

Some of the highlights are as follows: 82 per cent of participants attended their own ethnic church; 57 per cent attended an English service exclusively; and nine per cent attended services in both English and their own ethnic language.

Two of the top reasons for choosing to attend a particular language service were better understanding and comfortableness.

Many indicated involvement in various leadership positions in the church during high school years, such as worship leader (44), praise team (107), and Sunday school teacher (87).

Also, during high school 60 per cent attended a church service once a week; and 14 per cent more than once a week. Thirty-one per cent attended a Bible study once a week; five per cent more than once a week; and 39 per cent less than once a month. Two hundred and forty-one participants indicated their secondary school church experience was positive, while 55 indicated that it was not.

Out of 300 survey participants, 216 participants indicated current church attendance and 84 participants indicated that they do not attend church.

Out of 216 current church attendees, 130 attendees went to church service once a week; and 34 attendees went more than once a week.

Among those who do not attend the church currently, 17 indicated they plan to return to the church in the future; 26 indicated they will not return; and 41 indicated they do not know.

In other words, about 10 per cent of participants left the church completely. Only two out of 84 non-attendees indicated current involvement in Christian organizations on or outside of campus.

The reasons for discontinuing church attendance were as follows: Independence from parents (27); Moving/distance (31); Busy schedule (52); Absence of meaning (60); Hurtful experience (6); and Other (13).

When asked to elaborate under “other” they wrote: Too tired, general loss of faith, lost interest, need a break, confusing, etc. That means out of 84 who left the church, 60 could not find meaning in the church. Or, 20 per cent of once active teens were lost to the church in young adulthood.
A few further interesting observations from the survey:

Bible Study matters. Less than 10 per cent of those young people who went to Bible study at least once a week later left the church in their 20s. About three-quarters of those who went to Bible study less than once a month dropped out.

Leadership matters. The more active a teen is in praise and worship the more likely they are to stay in the church in their 20s. Less than 20 per cent of those active in church leadership dropped out in their 20s. More than 50 per cent of those less or not at all involved left the church.
Parents matter. Those whose parents were affiliated with the church tended to remain in the church. Those whose parents were involved in choir or praise team were more likely to remain in the church. Those whose mothers were involved in kitchen work tended to leave the church. As well, those whose fathers served as elders and ushers were more likely to leave the church than those whose fathers served other roles in the church.

Among those who discontinued church attendance, 37 indicated that they still engage in one or more forms of spiritual practice, such as prayer, meditation, listening to Internet or TV sermons, and reading the Bible. Should they return to the church they attended in secondary school, they would like to see changes taking place in the church, including “openness to diversity,” “teaching and preaching connected to the real world and to science,” “teaching and preaching connected to youth,” “youth program change,” “trust, love, and friendly community,” “more spirituality,” and “changes in understanding of youth.”

There is a yearning “to be connected” to a diverse world, to a real world, to spirituality, to the congregation, and to their inner selves, or “who they are.” It has been repeatedly indicated that they wanted to be part of a church that made them feel connected to real life events, to family, to church leaders, to congregations, and to spirituality in a changing world. These findings suggest the importance of and potential positive effects to be gained from youth ministry in the church. They also show that the survey participants’ views concerning the future of the church are generally hopeful and worthy of further analysis. Indeed, there is hope that those students who do not currently attend church might one day return.


About Nam Soon Song

Dr. Nam Soon Song is director of the Asian-Canadian Centre for Theology and Ministry.