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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Myth: Mainline churches ‘lose’ young adults

This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

I can’t visit a church on Sunday morning without hearing someone comment about the decline in young people and young families in the church. Sometimes this is articulated as a simple complaint. Other times, denial. "They’ll come back when they get married/have children,” those folks often say.

The National Study of Youth and Religion’s research on young adults reveals something very interesting about this apparent decline: The mainline church loses many of its own young adults, but gains about the same number of young adults from other (usually more conservative) denominations. About 20 percent of mainline Protestant youth (58 youth surveyed) had left their churches between the ages of 18 and 24, while about 10 percent (79 youth surveyed) of conservative Protestants had joined mainline churches, more than compensating for the loss. “This is noteworthy because it counters so much of the ‘bad news’ that has been continually reported over the last four decades about mainline Protestant decline.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 111)

Researchers suggested that wider cultural influences contribute to this reality. The young people they surveyed largely embraced the conviction that diversity, including religious diversity, should be embraced. “… and to be socially inclusive has the unintended consequence of minimizing the importance of religious particularities and so encouraging emerging adults to conceive of religions as being generically similar. This produces a vision of religion in general that also turns out, we will show, to be not very appealing to most emerging adults.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 81.)

Given this social inclusivity, it is not surprising that mainline Protestant youth are among the most likely to rate their faith as “not very important.” Conservative Protestants are among the most likely to rate their faith as “very or extremely important.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 113.)

Mainline Protestants for years have positioned themselves as more open, less exclusive churches. In an effort to appeal to the non-religious, mainline Protestants tend to tone down their ‘religious’ language. This effort is well-intended; however, people then miss a substantive interpretation of the gospel, a valuing of of the Bible and a coherent set of religious beliefs. After all, young people learn about embracing diversity everywhere – at school, in the community, and in the media. Why do they need one more place to teach them the same thing they are already learning everywhere else? Church simply does not stand out among the chorus of voices singing the exact same song.

The commitment to diversity comes out of religious conviction. Mainline Protestants often interpret Biblical texts as affirming all people, all life, to be a sacred creation of God. All life, therefore, should be included in God’s promises of love, grace and peace. Further, many mainline Protestant believers would affirm that Jesus’ message was one that specifically welcomed the outcast – the ones deemed “unacceptable” by the wider culture.

The mainline Protestant faithful simply need to get better at understanding and articulating what they already believe. They'd probably be better at retaining our own, perhaps even attracting a few more of the “unaffiliated.” Just be more obvious about what the mainline church is – that might be one way to grow.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Myth: College ‘ruins’ faith

This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

Even if you didn’t grow up at the time, it’s almost impossible to escape the images of young, long-haired hippies protesting against war on college campuses in the 1960s. Research showed that along with many other institutions, Baby Boomers rejected religion and began to do their ‘own thing.’

For years, the research on Baby Boomers was taken as universal truth. People, including those of us in the church, resigned ourselves to the idea that young people will inevitably reject religion during their college years and begin a period of spiritual experimentation.

New research reveals that this generation of young adults does not experience a decline of religiousness during the college years. “While the transition from the teenage to the emerging adults years does entail an overall decline in religious involvement, as we have shown, attending college per se is not an experience that particularly contributes to that decline.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 250) If young people have well-established faith lives in their childhood and teenage years, they will continue them into their young adult life, the research reveals. Only very few young adults do any kind of religious experimentation. The study even found that that young people who attend college are slightly more likely to be religiously involved than young people who do not attend college.

Researchers suggest that this generation of young people is simply less rebellious than previous generations, content to stay in the religious tradition in which they were raised. Researchers also credit institutions of higher learning for providing opportunities for students to practice their faith through on-campus groups and programs.

Many of us probably know that one of the results of the decline of mainline Protestant churches was the downsizing or elimination of campus ministries. When numbers of students and available funds declined, churches and denominations put these things on the chopping block first. Perhaps leaders were even thinking that these young people will simply return anyway when they ‘settle’ down; so, we didn’t really need to do ministry at this time of young adulthood.

I believe it’s clear that eliminating these ministries was (and is) the wrong choice. Though the numbers might be smaller, it is crucial that we continue to reach out to college students. The church, after all, is in a good position to help emerging adults make crucial life choices – about relationships, professions and many other things. Emerging adults are part of the body of Christ. In order to be faithful, we need to continue to be in relationship with them – through both campus ministers and through regular folks in congregations. I bet you know a college student from your church. Go ahead, contact them and see how they are doing. You just might be surprised by their reaction.

Next Myth: The mainline church ‘loses’ great numbers of young adults

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Busting the Myth: Youth group, mission trips are best ways to form faith

This blog series explores the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

In my last call, I served as a chaplain at a treatment facility for young people with mental illnesses and behavioral disorders. During that time, I interviewed about 200 young people who were admitted to that facility. I asked about what their faith meant to them and what kinds of religious programming they’d like to participate in. Almost without fail, they would say that they wanted to do service projects in the community – even the ones who wanted nothing to do with religion otherwise.

This isn’t scientifically sound data I’m presenting here – only my anecdotal observations of a small population of young people. But, I’ve seen their sentiments echoed in local churches when young people come out of nowhere to participate in these kinds of projects.

It was with much surprise and skepticism that I read the portion of Souls in Transition that found that mission trips and youth groups did not have a significant impact on whether or not emerging adults (aged 18 to 24) remained highly religious. Liking their youth group experience was significant indicator of later religious activity for 20 percent of the survey respondents, while participating in mission trips was significant for only 10 percent. (Table A.1, pgs. 301-302)

Given that youth group and youth mission trips have been a centerpiece of Mainline Protestant youth programs for many decades, this information is quite discouraging. Why is it that personal faith practices such as prayer, scripture reading as well as adult relationships were so much more significant?

Researchers, at least at this point, have not ventured a guess at that question. Based again on my unscientific observations, I think the problem is not these programs per se. The problem is that leaders have not done an effective job at connecting these activities with a strong personal faith. Within the church, I rarely find people (regardless of age) who can articulate clearly WHY these activities are integral to our faith.

When I read the gospels in seminary, my mind was blown because it was the first time that I learned that Jesus calls us to live our faith in our lives and in our communities. Jesus healed the sick, advocated for the oppressed, welcomed strangers and sinners, asked the rich to give up their money -- out of deeper convictions of faith. We must strive in our programming to ground young people in practices of faith – prayer, reading scripture through fellowship and mission; not expect that those program will produce faith on its own.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Busting the Myth: They’ll Come Back (to church)

This blog series explores the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

I was one of those young adults. I came back to the church. Having been raised attending Catholic school and weekly mass, I left with a dissatisfied vengeance as a young adult. I vowed never to return to the Catholic (or any) church as a teenager. I defiantly declared myself “spiritual but not religious.”

But, in my mid-20s I felt a deeper spiritual longing that ultimately led me to find a home in the United Church of Christ. In pretty short order, I felt a call to ministry, went to seminary and was later ordained.

What happened to me almost NEVER happens to young adults.

Research from the National Study of Youth and Religion establishes a few key things about young adult religiosity. Young adults do not remain religious or return to religion if they hadn’t already been connected to it in the first place. Only 15 percent of young adults fall into their most religious category. The remaining 85 percent of young adults range from being marginally connected to religion to being completely irreligious.

The research also delved into what factors created the most religious young adults. Consistent with many other studies, NSYR data demonstrated that one of the main reasons young adults are engaged in religion is because of the relationships they have with their parents and other adults in their church. “Again, … what clearly matters in the teenager’s situation, for shaping the religious outcomes under consideration, is relational ties with religious adults – with both parents and others in one’s religious congregation – importance of one’s faith, and other combinations of one’s religious practices, experiences, and assurance.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 231)

I believe the implications for this part of the research is clear for us in the mainline church – if we want to have teenagers and young adults in the church (and stay there) we have to be willing to invest in relationships with them. They are not going to stay in our churches unless they have some sense of connection to the community, and that connection happens through individuals like you and me. People have to stop thinking of youth ministry as someone else’s job and instead create a culture that values young people enough to be in relationship with them.

Our Next Myth: Youth group and mission trips are key to forming faith.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Busting the Myth: Parents Don’t Matter

This blog series will explore the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.

I don’t know about you, but I wish I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard a parent say, “I’m only making my child finish confirmation and then s/he can decide on their own about going to church.” Such comments are disheartening to me, though I understand them. Parents get weary in those volatile teenage years of having to entice, cajole or even fight about what their child will or will not do. Since there are so many touchy subjects, it would stand to reason that parents would pick their battles.

Religion seems to be one of those battles that are often surrendered, according to the research from the National Study of Youth and Religion. However, this may not be a battle that parents should be so willing to give up.

In Souls in Transition, the NSYR’s book about the religious lives of emerging adults (aged 18 to 24), researchers found that parents matter A LOT in the formation of their teenagers’ religious lives. “Teenagers can become quite absorbed into groups of peers,” author Christian Smith writes. “And, adolescents often do go through phases and have characteristic situations where they do act like they want their parents to ‘butt out.’ But none of that actually means that parents have become irrelevant, that their influence is vanishing, that they no longer matter.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 284)

In fact, in their long-term research of nearly 3,000 teenagers and emerging adults, there are few other factors more influential than a parent’s religiousness on the faith lives of emerging adults. “Of the many teenage-era factors that our study investigated as possible influences on emerging adult religious outcomes, one of the most powerful factors was the religious lives of their parents – how often they attended religious services, how important religious faith was in their own lives, and so on.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 285)

Despite this pretty compelling evidence, church leaders routinely separate children from families and other adults as if children can only learn with other children their age. In fact, this research is telling us that enriching the lives of adults and focusing on helping families live their faith on a daily basis may actually be more effective at creating long-term discipleship than some of the ways we’ve done Christian education and youth ministry in the recent past. Plus, it means that parents may need to become more willing to fight this teenage battle – at least if they want their children to become adults who value and practice their faith.

If we think back to the gospel stories, Jesus didn’t separate out different age groups as he was teaching. He just taught to the whole crowd. If children were present, they would have just absorbed whatever they were able to absorb. Parents and the other adults around them would have then been responsible for modeling this Jesus-led life. Absent formal churches and Sunday school programs, they would have just learned by living a life of faith with their families. Perhaps it’s time to take a cue from modern research AND ancient practices – investing in the living of faith rather than just the knowing about faith.

Our Next Myth: They'll Come Back (to Church)