Reclaiming Youth

October 2nd, 2012

An Exodus of Young People

Proverbs 22:6 is clear: “Train children in the way they should go; when they grow old, they won’t depart from it.” However, in recent years, the church has trained up children, and now they are departing––in record numbers––from pews across the nation. According to the Rainer Research Group, 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22. The Barna Group reports that the figure increases to 80 percent by age 30. Traditionally, churches have accepted the fact that youth tend to leave the church when they get their drivers’ licenses and return when they get their wedding licenses. But today, people are marrying an average of six years later and waiting longer to have children; and many in church leadership are concerned that churches will be unable to attract them back into the fold. It’s like the old adage that says, “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” God can’t be experienced second-hand, through a parent’s faith; rather, young people must discover what it means to have a personal relationship with Christ on their own, for themselves—only they aren’t.

The “nones,” those who report minimal ties to organized religion or no religious affiliation at all, are becoming a driving force in American culture, demographers report; and these nones are significantly younger than the general population. According to the Pew Forum’s US Religious Landscape Survey, one in four adults under the age of 30 are unaffiliated with a church, describing their religion as “agnostic,” “atheist,” or “nothing in particular.” Nearly one in five adults under the age of 30 say that although they were raised in a religion, they now have no church affiliation. Only 18 percent of “millennials,” those born after 1980 who began to come of age around the year 2000, report attending weekly religious services. Two years ago, USA Today reported on this trend with the headline “‘Forget the Pizza Parties,’ Teens Tell Churches.” The article opened, “‘Bye-bye church. We’re busy.’ That’s the message teens are giving churches today.”

However, this doesn’t mean young people don’t believe in God. The National Study of Youth and Religion found that 78 percent of adolescents say they believe in God. However, the study also found that 44 percent of Protestant youth—and only 38 percent of United Methodist youth—say they feel very close to God, meaning that “the majority of Protestant teens do not feel close to God.”

A New “Christian-ish” Faith

The Reverend Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, has added a new dimension to the church’s concerns about young people. Dean claims that many of America’s religious youth are following a mutant, “watered-down version of Christianity” being fed to them by the church. This “imposter” faith is one of the reasons they’re abandoning church, she says.

A United Methodist, Dean was one of the principle researchers on the landmark National Study of Youth and Religion, which included interviews with 3,300 American teenagers and followed them as they aged. The study found that while three out of four youth claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half consider their Christianity to be important, and most are inarticulate about their beliefs. Teens are not hostile about religion, mostly because they don’t care about it. Sixty percent reported finding religion “inconsequential.” Dean calls this “the Church of Benign Whatever-ism.”

However, teens don’t feel this way because they reject the church, Dean said at several annual conferences this spring around the country. They feel this way because it’s the religion we’ve taught them. It’s called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” and several sociologists believe it has supplanted Christianity as the dominant religion in America.

Dean explains that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism helps people do good and feel good, but God is not central in their lives. “God pretty much stays out of the way,” she says. God exists, of course, and can be called upon to solve problems, but more like a “cosmic therapist” or “divine butler.”

According to Dean, those who practice Moralistic Therapeutic Deism tend to believe

  • God created the world, gives it order, and watches over human life.
  • God wants people to be nice, fair, and good to one another.
  • The central goals of life are to feel good about oneself and to be happy.
  • God doesn’t need to be involved in our lives except when we need God to resolve a problem.
  • When good people die, they go to heaven.

Dean insists this is a very self-serving view of faith. “Theologically,” she says, “the church is supposed to exist for the world. We don’t exist to perpetuate ourselves or to make ourselves happy. It’s nice if that can happen, but that’s not the purpose. If anything, that might be a fringe benefit. The Gospel story that animates the church is about self-giving love and dying in order to live.”

Seeking to Reclaim the Lost

To address reclaiming the church’s youth, Dean recommends presenting a faith that people can feel passionate about, a faith that is alive with mission. “Mission,” she insists, “is the very identity of the church. Mission is not optional. If we don’t have mission, we don’t have a church.” Dean and many others who work with youth in The United Methodist Church are calling on people of faith to reclaim the basics and essentials of Christianity and embody “missional imagination.” Rather than being “Christian-ish,” parents and youth leaders need to ask more of youth, not less. They need to focus on meaning, grapple with what matters, and share what they love. They need to share their faith stories with their kids and let them see that faith matters to them. They need to practice game-changing grace. “We’ve got the greatest story,” Dean says. “We’ve just got to figure out ways to share it.”

Several youth workers offer a number of practical ways to do this. Most advocate stopping the segregation of youth and call for creating multigenerational ministries in which younger and older people can share and learn from one another. They also call on churches to develop robust alternatives to the secular culture. It’s important to develop these ministries with youth and not just for youth and to realize that creating a youth-friendly culture will change a congregation in ways that make some people uncomfortable. The National Study of Youth and Religion also found that having highly religious parents was one of the strongest variables associated with youth being religious when they enter into adulthood. Dean recommends doing one radical thing because of your faith and doing it in front of your children. It could be changing jobs to help those in need; giving away 20 percent of your income, as suggested by Christian Smith, one of the study’s leaders; or doing something completely different. The point is to let your children know you’re doing this because you’re a follower of Christ.

“I actually think it’s a good thing teenagers are ho-hum about what they think of Christianity—because that’s not Christianity. It’s a distorted vestige of what Christianity once was,” says Dean. “But if the Gospel is presented in full—and by presented I don’t mean just verbally, but lived, in all of its radical implications—I think that will get young people’s attention.”

Saving the World

At the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, as the church set its vision for the future, several young delegates expressed their thoughts on the church’s desire to reclaim youth, almost as a magic bullet to guarantee its survival. “The church thinks that the young people will save the church, but actually the young people want to save the world,” the Reverend Jeremy Smith told United Methodist News Service. “If we can show them that the young people can save the world through the church, then young people will gladly be a part of the church.”

The pressing question, added Christina Wright, a deacon from West Michigan, is, “Does the church actually do the radical, world-transforming things at the core of Christianity?”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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