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The Declining Faith Of Our Teenagers?

8

Recently, the Barna group released a fascinating study on the changing faith practices of teenagers. (You can find it here.) Barna found that "Teenagers are consistently among the most religiously active Americans, with nearly six out of every 10 teens engaged in some type of group spiritual activity in a typical week." OK . . . so, that's good, right? By itself, it would be. But that's not all the study found. While the study reaffirms that teenagers are pretty spiritually active, it found that "six specific types of teen faith engagement are declining."

These key areas are:

  • Small group attendance
  • Prayer
  • Sunday school participation
  • Donations to churches
  • Reading sacred texts other than the Bible
  • Evangelism

Read that list again. I don't know about you, but a decline in these areas is one that gets my attention. And I immediately wonder if these declines are noticeable to the youth worker in the local church. The study points out that spotting these may be trickier than we think. The study shows that "teen church attendance and youth group involvement" are not really experiencing a decline. So, by our most prevalent forms of measurement, we might be under the illusion that all is well. But, if we accept the validity of the research (and there is no real compelling reason to dismiss it), we have to ask what we are really seeing. David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and the director of the research, stated that "while there is still much vibrancy to teen spirituality, it seems to be 'thinning out.'" Yikes. This description doesn't sit well with me. Pointing to the possible reasons behind this "thinning out" of their faith, Kinnaman says "technology . . . [diminishes] the role of certain forms of engagement." I think this cuts pretty close to the heart of the matter, but can be broadened some. I don't think technology by itself is the culprit, but rather where we find ourselves as a culture (and certainly technology plays a part). The culture our teenagers are being raised in does not value some of the underlying foundational elements to many of the spiritual "forms of engagement" we see teenagers abandoning. For example . . .

  • Prayer--Prayer is a deliberate time of communication in solitude with God. Prayer is done in an atmosphere of silence. The world in which our teenagers are entrenched places no value on silence, on space free from actual or digital noise. The idea of sustained, disciplined time in prayer seems so contrary to a teenager's world.
  • Evangelism--Evangelism is even more counter-cultural. There is nothing in our culture that is more inflammatory than an absolute truth statement in the realm of religion. Our teenagers interact in a world saturated by moral relativism and religious pluralism. The Barna study found that only 45% of born again Christian teenagers had "explained their beliefs to someone else with different faith views" in the last year. Honestly, this number doesn't surprise me. And that says a great deal about our culture.

There are a lot of takeaways from this research, so many, in fact, that I want to address the evangelism aspect of this in a follow up post. But, for the purpose of this post, I think there are at least a couple things we should consider:

  1. Intentionality—If we haven't already begun to intentionally structure our youth ministries to equip students to function in our current culture, we have failed. Old models won't work. The tide of culture is not changing . . . it has changed. And if we are not actively and intentionally structuring our programming and philosophy to meet it, we will increasingly find ourselves and our ministries irrelevant.
  2. Evaluation—What you are doing might be extremely effective. Or it might not be. We have to be willing to evaluate our approaches to youth ministry, and change them if necessary. If it's not working, doing the same thing over and over is not an option. If it is working, look to the future. Figure out your next step.

It's a lot to consider . . . And knowing exactly how to address the issues our teenagers face is difficult. But, the worst thing we can do is to do nothing, to bury ore heads in the sand and act like it's not happening to our students. I'd love to know your thoughts on the findings and on our response as youth workers.

Share your thoughts with the youthministry360 community:

  • Is the validity of this research reflected in the behaviors of your students? Have you noticed a decline in these areas?
  • What is our response? What do we do as youth workers to prevent the "thinning out" of our students' faith life?

About the Author

andy@ym360

Andy Blanks is the co-founder of youthministry360. Andy has been teaching the Bible and discipling teenagers pretty much weekly for the last 13 years. He lives in Birmingham with his awesome wife and their four children. Andy is an avid runner and loves just about anything involving being outdoors. Follow him on Twitter (http://twitter.com/andyblanks).

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8 comments

I read the same report and I took away one significant thing. Teens are participating less in these things (programs) in churches. Really the only points that bothered me were prayer and Bible reading. The others might prove to be better, especially when you look at how much damage is done with "evangelism campaigns". What I see locally is teens that are more committed to becoming who they were created to be and less in the programs in churches that try to manufacture random signs of that. I love what Marko is talking about in Youth Ministry 3.0 where churches and youth groups are starting to look a lot different. They will of course be represented in studies like this, but it could be a good thing too.
by: Paul July 21, 2010 9:26 am
Paul, thanks so much for stopping by. We welcome your voice and love the discussion. I hear you . . . I am a big proponent of evaluating "traditional" programming; if it's not working, we need to be bold in finding alternatives that do. But, my reading of the study didn't point to issues in programming. Remember, the study actually found attendance in church and youth group to NOT be in decline. Furthermore, I didn't mention it in the post, but teen Bible reading stayed at pretty much the same levels they had been in the past Barna research. The most alarming thing to me is that teenagers are not praying as much as they were in the past, and they are not talking about their faith as much as they were. Does this point to programming? It certainly could. It may mean that many youth ministries are simply not putting enough emphasis on spiritual growth/transformation. But, it could also mean other things . . . parents not discipling their children, culture's effects too powerful, teenagers not valuing their faith . . . Lot's of takeaways, lot's of possibilities. So, I hear you, for sure. And I agree with a lot of what Marko said in the Manifesto 3.0. Whatever the reasons may be, if we give credence to this study, it's one more sign that the depth of teenager's faith life is taking a hit. Don't be a stranger, Paul! The ym360 community is stronger when your voice is heard.
by: andy@ym360 July 21, 2010 12:31 pm
I feel that most of these figures are directly related to the American church. We are full of talk with little to no action. Youth are a lot smarter than we give them credit. They watch how adults live. They see our "faith" on Sundays, and whenever it benefits us. We have taught them that being a Christian requires legalism. Go to church Sunday, do not sin during the week, and then reload the cycle. Jesus would not be okay with our so-called "faith". He told the disciples that would have to give up everything. Luke 14:26 tells that we must hate everything in comparison to Christ. That is not how we live. Youth leaders, parents, and churches need to get to the core of our faith. Technology, programs, and speakers do not matter. We need to be in love with Christ, and we need to be living out our faith. Youth will follow.
by: Joe July 21, 2010 1:20 pm
I have seen and heard these statistics for quite a while, they can be depressing. It finally hit home when I saw these things happening around our area. I tried various things and nothing really seemed to work. Then I started reading about a new method in the ministry, a family approach. After all, if the family has gone the wayside, so how do we expect the teens to follow Christ? So we have totally revamped our youth ministry to include helping families disciple their kids at home. With help from Steve Wright, author of Rethink and Greg Stier, and his latest book Ministry Mutiny, I have developed a plan that seems to be working. Start with the foundation of the family and work up to the teens. I don't know if this is the answer, but I think it is part of the answer. I really like your stuff, I really was impressed with your free lesson. It is hard to find anything out there that is deep and relevant to the kids. Blessings, Ryan Regier
by: Ryan Regier July 27, 2010 11:07 am
Ryan, the stats can definitely be depressing, and should light a fire under us youth workers. Hopefully, they motivate us to action, similar to the kind of reevaluating you mentioned in your ministry. Sounds like you guys are on an awesome journey. BTW, Steve Wright is a friend of ours and an incredible voice of experience and passion. He is one of the best I know at speaking to the importance of integrating parents into our youth ministry approach. Oh, and thanks so much for the kind words about our free lesson. We work hard to be biblically centered, creative, and culturally relevant. Keep an eye out for our full offering of resources available beginning August 2. Thanks for stopping by and being part of the ym360 community. Your voice helps train and equip other youth workers! God Bless, Andy@ym360
by: andy@ym360 July 27, 2010 11:12 am
Though our numbers have maintained about the same level over the past 4-5 years, participation within the ministry as a whole has increased dramatically. Our teens are our media department, half of our praise and worship team, middle school, elementary and preschool workers. They help design the facility's decor and the music certainly has more of a youthful edge. While they are the future of our church, they are also the HERE and NOW of it. Part of this has come, I believe, through giving ownership to this generation. Second has been the stability of the youth ministry staff. The youth pastor has been there for over 25 years, working with teens. Others have been sharing the love of Christ with teens for decades. Still others are in their 20s. The cry of Paul in 2 Timothy 2:2 is for us to duplicate ourselves on faithful people who will then continue the duplication. This isn't rose-colored glasses here...we see society's rot. But the darker the world becomes, the bright the light of Jesus shines. As we plant the seeds of what our Heavenly Father sees in each teenager, eyes are opened, hope is restored and lives are changed. Read the word, yes! But live the Word even moreso! I would rather see a teen be a life-changer with his life showing Christ, than a Bible scholar who knows all but does little.
by: Mark Gerner July 27, 2010 2:45 pm
A great way of evaluating the effectiveness of our programs is to look at what our high school grads are doing. Are they connected to a campus ministry, where are they going to church, are they reflecting Christ in their actions, etc. One of the things we are tackling are one on one relationships. Our ministry believes that relationships are what is going to encourage teenagers to make adult decisions about their faith when they leave the home. One of my goals is to grow as many ministers as possible so that the students can get the attention they deserve to succeed. We'll still have worship, fellowship, etc. in our student ministry; however, to get students a mentor in faith is essential.
by: Chris Wesley August 16, 2010 6:42 pm
I just started working with the kids at church and I find that these statements are true. I began trying to motivate them to be a tem and in dwelling in the word to prepare the classes I found myself being drawn into a different direction. I have cut all activities by 1/2 and now am stepping up the word in their life. My goal is to mention FAITH and SALVATION as much as possible in our classes. So far I began to see some fruit, but it's growing steady. My kids are wonderful and working with them has pushed me into a deeper covenant with God, for them, not me. You guys are a blessing, keep it up and I can use all the advise I can get my hands on. God bless!!
by: Francisco Saucedo September 29, 2010 2:51 pm