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
- Sunday school participation
- Donations to churches
- Reading sacred texts other than the Bible
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?