i took a one-week class in january about ministering to families with teens, and the majority of the research we discussed makes it clear that there is a problem.
the problems we often assume with teens and religion, however, were debunked by the data we reviewed. it would seem that we typically think large numbers of teens are drawn to “foreign” religions or even atheism/agnosticism, but, according to the numbers, this is pretty rare. the overwhelming trend is that students claim beliefs that are in line with their parents. practice and fervor aside, ideals seem almost hereditary. an interesting side note to this trend is that teens, for the most part, don’t believe their parents have that much influence over their ideology. teens like to claim individualism in thought, but conversely, largely all held true to their parents’ beliefs.
this may not be news to you, but it seems to fly in the face of popular opinion. another debunked idea was that teens don’t want anything to do with adults, specifically their parents. research actually showed that teens desire more interaction with their parents and trusted adults.
when looking at ministry to teens and teens who have walked away from the church, it is often speculated that their is a huge turning point or event that “burns” the student and turns them off to church. this was the minority reason for teens leaving the church. the most common reason was basically a lack of a reason… not a beef with the church.
another eye opener was the fact that MOST self-proclaimed “religious” teens who were active in churches could not articulate their faith and most didn’t hold strongly to crucial tenets of the faith (salvation in Christ alone, reality of hell, etc.). personal spiritual disciplines were also lacking. some of the skew here is because of the vague label “religious,” but the numbers were representative of many churched students.
this is a reader’s digest version of everything we looked at and talked about, but it led to some great discussions on the role of families in shaping their teens’ faith walks and how churches should go about ministering to teens.
i know the old adage kept coming to my mind when considering student ministry: “what you win them with is what you win them to.” i couldn’t help but think that if students couldn’t give a specific reason for leaving the church, it’s because they weren’t given a specific reason for staying in the church.
if a church/ministry ONLY meets teens’ (or any age group’s) emotional or social needs, the dependence on church goes away when the emotional/social needs change.
i think this is one of the main reasons we see such a huge drop-off from high school church attenders to college church attenders. people are able to fulfill those emotional/social needs outside of church and no longer see a need to go. OR they continue to look for adult ministries that will entertain them like when they were younger and can’t find them, so they leave.
(another big factor is genuine conversion, but that is a topic that demands more time/space than i am committing to in this post!)
what we need (and i think we’re seeing in many cases) are churches that will convey the importance of doctrine and gospel life-change to people of all ages. that way, believers will see and cultivate a need for community life with a local church body. this need travels with you across geographical distances and withstands the natural maturation process from child to senior citizen.
this need in believers coupled with churches that foster that need will keep people plugged in (by the power of the Holy Spirit, of course!).
there is also MUCH to be considered from the parenting/family aspect of all of this, but i’m much less experienced in that area and have not given it as much thought.
i’d love to hear from any current/former “church teens” or parents of churched teens on this subject.
(most of the discussion was based on research conducted by the National Study of Youth and Religion.)