In an excellent blog post, Episcopal priest Drew Downs identifies 9 keys to engaging youth in church. Drew draws on some of the best current research on youth and church to identify what youth need from their churches:
1. Authentic behavior and modeling from adults, where words and deeds reinforce one another.
2. An understanding of why youth are too often drifting away from church.
3. Create safe space in which youth can experiment, fail, and succeed without facing rejection or judgement.
4. Integration into the ongoing, essential life of the congregation.
5. Congregational support and encouragement to reach out to their peers in terms their generation understands.
6. Release from the “helper” label and the ghetto of being called on to do the scut work.
7. A real voice and vote on church boards, committees and decision-making processes. Not representation, but integration.
8. A challenge to join the membership as equals: equal responsibilities and privileges.
9. Recognize that youth are already reflecting the church and beliefs of their parents; they are behaving the way their elders have invited and encouraged.
Read the full post for a passionate articulation of the needs of our youth, from the perspective of a young clergy person who has a passion for the emerging church.
Without question, understanding youth and how to connect with youth is crucial for any faith community’s future. According to the 2001 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, congregations that exhibit a vitality identified as “beyond the ordinary” exhibit ten primary strengths, one of which is that “ministry for children and teenagers in these places is seen as one of the most valued pieces of the congregation’s work.”
However, the researchers note that most contemporary congregations do not consider programs for children and youth to be highly valuable: “In the typical congregation, fewer than one in five worshipers lists programs for children and youth as one of the things they value most about the congregation.” (Read the relevant part of the report here.)
While it is certainly not essential that every congregation put a premium on children and youth, it is likely that many U.S. congregations are declining because they overlook the importance of a vibrant program for future adult Christians. After all, if churches are not engaging youngsters with the Gospel in ways that quicken their spiritual lives, where will the next generation of church-oriented, faithful adults come from?
Given the close correlation research has established between effective, valued youth programs and church vitality, developing a better understanding of contemporary youth can lead to an effective program for young adults – one that makes a difference in their lives. And that is one of the keys to adding vitality to your congregation and helping to create a vibrant prognosis for your church’s future.
To help gain perspective on today’s youth, here are key resources for exploring high-quality research on youth and their religious beliefs and lives.
The National Study of Youth and Religion has conducted 3 multi-year waves of a major study of American youth. The purpose of the study, conducted in 2001-03, 2005-06, and 2007-10, is to enhance our understanding of the religious lives of American youth from adolescence into young adulthood. The study’s website archives articles and topical reports based on the research, and links books by the survey staff, all on the Publications page. The Resources page provides links to additional research on youth and religion.
Also be sure to read, “Almost Christian,” by Kenda Creasy Dean, principle researcher with the National Study of Youth and Religion. It is the book also recommended in Drew Downs’ post, above.
The Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) houses original data sets from high-caliber studies on a wide variety of issues and topics, including several that explore youth and religion. If you enjoy studying raw, original data, these archives will be a gold mine for you! Access the survey data sets from the National Study of Youth and Religion; the Pew Research Center’s Mid-November Survey, 2001; the Young Adolescents and Their Parents national study, 1984; and the Presbyterian Panel of August, 1992, on Christian Education and Nurture, here.
Faith Communities Today (FACT), powered by a consortium of researchers and scholars representing more than 25 faith communities and institutions, develops common survey instruments to successfully elicit key information across faith, ethnic, and cultural traditions. Their common questionnaire makes it possible to draw statistically-valid comparisons across faith traditions, including in the area of youth’s lives, practices, and involvements in their religious communities. FACT discussed youth in its report on the 2008 study, and mentions youth activities in its 2000 Report. Both are available as free PDF downloads from the FACT web site.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research conducts research on a wide variety of religion topics. Articles addressing youth research can be found on the Religion & Family page, subcategory “Articles.” Also explore the “Research” section for additional insight and bibliographies. You can find many additional references to research on youth by typing “youth” or “youth research” into the site’s search window.
Faith & Leadership, a forum for Christian leaders sponsored by Leadership Education at the Duke Divinity School, provides links to articles about youth that are anchored in scholarly research; identify them by typing “youth” into the site’s search window, here.
Resources for American Christianity (RAC) archives information and scholarly reflection on selected research projects that received funding from the Lilly Endowment. Among the archives is a selection of articles that discuss youth, youth ministry, and the religious lives of youth. Browse the material by entering the keyword “youth” in the site’s search window, or start here.
Also explore the interviews with Carol Lytch and Christian Smith, listed in the “Interviews” subcategory of RAC’s Overview Resources tab. If you are working with minority or ethnic youth, explore the interviews with Anne Streaty Wimberly, Anthony Stevens Arroyo, and Brad Christerson. To spark thinking about strategies to engage youth in theological exploration, read the interviews with David Cunningham and Don Richter.
- Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church (from: kimlouvin blog)
- You Lost Me (from: discernablefutures blog)
- Sticky Faith (an excellent series of books co-authored by Kara Powell that seek to help church leaders, youth workers, and parents develop patterns of faith and practice that will help their children’s faith “stick” as they mature into adulthood. Kara, interviewed in the “Why Young Adults are Leaving the Church” post, above, is the executive director of Fuller Youth Institute.)
- You Lost Me: Why Young Adults are Leaving Church and Rethinking Faith (by David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. The Barna Group conducts extensive surveys on American Christianity.)