You may have read the statistics. You might even have been one of the statistics. According to the April 2016 Barna Group survey, nearly 60 percent of young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away. “Away from what?” you may ask. Two pieces of good news are that: 1) they are leaving the church but not necessarily their faith, and 2) although 60 percent is a high number, the statistic is 10–15 percent less than reported in Barna’s 2014 survey.
In reading the survey results, I noticed that the survey missed a critical factor. They didn’t report the perspective of the students themselves. They surveyed over 1,000 youth and senior pastors, but the researchers didn’t gather feedback from either the 60 or the 40 percent of the youth whom those church leaders represented. What would the teens give as their reasons to leave or to stay in church?
I could address the numerous factors that challenge young people’s faith today, such as the fact that both high school and college/university teachers are increasingly hostile to all things Christian or the growing popularity and acceptance of the thoughts and writings of the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. That’s been done by others. I choose a more positive focus.
What motivates a young person to stay in church? What factors influence teens to stay on the right track spiritually? What works for the youth, specifically at Trinity Church?
To answer those questions, I took a general, anonymous survey of 27 of Trinity’s high schoolers. I also conducted one-on-one interviews with eight students, ranging from high school juniors to college sophomores. My data don’t represent as large a cross section of youth as the professional surveys. However, I think that the feedback and insights these students provided will be both instructive to parents and youth leaders and a significant encouragement and model for current and upcoming high schoolers.
The general survey asked the students to: 1) Rate their current spiritual walk as weak, mediocre, or strong. (Several students added categories.) Of the 27 students, three reported their walk as weak or unsure, ten as mediocre, three as between mediocre and strong, and seven as strong. 2) Report the influence of any close non-Christian friends. All of the strong students said they influence their unbelieving friends more than they are influenced by them. They talk about their faith and invite their friends to church. Most of the other students said that either their friends influence them more (mainly through bad habits) or the influence goes “both ways.” 3) Indicate which of six family-centered activities (parental example, family devotions, etc.) are true for their family. The top three most prevalent activities were: they felt free to ask spiritual questions, they usually got satisfying answers, and they consistently attended church/Sunday School. All of the strong students said that all three of these factors were in their homes. Roughly 53 percent of all other students had positive experiences with questions and answers, and an average of 81 percent had consistent church attendance. 4) Rate which events (mostly church-focused) had “not much,” “somewhat,” or “significant” positive impact. The top four events among all 27 teens were summer/winter camp (25 students), music/worship (19), personal relationship with small group leaders (18), and Tuesday night D[iscipleship]-Groups (17).
The previously cited statistics provide an overall picture of what positive and negative influences the surveyed students at Trinity experience. More detailed, one-on-one interviews with the eight students who consider themselves to be strong reveal specific things that help keep them on track spiritually. They also provide some wise counsel from either high school peers or freshmen and sophomore college students.
First, what specific elements keep them on track? The strongest positive impacts fell into three spheres of influence: parents, friends, and music. The following bullets summarize the significant impacts of each category. Concerning music, some students remembered vividly how God spoke to them through specific songs in particular situations.
- We can discuss spiritual things, and they really listen.
- They encouraged us to do our own personal devotions, beginning in elementary school.
- Our family was consistently together in church.
- My parents modeled selfless love when they went out of their way to help people in need. Now, I want to help others, like giving rides when friends need them.
- My D-Group friends were always there for me, praying for and listening to me. We’re like family.
- During dark times, D-Group friends kept me accountable, making sure I didn’t drop out or neglect having devotions.
- We spent lots of time together. We “did life” together.
- When I went through a time of fear, God used the song “No Longer Slaves” to teach me that I didn’t need to be a slave to fear.
- When I attended a friend’s church, the pastor spoke about forgiveness. He challenged anyone who had resentment against someone to, right then, text them a message of forgiveness. I texted my [absentee] father to say that I forgave him for not being around. Immediately thereafter, the worship team sang “Good, Good Father.” That confirmed that God is the only father that I’ll ever need.
- When my mother was very ill, I could feel God’s arms around me, comforting me when I heard “Just Be Held.”
Second, what general advice did the interviewees provide?
- Don’t take what you have for granted. Get involved — in D-Groups, mission trips, etc.
- Own your own faith. Find answers to your questions. Read the Word, ask yourself how it applies to you personally.
- In college, get plugged in to a Christian group.
- Surround yourself with strong Christians, and spend time with them regularly.
- Pay attention to what Jim Woolard says. It’s worth listening to, and it’s relevant to your life.
- Don’t shut people out. Make personal connections.
- Don’t walk away when life seems hard. Isolation will make things worse. Encouragement from friends will help you bear your burden.
- Take advantage of adult classes offered on Sunday morning. A recent class on Genesis greatly strengthened my faith and has given me answers I can pass on to the skeptics I face at my high school.
- Politely, but firmly, defend your faith at school. About once a week, my teacher would ridicule my faith. Each time, I spoke to her privately and asked her to please stop. Finally, after almost nine months, she apologized and stopped the attacks.
This article started with the good news that students are leaving church at a decreasing rate in recent years. I have even more good news, which relates to Trinity. Barna’s and others’ surveys cite several factors that are key to preparing our youth to stay on track spiritually – and all four are present with our high school program. These factors are: a good, integrated [with adults] youth ministry, youth mission trips, the investment of an adult in teens’ lives, and a focus on discipleship and relationship building. The long-standing Tuesday night D-Groups build peer relationships and disciples, while adult involvement is evident in D-Group leadership, mission trips, and greater exposure to adults during the worship service that the students now attend.
Helping prepare our teens to encounter and counter teachers and fellow teens who are skeptical or hostile to Christianity should be a top priority for church leadership. How we should prepare them is well summed up in a crossexamined.org article: “What we win them with, we win them to. If we win them with emotion (skits, bands, etc.), we win them to emotion.” [And it follows] If we win them with logic, truth, and a Christian worldview, we win them to a developed, equipped mind.
By Donna Walker