5 Myths Followup

I’ve taken some time to revisit the posted article Five Myths about Young Adult Church Dropouts presented by the Barna Group that I referenced briefly yesterday. While I’d be interested to see the results of their research in greater detail, I do have some comments to throw out in conjunction with what they presented in the article.  Keep in mind that what I’m presenting here today is simply my opinion based on my own observations, limited though they might be. I don’t have any research to back this up. Again, it’s only my opinion based on my experience.

Myth 1: Most people lose their faith when they leave high school.
I appreciate the terms listed in the article describing the different routes that young people might travel in terms of how their personal faith effects their lives outside of the church. Breaking it up into categories is a good reminder that not every story is the same. While they might not be the terms that I myself would choose, they still indicate the reality of difference within this group of people.

I find it helpful to remember the comment in the article which states [the real issue] “is about the various ways that young people become disconnected in their spiritual journey.” In short, it’s not so much about young people losing the faith that they have as opposed to becoming distanced from the church organization itself.  The article also implies that it is a lack of spiritual guidance in the younger formative years that gives this result.

Personally, I think there’s something to this. I grew up in a smaller church, very traditional Lutheran. It was my experience that the majority of young people associated with the church left after confirmation. At that time, this occurred in 8th grade, so the trend happened a little earlier than the myth presents, but seemed to be similar in scope. That being said, my personal experience was not so much losing faith that I had, but rather not yet having faith. I was absent throughout high school and only came back to the church in my college days.

Myth 2: Dropping out of church is just a natural part of young adults’ maturation.
Here the article presents some interesting data indicating that this has not always been the case. Having discussed faith with many people in the generation preceding the Boomers, I would agree. But did the trend start with the Boomers? Well, I don’t know, I’ll have to take their word for it in this case. I do agree that there is a natural curiosity within young people about other religious beliefs. Having taught several years of confirmation classes aimed at gaining a bird’s eye view of different religions, I can attest to this curiosity. Granted, my experience also comes from the perspective of predominantly Christian upbringing (mixed between practicing believers and those that simply identify with Christianity in general…a throw back to the days of Christendom to be sure). However, in a society that becomes increasingly diverse both culturally and religiously, this tendency diminishes all the time.

I have heard people discuss their own stories in a way that might support this myth. A sort of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” type sentiment towards their faith. While this wasn’t exactly my own situation, I can see how it might be true for some. That being said, I disagree with the notion that it is a natural part of the process of maturation. Rather, I believe that it is more of a result of pluralism, both religious and social. As young people grow and develop, they try different things…they rebel…or they simply walk away from what had been normal in their younger years. Some come back, some don’t.

Myth 3: College experiences are the key factor that cause people to drop out.
Here I would say yes…to a point. While I don’t think that college itself is the “Christian enemy,” I do see a strong tendency for college age people to step away from active church involvement. Perhaps it comes from being out from under the direct influence of parents. Perhaps it is the experience of being in a new place and not knowing what church resources are available. Maybe its both, maybe it’s neither. My experience was a little different. As I mentioned, I came back to the church in college, though admittedly I experimented with different churches (or church-shopped if that’s what you want to call it). I left the church that I had grown up in (and I mean both the individual congregation as well as the denomination). Part of this was location, I was at college half way across the state and couldn’t make it to worship at my old church. Part of this was also experiential. I enjoyed contemporary worship, which was not the experience at my old congregation.  Following college, I returned to the Lutheran denomination and settled in a congregation that harbored contemporary worship (something which is becoming more and more normal within the ELCA).

I agree with the statement in the article that many young people lack relationships with older Christians that can help them navigate these waters. It’s been my observation that youth group tends to end at graduation and many congregations neglect this specific age group. Unfortunately they are left to their own devices. Perhaps the trend of college church drop outs isn’t surprising when we think about it.

Myth 4: This generation of young Christians is increasingly “biblically illiterate.”
I have to agree with the article in terms of this myth. Perhaps this is a throw back to the same issue discussed in myth #2, but Bible illiteracy stretches way beyond our youth. As a seminary student that has many classes that force me into the Bible narrative, I’ve grown much more accustomed and familiar with Bible literacy than I was four or five years ago. Even as a believer, there was much in the Bible that was unfamiliar. Even now there are still portions that I need to further explore. As I find myself in a situation within a congregation of exploring the entire Biblical narrative together (not to mention an almost identical situation in the congregation where my wife serves), I’m amazed to here how unfamiliar many adults are with the stories as well. Honestly, I’m shocked at times and need to remind myself that not everyone is in Bible classes in seminary.

Now, all that being said, I’m constantly amazed when I have the privilege of visiting with older congregational members to hear their amazing knowledge of the Bible. I can only assume that it comes from years of reading it. It seems that each one of those people tend to have a very old, well worn copy of the Bible sitting on their end tables when I stop by. It seems very likely that the two are connected.

Myth 5: Young people will come back to church like they always do.
I know the story. “I didn’t do much with church in my younger years. But when I started having kids I just thought I should get them to church. You know, raise them the right way.”

I’ve heard that many times. For some, it works. There are, admittedly, examples of people who came back to the church when they had children and stayed due to a new found faith. Those are successes faith-wise. But as the article conveys, it’s not the rule. More and more people leave the church (at whatever age) and stay gone. The article goes back to the notion of lacking Christian mentors, and I think there is really something to this. I have had the opportunity to be mentored both directly and indirectly in my own time of personal formation through my 20’s, and this continues now in my 30’s. How better to learn to deal with situations (spiritually or otherwise) than from those that have been through similar situations themselves. It’s a blessing to be on the receiving end and then to be able to pass it along as well.
Do I have one? Well, I don’t know. I guess as a whole, I would say that I appreciate this article and I think they make some excellent points. I don’t think that the church has turned a blind eye to this problem either. More and more often I see churches that are investing in our youth both through programing and staff, but this is also more common in larger congregations. Perhaps that is evidence of the change from small rural style congregations into larger ones. Available resources certainly play into the ability of a congregation to have these programs/people.

In the end, I guess I would say that the biggest hurdle we need to get over in terms of keeping young people in the church is to continue to focus and invest in them. Young people will go where they feel valued, recognized, and appreciated. If we continue to consider them (and I’m talking all the way down to our newborns) the “church of tomorrow” there won’t be one. Faith can and should start from day one. The church is the people and Jesus doesn’t discriminate by age. If we treat them as second class members, they won’t stay. They’ll go somewhere where they feel important. All too often, that’s not in a church…period.

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