Barna Group has just released some research that confirms what most of us already know – many people make faith commitments (and also church involvements) in their teens, that then dissolve in young adulthood (news of this report came various soruces, including planet telex).
Interestingly, 61% of young adults in the US, according to the survey, had been churched in their teens. That is quite an impressive figure and says a lot of the ability of churches to attract youth to their programmes. However, come mid-twenties, many are disengaging from church at least, if not from the faith as a whole.
Commenting on the report, Cynthia Ware (link via Jason Clark) draws attention to the ways young adults still maintain an interest in spirituality, non-church based faith events and relational networks connected to faith. Also, faith-focuessed websites are growing in popularity.
This hints at something commonly discussed back in the early 90s. Youth ministry tends to be highly relational. As people move out of it they find fewer relational links within the church and more pressure to maintain the links they need within workplaces, family and third places (clubs, social sites, etc). The report may well be confirming some aspects of that hypothesis.
Along a different line of thought, Stephanie Anagnoson at Surviving the Workday suggests that the problem may be related to do the lack of intelligence and sophistication in church presentations and discussions. She quotes Dan Kimball,
‚ÄúPutting this rather bluntly, I have experienced that most of the younger people I know who have left their church are generally quite intelligent. Many churches also don’t intellectually challenge them, and that is another interesting thing I have heard. I think that many church attendees are somewhat passive and like to just sit and listen and basically be told what to think and what to do by their pastor. So, if you are a thinking person, it makes it difficult because most churches don’t leave room or have opportunity for dialogue.‚Äù
I’m inclined to not only agree with this, but to want to link it to a lack of opportunites for creativity and expression. Youth ministry tends to be very creative in terms of communication and structure, with lots of opportunities for people to express themselves freely, get involved and try new things. However, as people move into the ‚Äúadult‚Äù church, things are far less creative, often doggedly so. This can easily breed a lot of disillusionment and frustration.
Check out the Exodus papers over at IAmJoshBrown (found via Joshua Case). Reading these accounts (of people who were actively involved in church ministry) vividly brought back a lot of memories. It really shouldn‚Äôt surprise us that given with the levels of conflict and resistance to change on non-essential factors of church life, many are simply seeking to develop their faith outside the church.
But I think there is also something else, something I’ve been trying (and failing) to nail down for years now.
My hypothesis is that a fair bit of youth ministry (OK, the bits I have seen, experienced and read about) assumes the rightness of being countercultural. In fact, it seems like a lot of otherwise sharp and insightful thinkers uncritically buy into the countercultural viewpoint. That makes some sense when one is dealing with juvenille alienation and with the struggle to come to grips with social rules and norms.
But, the countercultural approach gives very few examples of how to be an adult (remember the film American Beauty?). It’s either cool, hip everyday rebellion or square, repressed conformism. The reality of adulthood is not like that, it is more subtle, as we negotiate the social rules and conventions we will choose to support or distance ourselves from. However, from the counter-cultural viewpoint, this subtle negotiation will look like supporting the status quo, like “selling-out.”
[As an aside, I find myself wondering a lot about this in terms of the big either/or distinctions in the emerging church debate - either missional or attractional, either missional or programmatic.]
Creative youth ministries don’t just give young people the opportunity to express themselves, they can give them the chance to be cool and rebellious (within acceptable limits in socially conservative contexts). It’s not unusual for somone who might have been a little vanilla outside the church context, to be really hip and popular within it. Going to church might actually confer social standing, or distinction for youth. But in adulthood, whilst people might respect your decision to go to church, they are hardly likely to find it cool or hip.
There’s also another point; the distinction that countercultural rebellion seems to confer actually fuels a lot of contemporary marketing, fashion and patterns of consumption for people well into mid-life now. In fact, as boomers enter the retirement age, counterculture could well be a cradle-to-grave marketing strategy.
As we get into adulthood, one of two things happens. We either learn that this distinction through rebellion is less than substantial, in which case we might well look with suspicion upon a message of faith that depends on a counter-cultural outlook. It might be difficult to reconfigure church or faith, stripped of the countercultural baggage.
Or we continue to buy into the myth and uncritically aquire greater means to give ourselves the distinction of rebellion (apple mac, clever t-Shirt, cool jeans, enviromentally sensitive holiday destination, etc). In this view, we need the distinction that church confers much less than we might have in our youth, since we have so many other ways to be hip and cool. Also, in this view there is no incentive to compromise or make peace with the establisment and status quo within the church?
[tags] Counterculture, Church, Youth Ministry [/tags]