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What does this study mean for churches?

Barna’s newest report interviews teenagers about what they think life will be like for them when they are 25 yrs old, and I’ve clipped a few paragraphs:

May 10, 2010 – Spring is graduation season for millions of students. What are the aspirations of today’s teenagers as they think about their future? A new research study from the Barna Group examined a representative, nationwide sample of 602 teenagers, asking them to describe what they think their life will be like roughly 10 years from now, when they are young adults. To help teens respond with a specific time horizon in mind, the survey asked them what they believe their lives will be like when they are 25-years-old.

Family and Church
Marriage and church involvement were on the third tier of aspirations. Most American teenagers expect to be engaged in these traditional institutions (58% and 63%, respectively). However, only a small percentage felt certain about these outcomes in their own lives: 29% of teenagers felt they would definitely be “actively involved in a church or faith community” and just 12% of teenagers felt certain about “being married” by age 25. Teenagers are even less likely to entertain traditional goals regarding parenting. Less than half of teenagers (40%) felt they may have children by age 25 and only one out of 11 (9%) said they would definitely become a parent in their early adult years. Of course, considerations of marriage and parenting are dependent on finding a willing partner; nonetheless, these pursuits are not top priorities for most students.


Fame versus Service
Media are filled with celebrity news and obscure-turned-famous individuals often made stars via reality television. Given the cultural fascination with fame, perhaps it is not surprising that one-quarter of teenagers (26%) said they expect to be “famous or well known” by the time they reach age 25. To their credit, teens are more likely to express the desire to be “regularly serving the poor” (48%) than to be famous, although that priority is less flattering considering that only 7% of teenagers said they would definitely be doing such other-oriented work as a young adult.

Age and Gender
Demographic differences played a significant role in teen aspirations. Teen girls were more likely than boys to define priorities and objectives. Girls were more likely to picture their lives with nine out of the 10 elements assessed in the study (the exception was being famous, an aspiration equally attractive to both sexes). Young women were twice as likely as young men to want a difference-making job, to be married, to have children, and to regularly serve the poor.


In terms of age, the youngest teens were much more idealistic than older teens in many ways. One of the biggest gaps is their predicted connection to a church: 41% of middle schoolers expect to be actively involved in a congregation, but that drops to 26% of high school freshman and sophomores and 24% among juniors and seniors.

High school students were also less likely than middle-schoolers to believe they would have a great-paying job, be married, have kids, be serving the poor, or experience fame by the age of 25.

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posted May 10, 2010 at 10:27 am

I think one lesson is that a church that is serving the poor and offering significant engagement with the mission of God (which I understand as renewing the creation through the spread of the gospel of the Kingdom come near in Jesus) will be much more appealing to these future young adults. They’d also like to be recognized for the good things they’re already doing.
Not sure I would categorize any of this as new information…

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posted May 10, 2010 at 11:43 am

Yeah, I’m not surprised by these results. We’re talking about teenagers here…At that age, I was way more concerned with partying and chasing girls than working on a 5 year plan.
Does the survey view the marriage/kids under 25 thing as problematic? That seems more of a cultural shift than anything else. People are getting married and having kids later due to education and more freedom to explore potential rather than a lack of desire to do either. This has its drawbacks, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing.
Like Richard though, I’m pleasantly surprised at the high percentage of kids indicating a servant orientation. How many of those were answering honestly, I don’t know, but it’s a sign they’re maybe not as self-absorbed as the previous generation.

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posted May 10, 2010 at 12:17 pm

i don’t know what this really means for church other than that 1) people are waiting longer to get married and have children and 2) we shouldn’t expect 15-year olds to be very realistic in how they view their futures.
i think both are a result of the lengthening of the adolescent years in lives of young people these days. personally, i think this is due to teenagers spending increasingly greater amounts of time with their peers, and less time with those who are more mature than them. because maturity is not modeled for them, they grow into it at a much later time.
so i think our churches need to focus less on where 15-year olds think they’ll be in ten years, and more on finding ways to increase the youth’s involvement in the larger congregation.

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posted May 10, 2010 at 12:22 pm

If I was asked, “Given the choice, would you serve others or serve yourself,” I would choose “serve others.” (I’m confident the question was posed differently, but that’s what it boils down to ultimately). I think everyone wants to see themselves as other-oriented, selfless, and many who are familiar with church (whether or not they were raised in a church or not) may see it as “something that mature, dutiful, respectable” people do. I’m obviously speculating, but these are things that I personally have thought of myself, so I have personal experience here. I don’t know if this has any real implications for how we should outreach, or what we should be teaching, because we are always calling into question cultural norms that confront kingdom living and kingdom values, and as a jr. higher/high schooler all of these aspects (service, fame, money, sex, marriage, parenting) were all topics that I was taught about. As Richard noted above, I’m not sure this information is new- it is only putting numbers to cultural trends that many understand simply by their own experience (at the very least, it is true of mine).

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posted May 10, 2010 at 1:34 pm

It sounds to me like we have a bunch of Rock-star pastors in the making. Of course, I think it is mostly true that teens are idealistic. They are sure that the garage band that can’t get a gig on Friday night is just one gig away from playing the title song to the next Super Ironformers movie.
It is nice to think that youth want to serve others in the mid-20s, but I would think that they are being idealistic there too. When student loans are piled up and they would rather have that new car, I guess a good number of them end up living at home while digging around for the job that promise big bucks.
I have a teen daughter who would love to work with orphans in the third world, but I have some doubts about how that will come to pass since she’ll likely be $30K+ in student loan debt.

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posted May 10, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I also think it’s interesting to set “regularly wanting to serve the poor” against working a job that is “others-oriented.” Would that mean that a business person can’t serve the poor or better the community? Just stood out to me as an awkward observation…

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Jonathan Blake

posted May 10, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I’m nineteen so I guess I’d fit into the study group and for what it’s worth an “others-oriented” community/church is much more appealing to me than a church that spends most its income on itself. I’m just one person but that kind of church gives me access to serving those who need us most in a meaningful way. Most teenagers are far too insulated from injustice and the needy in the suburbs. The desire to serve isn’t lacking just the opportunity and a faith community is by far the best medium of connection for this as Scripture is full of helping the needy and poor and oppressed….

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Paul Sheneman

posted May 10, 2010 at 10:56 pm

It at least means that teenager’s imagination is still captivated by the American Dream (college career, high paying job, famous, etc.). That should at least reinforce the thought in youth workers that we need to be about the business of forming and sparking the Christian imagination in youth.

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