Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Are Christians Really….? 3

BREWright.jpgAre today’s youth abandoning the Church? Is there cause for alarm? Or is the condition with youth in the church today about the same as always? 

These are questions that many people are asking and many people are also answering them.
Often in uninformed ways. 
For about a decade I was listening to apocalyptic warnings, and while I tended to minimize such, I was on the bandwagon. I, too, believed the reports. But this year two valuable books came out that chased some of this away as myth-making and fear-mongering. 
Here are some highlights from Wright’s 3d chp, one asking if we are losing our youth.

Josh McDowell: “It is clear that we have all but lost our young people to a godless culture.” Josh’s statement is typical.

It’s also not in tune with good social-scientific data. For instance, there was a widely circulating rumor (I heard it) that said 4% of our evangelical youth will be evangelicals when they get older. Wright chased the number into bad stats. Here are some better ones:
1. Young adults are less religious, but what does this mean?
2. 12% in the 70s and 80s were unaffiliated; now 25% are. But this is the same number as with other age groups.
3. Currently, 22% of young adults are evangelicals; that’s up from 21% in the 70s but down from 25% in the 90s.
4. Negatively, unaffiliated has increased for young adults.
5. Positively, the number who are affiliated with churches has remained the same.
6. Those affiliated with Evangelicals, Black Prots, and RCC are the same as in the 70s. (Mainliners are down.)
7. No sign of cataclysmic or big changes.
Big point: young adults have always been less affiliated; when they get married and have children they return to their faith. Part of the life cycle is reflected in this.
Can he predict: Wright throws sand in the eyes of those who want to predict. There is one chart, a good one on p. 71, that would indicate that current young adults will be as religious as their parents and grandparents when they become older. He, however, says predicting is a fool’s game and he won’t join the game. But there is no compelling evidence for a cataclysmic change.
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Jason Lee

posted July 7, 2010 at 7:45 am

While there might not be any substantial drop in affiliation, other major studies of teen religion that go beyond looking only at affiliation complicate this picture and give some cause for concern, at least in specific areas.
1. Faith and church seems relatively marginal in American teens’ lives. Rather than historic faith, teens seem to be imbibing and living by “moralistic therapeutic deism.” (see Christian Smith and Denton’s SOUL SEARCHING)
2. When it comes to virginity maintenance, Evangelical teens actually score worse on average. (see Mark Regnerus’ FORBIDDEN FRUIT)
3. Evangelical young adults seem to be taking a strong dose of individualism from Evangelicalism and a strong dose of moral relativism from mainstream culture. That is, they seem to be imbibing the worst of both worlds. (see Christian Smith and P. Snell’s SOULS IN TRANSITION)

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Jason Lee

posted July 7, 2010 at 7:49 am

…so if young people are losing their moral bearings and playing with fire more, this could have a an erosive effect because:
4. There is some evidence that cohabitation, nonmarital sex, drugs and alcohol use each accelerate diminished religiosity ? especially religious participation ? during early adulthood. It could be that too much experimentation leads to a point of no return. (see Uecker et al’s “Losing my Religion”

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posted July 7, 2010 at 7:52 am

We do well to be concerned with the spiritual and emotional health and formation of all generations – children, youth, middle age, elderly.
The problem with ‘crisis think’ is that it can be used to justify or rationalize actions that will perpetuate the problems rather than grow healthy multi-generational churches and lead to broad based spiritual formation.

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Jason Lee

posted July 7, 2010 at 8:09 am

I full agree that crisis-think is dangerous. None of the studies I cited endorse crisis think. They show bright spots as well as dark spots. Shouldn’t we learn from the good and the bad and not just say that everything is great (I realize you’re probably not saying something as glib as that).
Moral relativism may well be taking somewhat of an increasing role in colonizing the minds of the next generation. So to, the substantial rise in the delay in marriage among young people and associated experiences may be taking a new and different toll on people’s willingness to stay connected with church and God.
Yes, all age groups have their own challenges. And yes, inter-generational connections are likely part of what will help the challenges different age groups are facing. That said, past experiences do shape the trajectory of people’s lives to some degree. Many past experiences happen, well, in the past… in the teen and young adult years. Some psychologists argue that the teen years are especially important in forming our deep dispositions. To me all of this calls to mind things like “vigilance” and “concern,” but not a crisis mode.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 7, 2010 at 8:26 am

Jason, thanks for your conversation about these sociological studies. The studies on young adults delaying marriage, which is clearly a trend, and then not resuming church participation until later is a significant issue. For me, it will shape the mind and worldview etc in ways that we can’t yet quite judge. I don’t know the exact figures but I think the trend now is about 5-6 yrs later today: that is, the young adults are returning to church about 5-6 yrs later than they did, say, 30 years ago. That will have an impact.
MTD is clearly another issue, but I see that as something imbibed through church culture and through culture at large. In fact, I see this MTD as even more significant than the age issue. It’s expressed in some ways today in pluralism and universalism.
A generation or more of a widespread thin gospel is coming home to roost.

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Rick Presley

posted July 7, 2010 at 8:35 am

Scot, you may want to read Wuthnow’s “After the Baby Boomers” which covers much of this same ground. He provides a more dispassionate look at the statistics than the evangelical alarmists.

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Jason Lee

posted July 7, 2010 at 8:45 am

The incredibly detailed and high quality data that Christian Smith used in SOULS IN TRANSITION was not available when Wuthnow wrote AFTER THE BABY BOOMERS. There is nothing that compares with Smith’s data. And I’m not aware of any refutation of his findings, nor or Jeremy Uecker’s in “Losing my Religion.”
By the way, descriptive statistics from Smith’s data are conveniently viewable at under “National Survey of Youth and Religion.”

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Sharad Yadav

posted July 7, 2010 at 9:29 am

This doesn’t seem to account for the actual content of belief and character of commitment in young people. Christian Smith’s recent study of American teenage spirituality confirms that people often adopt the faith of their parents, but he also gives worrying indications of the credal contentlessness of that faith, characterizing it as “moral therapeutic deism”.

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Sharad Yadav

posted July 7, 2010 at 9:34 am

Sorry! Should have read the comments more carefully before posting!!!

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posted July 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

I agree with the notion that young people often adopt the faith of the parents. However, young people have not been taught on how to relate/apply their faith to their real world. As a result, faith and real world life have been seen as being dualistic instead of being holistic.
Not knowing what to do with this faith, young people wear their parents faith like some kind of family heirloom that is to be treasured when we are ‘more grown-up’. But when many young-people are grown-up and start to settle down, they take a look at the family heirloom but they get rid of it because they don’t know what to do with it because no one bothered to take the time to show how our faith can be applied to our real world on a day to day basis.
But I say this have been changing in the last few years or more in the church as we are begining to be more aware of the importance of a holistic faith. But in a world where faith is seen as a domain of the person’s private life, there is still more work to do in challenging society’s attitude towards the idea of faith as a private matter.

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Eddie Gonzalez

posted July 7, 2010 at 10:40 am

I live in the central valley of California. I can’t do anything to either help or hurt the situation of youth in, say, Orlando, FL, whatever that situation might be. My concern is for my local community first. And the statistics end up irrelevant in my thinking, whichever way they may be leaning. The youth in my town are generally quite plugged in and involved. There are a lot of teens actively participating in some sort of church or religious activity. Many if not most would probably call themselves evangelical.
I’d say the percentage of youth and young adults that are religious, or affiliated with a church, or in some way active in the Christian arena, is closer to 50% than the 20%s (no official or scientific study there; just my observation from our years living here). And there are local cultural reasons involved. This has always been a really conservative, religious town, and also there is a very small but steadily growing population of more radical, in a sense emergent minded “Christians” who would not call themselves evangelical yet strive for Jesus and his kingdom.
That doesn’t mean I can blind myself from the idea that there are towns where the percentages are drastically lower. But any influence I can have is more than likely local. If there is a problem with young adults, or whatever age group, being active participants of the Kingdom in some town 2,500 miles away, that doesn’t mean whatever is being done to help the situation out there will be relevant or effective here. People are different. Cultures and backgrounds vary. There is no catch-all, one-size-fits-all fix, if you want to call it that.

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posted July 7, 2010 at 11:05 am

It is good to see that it is not a new, major development, but it still is a problem.
The late Michael Spencer (IMonk), who worked with students, advocated an emphasis on their identity in Christ, rather than behavioral modifications. He saw that when they saw themselves in terms of who they are in Christ, it helped them remain in the faith in the long haul.
Ed Stetzer/Lifeway Research had some interesting stats on this. They, like Wright, also found the life cycle situation as a factor, and noted:
“The two most frequent reasons young people stay in church relate to the relevance of church: “Church was a vital part of my relationship with God” (65 percent) and “I wanted the church to help guide my decisions in everyday life” (58 percent).”
I also encourage all to support college ministries as they are a key factor in some those crucial years. If we can give them more support, it probably would help with some of the more negative stats.
Benson Hines at Exploring College Ministry has a good blog looking at things from the inside:
as does Steve Lutz at The Sentinel:

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Jason Lee

posted July 7, 2010 at 11:50 am

Yeah… where’s the resource support for college ministries? The campus ministers I know (even the denominational ones) pinch pennies and limp by financially. Why do we have many pastors so heavily compensated and campus ministers resorting to food stamps … even ones that work really hard at support raising?

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posted July 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

This is a bit off the main point of the topic, but it is what I feel like preaching about…
It seems to me that the worst teachers of religion and life are the parents of most kids. The problem is that the parents paint an incorrect picture of something that is good and as a result the picture the kids see is not what the parents experience. So the parents think that they are painting a picture of good faith and practice that they find fulfilling, and the what they tell the children (imho) is that they should do what they are doing because it is the right thing to do. Then the children don’t do that because they need to find out for themselves what the right thing is that they should do.
Then the academics realize that the children are not learning from their parents, so they try to have an academic philosophy that marginalizes the role of the parent and allows them to have a controlled atmosphere for the children to learn the right way.
Then the kids realize that they have to learn it for themselves and again stop listening to the parents and the teachers too, then it all breaks down and they become the baby boomers.
Then they grow up and realize that there are life lessons that they need to give to their children so they try to teach their kids the way they should live life (that they have now discovered) but they are only marginally better teachers than their parents were so they fail and then the academics….
The only way this is going to stop, is to make the parents and clergy better teachers of life. To be better teachers they need to stop preaching, and start enabling. It is one of the false pretenses of modernity that there is a solution to kids not having to learn the lessons of life on their own. They always will have to do that and there is something good and spiritual for them to do that. The objective is not to make them into God following robots, it is for them to have well rounded fulfilled lives that include God.
There. Now that I am done preaching….

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posted July 7, 2010 at 2:15 pm

“A generation or more of a widespread thin gospel is coming home to roost.”
Amen, we are reaping what we’ve sown. But the good news is that there are a whole lot of youth and youth pastors that are discontent with that “thin gospel” and are wrestling with what to do about it.

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