Sunday after Sunday, year after year, young people across the country participate in worship. What difference does it make in their lives? Most people believe that worship has a formative influence on the worshiper. But how do we understand that influence? What keeps youth involved in church and bolsters their faith?
A Brief Description of the Study
We surveyed 183 youth ages twelve through eighteen to find out whether or not they had been to church within the past year. The 118 youth who said they had attended church (64 percent) were asked about their religious affiliation, religious commitment, and worship experiences. Eighty-five percent of those young people identified with a formal religion (Christian; Catholic; Christian and Catholic; or Jewish), but when asked to provide specific information about their denomination, only 30 percent did, suggesting fairly weak denominational ties. We asked questions about what they had felt, thought, and done during worship services. Then we grouped the responses under four categories: Sense of Belonging, Sense of Meaning, Openness to God’s Authority, and Leading Worship.
A Sense of Belonging and Meaning
Traditional sociological theories of religion suggest that the two best predictors of youth religiosity (see “In a Word”) are belonging and meaning. Churches are a place to belong, a place for social relationships; they help us make sense of our world and our place in it. Unlike many other social institutions (such as school or work) religious institutions offer comprehensive systems of beliefs about right and wrong that are grounded in an authority beyond ourselves. These beliefs help us understand the whole of our lives and our purpose for existing.
Interestingly, this study did not show that a higher sense of belonging or meaning was a good predictor of religiosity, although youths’ sense of meaning was the better predictor of the two. Those who scored higher on the meaning scale (“The worship service helps me make sense of something in my life” and “I receive new knowledge about God or my faith during worship”) did report that they were more committed to their faith tradition and were more likely to marry within that tradition.
Youths’ sense of belonging contributed comparatively little to our prediction of youth religiosity. The most common response to a question asking whether it was important that people in their congregation knew their name was “I don’t care.” We’re not sure why the youth in this sample seemed to neither benefit from nor desire close relationships with the members of their congregation, but we suspect it has something to do with way they define belonging (e.g., Facebook “friends” who may not even be using their real names). The possibility that we adults are failing to present ourselves as caring, competent role models who would be of help to youth must also be considered.
Openness to God’s Authority
One of the strongest findings from our analyses of the survey was that youth who agreed with the statement “I have a personally meaningful relationship with God” were also more open to God’s authority in their lives; in fact, it appeared that many youth equated these two aspects of faith. Those who reported being more open to God’s authority also reported a greater sense of purpose for their lives.
We included the question of God’s authority in the study because of a report from the Commission on Children at Risk that suggested (a) young children are biologically predisposed to make connections with mentors and (b) mentors need to provide children with authoritative communities in which to develop. A distinction needs to be made between authoritative and authoritarian. Authoritative leaders provide high levels of support and many opportunities for those in their care to take age-appropriate responsibility within non-negotiable, established boundaries (e.g., explicit rules concerning moral and safety issues). Authoritarian leaders establish and enforce a lot of rules, but provide little support and give little responsibility to others. (A third category—permissive leaders—provide a lot of support but shirk their responsibility to provide explicit directives for behavior.)
We found that youth essentially define a good relationship with God as one in which they submit to God’s authority and derive a sense of purpose from doing so. This should inspire those of us who mentor youth to be bold and explicit in establishing clear limits and expectations for youths’ behavior.
The most consistent predictor of youths’ religiosity was their experience leading worship by doing any of the following: singing or playing an instrument; participating in drama or pageants; leading the congregation in prayer or reading; serving as an acolyte or altar boy/girl; teaching a lesson or meditation or sermon; giving testimony; and serving as usher or greeter or collecting offerings.
Youth who reported having done several of these activities also reported higher rates of church attendance, personal prayer, Scripture reading, and volunteer work. In addition they reported a greater influence of religious teachings on their “big decisions,” a stronger commitment to their faith tradition, a stronger commitment to marrying within their tradition, and a greater desire for others to know about their faith commitment.
Sadly, 38 percent of the youth who had attended church in the past year reported that they had never in their lives participated in leading worship. Another 26 percent had engaged in only one activity from the list, suggesting that churches are missing some obvious opportunities to foster faith in youth.
Further evidence that youth commit to what they are permitted to “own” comes from Carol Lytch’s book Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens. Lytch “joined” three thriving youth groups in Louisville and concluded that each of them engaged large numbers of youth because the leaders set the bar high, challenging youth to develop adult-like competencies. The mainline Protestant church she joined focused on musical excellence in worship, offering several ensembles and annual performance tours. The Catholic church she joined practiced a youth mentoring program wherein 12th graders were paired with 8th graders preparing to profess their faith, assuming full responsibility for planning and implementing an annual retreat. The Evangelical megachurch she joined had three levels of youth group. Youth participating in the highest level were required to practice “extreme worship” (church attendance, daily devotions and journaling) and “extreme evangelism” (targeting nonbelievers and bringing them to the outreach meetings).
The idea that youth want to be competent in their own eyes and in the eyes of adults they esteem is not new. But as Robert Epstein, author of The Case against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, points out, American youth have been “infantilized” over the last few decades through an increase in laws restricting them from behaving as adults. Epstein believes that contemporary American teens, like their international peers and historical predecessors, are highly capable and ought to be given adult responsibility and authority as soon as they demonstrate readiness.
Lessons for Faith Formation
Our survey, and the work of several others, suggests that efforts to promote faith formation among youth should look very similar to efforts to promote faith formation among adults. Both youth and adults need to be provided clear explicit standards for holy living. Both need to contribute to the faith development of others, with youth moving into service and leadership roles as soon as they are able.
Youth who worship as adults, rather than just with adults, are more likely to develop adult faith.
In a Word
In this study, youths’ religiosity was measured by frequency of church attendance and prayer, how big a role faith played in decision making, commitment to their faith tradition, and the desire for others to know of their religious commitment.
Commission on Children at Risk (2003). Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities. New York: Institute for American Values.
Epstein, R. The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen. Sanger, Calif.: Quill Driver Books, 2007.
Lytch, C. E. Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. (Chapters 1-2)
Smith, C. with M.L. Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. (Chapters 4-5)
Faith Formation is the theme of the next issue of Reformed Worship. Don't miss it!