This blog series explores the truth about widely held myths about youth and young adults and their religious practices based on the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion as presented in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults by Christian Smith with Patricia Snell.
In my last call, I served as a chaplain at a treatment facility for young people with mental illnesses and behavioral disorders. During that time, I interviewed about 200 young people who were admitted to that facility. I asked about what their faith meant to them and what kinds of religious programming they’d like to participate in. Almost without fail, they would say that they wanted to do service projects in the community – even the ones who wanted nothing to do with religion otherwise.
This isn’t scientifically sound data I’m presenting here – only my anecdotal observations of a small population of young people. But, I’ve seen their sentiments echoed in local churches when young people come out of nowhere to participate in these kinds of projects.
It was with much surprise and skepticism that I read the portion of Souls in Transition that found that mission trips and youth groups did not have a significant impact on whether or not emerging adults (aged 18 to 24) remained highly religious. Liking their youth group experience was significant indicator of later religious activity for 20 percent of the survey respondents, while participating in mission trips was significant for only 10 percent. (Table A.1, pgs. 301-302)
Given that youth group and youth mission trips have been a centerpiece of Mainline Protestant youth programs for many decades, this information is quite discouraging. Why is it that personal faith practices such as prayer, scripture reading as well as adult relationships were so much more significant?
Researchers, at least at this point, have not ventured a guess at that question. Based again on my unscientific observations, I think the problem is not these programs per se. The problem is that leaders have not done an effective job at connecting these activities with a strong personal faith. Within the church, I rarely find people (regardless of age) who can articulate clearly WHY these activities are integral to our faith.
When I read the gospels in seminary, my mind was blown because it was the first time that I learned that Jesus calls us to live our faith in our lives and in our communities. Jesus healed the sick, advocated for the oppressed, welcomed strangers and sinners, asked the rich to give up their money — out of deeper convictions of faith. We must strive in our programming to ground young people in practices of faith – prayer, reading scripture through fellowship and mission; not expect that those program will produce faith on its own.