Thrive in change. Defy the trend.

Busting the Myth: They’ll Come Back (to church)

by | Sep 1, 2011 | Uncategorized | 2 comments

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.

I was one of those young adults. I came back to the church. Having been raised attending Catholic school and weekly mass, I left with a dissatisfied vengeance as a young adult. I vowed never to return to the Catholic (or any) church as a teenager. I defiantly declared myself “spiritual but not religious.”

But, in my mid-20s I felt a deeper spiritual longing that ultimately led me to find a home in the United Church of Christ. In pretty short order, I felt a call to ministry, went to seminary and was later ordained.

What happened to me almost NEVER happens to young adults.

Research from the National Study of Youth and Religion establishes a few key things about young adult religiosity. Young adults do not remain religious or return to religion if they hadn’t already been connected to it in the first place. Only 15 percent of young adults fall into their most religious category. The remaining 85 percent of young adults range from being marginally connected to religion to being completely irreligious.

The research also delved into what factors created the most religious young adults. Consistent with many other studies, NSYR data demonstrated that one of the main reasons young adults are engaged in religion is because of the relationships they have with their parents and other adults in their church. “Again, … what clearly matters in the teenager’s situation, for shaping the religious outcomes under consideration, is relational ties with religious adults – with both parents and others in one’s religious congregation – importance of one’s faith, and other combinations of one’s religious practices, experiences, and assurance.” (Souls in Transition, pg. 231)

I believe the implications for this part of the research is clear for us in the mainline church – if we want to have teenagers and young adults in the church (and stay there) we have to be willing to invest in relationships with them. They are not going to stay in our churches unless they have some sense of connection to the community, and that connection happens through individuals like you and me. People have to stop thinking of youth ministry as someone else’s job and instead create a culture that values young people enough to be in relationship with them.

Our Next Myth: Youth group and mission trips are key to forming faith.


  1. Brenda McDonald

    Hey Nicole – thanks for this post! I just started work as CE Associate in Grinnell – and we have NO youth program. I would love to talk to you about developing a vibrant program here. Gee, all I did was pray and suddenly I get the UCC newsletter in my inbox with your mythbusters – great timing.

  2. Rev. Nicole Havelka

    Hey, Brenda. I'd love to get to know you better as well. I'll be on vacation this coming week, but I'd love to chat a bit after that. Please email or call me to remind me to touch base. I'd be glad to help in any way I can.


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