Almost Christian Teens Trouble Church Scholars
Kids don’t believe doctrine, study finds.
Be nice to other people and pray if you get into trouble. That’s what most teenagers are learning in church these days, says Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. Instead of learning the Bible, young people are drawn to a cult of niceness, Dean said. Being nice is OK, but it doesn’t have much to do with Jesus, she said. “The problem is that it’s an incredibly selfish way to look at faith,” Dean said. “It means that God is out there to make us happy.”
A major study of religion in youth found that many young people are “almost Christian” — they believe in God, but they don’t believe Christian doctrines. That has caused several local youth ministries to move from fun and games at youth groups to more intense Bible studies. They also want kids involved in more outreach and in volunteer work. Leaders believe this approach will make faith stick so young people will retain their faith when they go to college or into the work world.
On a recent Sunday, about 80 high school seniors gathered in groups at Beech High School in Hendersonville to talk about the Bible. They were all from nearby Long Hollow Baptist Church, which rents space on Sunday mornings at the school. This class has an old-fashioned approach. Boxes of doughnuts and other treats were scattered on a table by the door. There was no video screen or microphones or band. None of the students had a cell phone or iPod out. Instead, the kids sat in small groups and talked about the Bible and how it applies to their lives.
Class Is Heavy On Bible
“How do we slip into gray areas?” said Rachel Lovingood, a volunteer who leads the class. “When we focus on the world and not on the Word.” The class for seniors is new this year, and Lovingood is writing the curriculum as she goes. She said that the kids in the class want to succeed in their faith.
One way to do that is to connect young people with church volunteers. Each group on Sunday had two adult leaders who also lead weekly Bible studies in their homes for kids. There’s also a Wednesday night worship service at the church that draws about 430 high school students, with a band and a preacher each week. The classes are heavy on Bible and relationships.
Taylor Flatt said attending the classes keeps her focused on her faith amid the distractions of her busy schedule. This particular Sunday, she drove an hour and a half from Clarksville, where she had been visiting a friend, to make it to class on time. “I love my youth group,” she said.
Brian Mills, the high school pastor at Long Hollow, said if the students belong to a small group and learn to believe in the Bible and Christian doctrines, they’ll become people of deep faith. “We want their faith to be sticky,” he said.
Dropouts Are Common
The question of how to make faith stick has faced churches for years, says Thom Rainer, president of Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources and co-author of the book Essential Church? Reclaiming a Generation of Dropouts. Rainer said that most young people drop out of church, at least for a short time, when they turn 18 and can decide whether to go for themselves.
“For most, it’s that ‘I no longer have to do what my parents want me to do,’ ” Rainer said. The young people who come back are the ones who were taught that going to church matters. “The lower the bar is set in church life, the more likely people are not to come back,” he said. Rainer said churches need to get youth involved in volunteer work. “Don’t just entertain them with events,” he said.
Darrell Walker, who runs youth ministry at Mount Zion Baptist Church, agrees. In recent years, some churches have turned to pop culture — playing video games like Halo or Guitar Hero in youth group — to attract students. That’s not a good idea, he said.
“They play with video games all the time,” he said. “So, why would they come to church to play around?”
Dean believes there are risks involved in trying to change what youth groups teach. One is that kids will begin to act like Jesus — which can make their parents uncomfortable. “Most parents don’t want their kids to end up too much like Jesus,” she said.
Dean is the author of Almost Christian, a book based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, the largest study of faith and young people in United States history. Dean was one of the researchers involved in the project and interviewed dozens of young people about their faith. Researchers found that most young people believe in something they labeled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” “It helps you feel good. Otherwise God stays out of the way,” Dean said.
After Dean finished work on the study, her life changed. Her family left the large congregation they’d been attending, which had an extensive, more fun-based youth group, and moved to a small congregation that did more ministry. She and her husband also started talking more to their kids about their specific Christian beliefs.
Dean said that she did so to help her kids understand that faith mattered in their lives. She has some advice for parents: “Do one radical thing for your faith and do it for your kids,” she said. “And then explain to your kids why your faith matters.”
This article “Almost Christian Teens Trouble Church Scholars” by Bob Smietana was excerpted from: THE TENNESSEAN Newspaper August 30, 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”