Stop Telling Students They Are Leaving

Perhaps no single topic has generated more attention on youth ministry from church leaders over the last decade than the so called “loss/retention rate” of students making the transition from the teen years to young adulthood.  What happens to the religious faith of American teens when they make the transition from high school to the emerging adult years?  Do most succeed or fail?

Popular universal conclusion has been that as few as two-thirds and as many as 85% of America’s Christian teens walk away from their faith following the youth years.  Volumes of books, opinion polls and interpretations of data have been presented as evidence to its “proof.”  In the Assemblies of God, it has been derived and said by some that we are losing two-thirds or more of our youth.  Thus, some have suggested that this “failure” necessitates “substantive,” in some cases “radical,” changes in how we do youth ministry to reverse the so-called trend.  But if the loss/retention rate data is incorrect, we could be making changes that do more harm than good.

Unfortunately, it appears most of the studies on the subject of youth retention and emerging adulthood has not necessarily been social science.  Some results are interpretive opinions from anecdotal evidence while others are influenced by business and additional factors that can skew outcomes.  Furthermore, the reports are often presented as being comparatively drastic to previous generations without the supporting comparative data from previous generations.

Data is often derived from three basic methods:
1.Number counting – counting the numbers of age adherents within a church organization
2.Polls – questions answered via forms and interviews at a moment in time
3.Longitudinal study – questions answered via forms and interviews of a specific age adherent that is associated with a church organization, AND then repeated with the same persons over an expanded period of time for comparison

While popular writings have postulated that we lose a majority of our youth, the evidence remained questionable since little empirical study had actually been done on the subject.  In the Assemblies of God, there hasn’t been a comprehensive, longitudinal loss/retention study of its students.  In 2005, the National Study on Youth and Religion did a first wave study entitled, Portraits of Protestant Teens: A Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations that summarized AG youth as doing aggregately better than its sister Denominations.  Outside of that study, most AG conclusions have been interpretive of aggregate American youth polls and surveys published beyond that of our own “number counting” known as the Annual Church Ministries Report (ACMR), which happens to suggest that we keep more than we lose of youth in transition.  For example, two recent, comparative ACMR reports indicate that perhaps just a 13% decline in age adherents from the teen years to the college/early young adult years over the last five years. Another interesting ACMR comparative is that growth among AG youth group adherents outpaced aggregate growth among AG adherents over last 25 years by approximately 8%.  ASSEMBLIES OF GOD YOUTH GROUPS HAVE GROWN BY 60% OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS (1983-2008)!

So, there continues to be a need for more and better data to determine actual attrition rates in both the aggregate American Church, and specifically within the Assemblies of God.

Gaining more reliable data took a good step forward when the National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR) began.  Some higher education researchers have proclaimed this work as the “gold standard” for understanding adolescent youth and religion.  Dr. Smith’s first book from this work is entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (February 2005).  It was revealing and valuable information.

After five waves of study by NSYR, a second book arrives from Dr. Christian Smith, Souls In Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (September 2009).  This book follows the adolescent study into the emerging adult years (18-23 year olds).  Robert Wuthnow from Princeton University says, “Unlike the nonsense delivered in news magazines and opinion polls, Souls in Transition is serious scholarly research about religion and emerging adults.  The sober, fair-minded presentation of evidence about what is and what is not happen among Americans ages 18 to 23 is refreshing.”  Author Jeffrey Jensen Arnett of Clark University says, “This book is social science at its best and should not be missed by anyone who wishes to understand the lives of today’s emerging adults.”

Ten chapters and 345 pages of information are presented in Souls in Transition.  It is not “beach reading” material.  It is social science.  As such, it can be laborious, though rewarding, reading.  (I believe that it is a must read for today’s church leaders.  I highly fear that if we keep telling our youth that they are “leaving,” they might start leaving in numbers closer to what have been “sold” so well.  “Nothing is so absurd that if repeated often enough people will believe it.” – Dr. William James)

Notables and Tips on Dr. Christian Smith’s book,
Souls In Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

Initial Notables from Souls in Transition

1.Conclusions of a massive overall decline in religious faith among emerging adults is overstated.  “Most emerging adults tend not to change religiously, many tend to decline, and a few tend to increase religiously.” (Page 283, italics mine; also see page 256)  The predominant declining segment is among Catholics and mainline Protestants.

2.There is no silver bullet to develop a better Christian faith among adolescents as they emerge into young adulthood.  Rather there is a combination of core factors that make the difference. (Chapter 8)
a.Example – high parental religious attendance and faith + high teen importance of faith + many teen religious experiences + teen frequently prays and reads Scripture = more successful Christian youth in transition
i.Encouragingly, this supports the approach taken by Assemblies of God National Youth Ministries (NYM) and many district and local youth ministries.
ii.NYM espouses that we must win, build and send students.  We must connect them to God, family, Church and Christ’s cause.  We must establish them to pray, live, tell, serve and give.  We have developed assisting core resources like the FIRE BIBLE Student Edition, Alive in Christ (new believer teaching), FIRE Starter (personal & small group bible studies), FIRE Institute (leadership development school), etc.  We have five excellent programs of ministry for students to “experience” their faith in action (AIM, Bible Quiz, Youth Alive, Fine Arts and Speed The Light).

3.Evangelism of youth before high school years is critical. 
“The vast majority… of those youth – 85 percent – who have by the age of 18-23 ever committed to live their lives for God appear to have made their first commitments before age 14.” (Page 247)
This does not mean high school and college aged ministry is less important.  It means that evangelism effectiveness is heightened during these years.  Spiritual development continues beyond an initial commitment. (Pages 248, 255)

4.Parents play a powerful role in the religious socialization of emerging adults as well as adolescents.  Though it is true that “adolescents and parents are continually renegotiating the terms of their relationship” and people do tend to be more independent with age, parents play a big role.  “This is done through role modeling, teaching, taking-things-for-granted, sanctioning, training…habits, beliefs, values, desires, norms and practices.” (Pages 283-286)

5.“Going to college no longer seems to corrode the religious faith and practice of students as it did in decades past.” New evidence says that since the 1990’s, higher education has not been undermining the religion of students as it did for prior generations. (Page 256, underline mine.)  Several factors play into this impact – campus ministry, more evangelical faculty, reemergence of spiritual support, etc. (See pages 248-251)

Other notables from Souls in Transition

1.Most emerging adults have since 1972 either remained stable in the their levels of religiousness or have actually increased somewhat.  The significant exception to the rule is frequent church attendance by Catholic and mainline Protestant emerging adults, which has dropped noticeably in the past decades. (Pages 279-281)

Current emerging adulthood is a life phase with spiritual life levels not unlike those since 1972.  It is not just an extension of the youth years nor a complete transition into adulthood.  It is a unique life segment with its “own distinctive characteristics, tendencies and experiences.”  Modern social and technological changes have transformed the length of this life phase.  It is important to note that “according to available evidence, emerging adults in America since 1972 have generally not become less religious.” (Chapter 3)

2.The past shapes the future.  The religious development of adolescents shapes the future of emerging adulthood faith. There is more continuity than change for souls in transition. (Page 256)

3.Certain factors are more important than other factors in spiritual life development.  Prayer, parents, faith, core beliefs vs. doubts and religious experiences are notably important. (Chapter 8)

4.A decline in public faith is evidence of a decline in private faith.  “When the public practice of religion declines among emerging adults, for the vast majority, their internal, subjective interest in faith does as well.” (Page 256)

Final Commentary

One can categorize sales marketing in two categories: victory and tragedy.  Unfortunately, it is often an easier work to find and sell fear than victory.  It’s time to stop using youth ministry as a whipping post to champion book and research sales.  One can spin “opinions,” but youth ministry is NOT the enemy of the Great Commission…far from it!!!  Stop the madness!  It seems that Satan doesn’t have to actually cause great student declines to stymie the Church.  Apparently, he only needs to get some in the Church to believe that youth ministry is failing students to stymie the Church.

It’s time to stop the pop culture, blame/shame game upon youth pastors and youth ministry.  Any youth-in-transition is not solely a youth ministry issue.  It is a church issue.  Neither is it the five alarm fire in this decade compared to previous decades that pop communications has purported it to be.  Let’s get over the pop culture elevation of opinion polls before the Word of God.  Let’s get on with winning, building and sending students for the cause of Jesus Christ.  (Mark 1:17)



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