Reviewing Myths That Thwart Truth

Below is a report I drafted four years ago on the often exaggerated loss/retention rates of Christian students in America.  I am blogging it today because of another recently busted myth that has worked to thwart the Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Church.

Recently, new research-based data on actual marriage and divorce rates by Shaunti Feldhahn in the book, The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths about Marriage and Divorce, reveals that pop belief has once again been found in error.  Unfortunately, long after the feather pillow has been torn open and exposed to the winds of media, this decade of research has long journey to impact popular belief.  This greatly reminds me about the oft postulated myth that “most” Christian students are said to be forfeiting their Christian belief as they age.  It is not substantiated by longitudinal study.  Four years ago, published research-based data uncovered this myth too.

Over the years, I have learned that Satan is good at selling lies.  He is the great deceiver.  He often strategically works to deceive people into fear to thwart the work of truth.  Fear sells.  For instance, he doesn’t have to actually achieve higher divorce rates and forfeiture of faith, he simply needs to mislead people, especially the Church, to believe it.  The result can be the same – fear, doubt, disillusionment, pause, unnecessary change, etc.  The effect stems, stalls, and sometimes stops Kingdom advancing work.

Anecdotal books abound because they sell more.  Unfortunately, research-based books cost more because they do not sell more.  Thus, they are not read enough and the information is less known.

Be alert, studied, and wise.  Shine the light of the Truth on darkness.  


My Initial Notes and Thoughts on

Souls In Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults

by Christian Smith

Perhaps no single topic has generated more attention in youth ministry in 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?

The seemingly universal conclusion is that 85% of America’s Christian teens will 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 said that this “failure” necessitates “substantive,” in some cases “radical,” changes in how we do youth ministry to reverse the so-called trend. But would those proposed changes actually improve or injure our current ministry?

Unfortunately, it appears most of the studies on the subject of youth retention and emerging adulthood has not been necessarily social science. Some opinions are as weak as anecdotal and others are influenced by business and other factors that can skew outcomes.

It has been said that there are three basic ways to derive data:

  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

Each of these data methods has value and purpose, and some more than others.

One would reason that cumulative data on a subject like “youth retention in the church (or faith) after high school” would discover support by all three categories. Yet, that is not the case on this subject. Thus, there is a great need for scholarly social science on the subject. Social science is a more empirical collection and study of data.

While popular writings have postulated that we are losing our youth, the evidence has been more questionable since little empirical study has actually been done on the subject. In the Assemblies of God, there hasn’t been a complete specific 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. So, there has been a need for better data to determine real attrition rates in both the larger Christian and specific AG scopes of the Church.

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. Thus, 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 will. “Nothing is so absurd that if repeated often enough people will believe it.” – Dr. William James)

Here is a short list of some first-read notables from Souls in Transition.

  1. 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.” (cf. Chapter 3) “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.” (pp. 279-281)
  2. 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. Distinguishing these different trajectories and their causes is much more revealing than simply pondering aggregate percentage sums.” (pp.282-283) Again, it is noted that the predominant declining segment is among Catholics and mainline Protestants.
  3. 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.” (pp.283-286)
  4. 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. (cf. Chapter 8)
    1. 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
      1. Encouragingly, this supports the approach taken by Assemblies of God National Youth Ministries (NYM) and many district and local youth ministries. Perhaps this is reflected in the comparatively positive report on AG youth in the “Report on Teenagers in Major U.S. Denominations” by the NSYR.
      2. 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).
    2. 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)
    3. Evangelism of youth before high school years is critical. “Of the 70% of youth who at some time or other before emerging adulthood commit their lives for God, the vast majority appear to do so early in life, apparently before the age of 14.” This does not mean high school and college aged ministry is less important. Spiritual development continues beyond an initial commitment. (p. 255)
    4. 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. (p. 256)
    5. 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. Several factors play into this impact – campus ministry, more evangelical faculty, reemergence of spiritual support, etc. (pp. 248-251)
    6. 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.” (p.256)

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