Transitions in life are rarely simple. Some of the most significant and complex shifts that people undergo occur during the transition from adolescence to early adulthood. An important part of that maturation is the refinement of people’s spiritual commitment and behavior.
A new study by The Barna Group (Ventura, California) shows that despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most twentysomethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years – and often beyond that. In total, six out of ten twentysomethings were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.
Teens Embrace Spirituality
Teenagers thrive on fresh experiences and new perspectives. The spiritual dimension gives teens a fertile ground for their explorations. Half of teens attend a church-related service or activity in a typical week. More than three-quarters discuss matters of faith with peers and three out of five teens attend at least one youth group meeting at a church during a typical three month period. One-third of teenagers say they participate in a Christian club on campus at some point during a typical school year. There is also a substantial amount of unorthodox spiritual activity: three-quarters of America’s teenaged youths have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity during their teen years (not including reading horoscopes).
Still, one of the most striking findings from the research is the broad base of opportunities that Christian churches in America have with to work with teenagers. Overall, more than four out of five teens say they have attended a church for a period of at least two months during their teenage years (81%). This represents substantial penetration and significant prospects for influencing the nation’s 24 million teens.
…But Disengagement Happens
At the same time, the Barna research underscores how fleeting that influence may be: twentysomethings continue to be the most spiritually independent and resistant age group in America. Most of them pull away from participation and engagement in Christian churches, particularly during the “college years.” The research shows that, compared to older adults, twentysomethings have significantly lower levels of church attendance, time spent alone studying and reading the Bible, volunteering to help churches, donations to churches, Sunday school and small group involvement, and use of Christian media (including television, radio and magazines).
In fact, the most potent data regarding disengagement is that a majority of twentysomethings – 61% of today’s young adults – had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged (i.e., not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying). Only one-fifth of twentysomethings (20%) have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. Another one-fifth of teens (19%) were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.
For most adults, this pattern of disengagement is not merely a temporary phase in which they test the boundaries of independence, but is one that continues deeper into adulthood, with those in their thirties also less likely than older adults to be religiously active. Even the traditional impulse of parenthood – when people’s desire to supply spiritual guidance for their children pulls them back to church – is weakening. The new research pointed out that just one-third of twentysomethings who are parents regularly take their children to church, compared with two-fifths of parents in their thirties and half of parents who are 40-years-old or more.
David Kinnaman, the director of the research, pointed out, “There is considerable debate about whether the disengagement of twentysomethings is a lifestage issue – that is, a predictable element in the progression of people’s development as they go through various family, occupational and chronological stages – or whether it is unique to this generation. While there is some truth to both explanations, this debate misses the point, which is that the current state of ministry to twentysomethings is woefully inadequate to address the spiritual needs of millions of young adults. These individuals are making significant life choices and determining the patterns and preferences of their spiritual reality while churches wait, generally in vain, for them to return after college or when the kids come. When and if young adults do return to churches, it is difficult to convince them that a passionate pursuit of Christ is anything more than a nice add-on to their cluttered lifestyle.”
Piecing Faith Together
While twentysomethings often disengage from traditional religious expressions, faith and spirituality are hardly absent from their lives. The research also examined a number of significant realities about the spiritual journeys of young adults:
- As for religious identity, most twentysomethings maintain outward allegiance to Christianity: 78% of twentysomethings say they are Christians, compared with 83% of teenagers. Although they are less likely than older generations to feel this way, most twentysomethings describe themselves as “deeply spiritual.”
- Loyalty to congregations is one of the casualties of young adulthood: twentysomethings were nearly 70% more likely than older adults to strongly assert that if they “cannot find a local church that will help them become more like Christ, then they will find people and groups that will, and connect with them instead of a local church.” They are also significantly less likely to believe that “a person’s faith in God is meant to be developed by involvement in a local church.”
- These attitudes explain other anomalies of twentysomething spirituality. Much of the activity of young adults, such as it is, takes place outside congregations. Young adults were just as likely as older Americans to attend special worship events not sponsored by a local church, to participate in a spiritually oriented small group at work, to have a conversation with someone else who holds them accountable for living faith principles, and to attend a house church not associated with a conventional church. Interestingly, there was one area in which the spiritual activities of twentysomethings outpaced their predecessors: visiting faith-related websites.
The intensity of religious commitment is lower among young adults, but not as low as might be assumed. Among those in their twenties and thirties, 6% have beliefs that qualify them as evangelical. This is statistically on par with the level among today’s teenagers (5%), but about half the rate of those over age 40 (12%). One-third of young adults (36%) qualify as born again Christians, which is slightly lower than the 44% of those over 40. (In the Barna survey, evangelicals and born again Christians are defined based upon religious beliefs and commitments, not based on the terms people use to describe themselves.)
Kinnaman offered several insights about the data: “Much of the ministry to teenagers in America needs an overhaul – not because churches fail to attract significant numbers of young people, but because so much of those efforts are not creating a sustainable faith beyond high school. There are certainly effective youth ministries across the country, but the levels of disengagement among twentysomethings suggest that youth ministry fails too often at discipleship and faith formation. A new standard for viable youth ministry should be – not the number of attenders, the sophistication of the events, or the ‘cool’ factor of the youth group – but whether teens have the commitment, passion and resources to pursue Christ intentionally and whole- heartedly after they leave the youth ministry nest.”
The Strategic Leader of The Barna Group explained that, “it’s not entirely surprising that deep, lasting spiritual transformation rarely happens among teenagers – it’s hard work at any age, let alone with the distractions of youth. And, since teenagers’ faith often mirrors the intensity of their parents, youth workers face steep challenges because they are trying to impart something of spiritual significance that teenagers generally do not receive from home.
“Our team is conducting more research into what leads to a sustainable faith, but we have already observed some key enhancements that youth workers may consider. One of those is to be more personalized in ministry. Every teen has different needs, questions and doubts, so helping them to wrestle through those specific issues and to understand God’s unique purpose for their lives is significant. The most effective churches have set up leadership development tracks and mentoring processes to facilitate this type of personalization.
“Another shift,” he continued, “is to develop teenagers’ ability to think and process the complexities of life from a biblical viewpoint. This is not so much about having the right head knowledge as it is about helping teens respond to situations and decisions in light of God’s principles for life. Also, we have learned that effective youth ministries do not operate in isolation but have a significant role in training parents to minister to their own children.
“Above all, remember to keep a balanced perspective,” Kinnaman cautioned. “Some have overstated the problem, while others minimize it. The fact is millions of American teenagers and twentysomethings are alive to God and devoted to His Kingdom. But the research is also clear that there are significant issues related to the way young people experience and express their faith. Without objectively and strategically addressing those challenges, Christian leaders will miss the opportunity to awaken many more young souls to a life-long zeal for God.”
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The data in this report are based on interviews with more than 22,103 adults and 2,124 teenagers from across the nation in 25 separate surveys. The adult sample included interviews with 3,583 twentysomethings. The Barna Group conducted these studies through the use of telephone and online surveys, implemented from January 2001 through August 2006. All of these projects are based upon random samples of adults and teenagers living within the 48 continental states. The maximum sampling error for any of the nationwide adult studies (which include a minimum of 1000 interviews) is ±3.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The maximum sampling error for any of the teenage studies (which have a minimum sample of 600 interviews) is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
In each survey, the distribution of respondents corresponded to the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals. Statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate sample to known population percentages.
“Born again Christians” are defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents are not asked to describe themselves as “born again.”
“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described above) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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