Jul 8, 2003

From the Archives

Teens Evaluate the Church-Based Ministry They Received As Children

A majority of today’s teenagers attended church when they were young children or adolescents – most of them attending on a regular basis. A new survey from the Barna Research Group explores what these teens say they received from their church when they were younger.

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Attendance Patterns

A majority of teenagers – 56% – says that they attended church-related activities an average of two or more times per month prior to turning 13. (An additional 6% said they attended an average of once a month.) The young people most likely to attend church events twice a month or more often were those living in the South or Midwest (about two-thirds did so, compared to slightly less than half among kids living in the Northeast and West).

What They Retained

When asked what they learned from their exposure to the church’s ministry while they were young children and adolescents, eight out of ten identified something that they felt was an important insight or category of lessons. One-quarter of teens (26%) said they received general information about God, such as claims regarding His existence, information about His attributes or teachings about the life of Jesus Christ. One-sixth of today’s teens (17%) said their church experience had imparted core religious beliefs from the Bible. One out of every seven young people (15%) said they learned important lifestyle principles, generally in relation to obedience to God’s laws or moral direction for their life. Smaller numbers of teenagers recall developing important relationships or relational skills at church (8%) or general ideas about the role of faith and church (5%). One out of every five teens (21%) said they did not learn anything of value during their time attending Christian churches.

Outcomes From Their Attendance

Each teenaged respondent who had attended church at least once a month during their younger years was asked whether or not each of eight specific outcomes accurately described their pre-teen church experience. Three of the outcomes were claimed by nine out of ten teens: having had exposure to Bible stories (95%), learning about the lives of great people in the Bible (92%), and having fun or positive experiences related to religion (89%).

Nearly as many young people said they felt they had developed meaningful friendships at church (87%), discovered the traditions of their church (86%), developed a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ (85%) and had opportunities to serve needy people alongside of their churched peers (85%).

The single outcome that was much less commonly cited was “understanding enough of the Bible so that every decision you make is based on biblical principles.” Only half of the churched young people – 53% – said this was a result of their church experience.

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Reactions to the Findings

Deeper analysis of the survey results led the study’s director, George Barna, to conclude that children get some very helpful and valuable experiences from church involvement, but often do not receive sufficient training in applying biblical content to their decision-making process. “We discovered fairly strong correlations between understanding how to use the Bible for life decision-making with becoming a born again Christian during the younger years, having an active spiritual life as characterized by consistent prayer, Bible reading and church attendance, and possessing a biblical worldview. Unfortunately,” Barna noted, “less than one out of every ten churched teenagers has a biblical worldview. In other words, the result of their involvement at a church is that they can recite some religious facts, they made some friends, and they had fun. That’s wonderful, but we also find that most of them have neither accepted Christ as their savior nor altered the basis on which they make their moral and ethical decisions in life. For most teenagers who have spent years attending church activities their faith is not integrated into who they are and how they live. Most of the young people who claim they developed an understanding of the Bible that enables them to make decisions based on biblical principles show no evidence of using that understanding in relation to the core beliefs and lifestyle choices that we studied.”

In his forthcoming book about worldview development, Think Like Jesus, Barna notes that surprisingly few adult Christians possess a biblical worldview, and that this weakness largely explains why the lives of those who claim to be committed Christians are generally indistinguishable from those of other people. The researcher also emphasized the necessity of helping people grasp such insight and applications while they are children or adolescents. “Most of the people who claim to have a biblical worldview show little evidence of such a perspective in their core attitudes, behaviors and religious beliefs. The data show that churches can have a very significant impact on the worldview of people, but they must start with an intentional process introduced to people at a very young age. Waiting until someone is in their teens or young adult years misses the window of opportunity. Clearly, more churches need to invest resources in such training.”

Research Source and Methodology

The data in this report are based on a nationwide telephone survey conducted by the Barna Research Group from its interviewing facility in Ventura, CA. The YouthPollSM survey involved interviews among 305 teenagers, from ages 13 through 18, during November 2002. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±5.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. Multiple callbacks were used to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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