A little over 1/3 of Americans are not religiously affiliated and are identified under the category “nones”. Nones varies from individuals who self-identifies themselves as either atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular”. Overall, most who are unaffiliated are a growing number of young adults than older generations.
The numbers are shocking. Between sixty and seventy percent (60-70%) of teenagers and young adults are leaving the Christian church. But are these teenagers losing their faith, or are they simply not connected to a church? Have they fallen from the faith, or have they just disconnected from a particular church or congregation? Research indicates that teenagers tend to leave church behind, but not their faith. Teenagers do not fall neatly into one of two places: those who lose their faith or those who are active church members.
There’s a good reason that churches have trouble meeting teenagers’ spiritual needs. One of the primary needs teenagers have is the need for continuity. They need stability in their faith lives, continuity in tradition, and a dependable faith community in which to be nurtured. Yet they also need to “individualize” their faith, that is, make their faith their own and not base it off of what Mom and Dad believe. Trying to meet both of these needs, which seem to work against each other, makes the church’s task difficult. But unless churches are trying to meet both these needs, teenagers will continue to leave. The teenage years are difficult times. While many teenagers do not go into full-scale rebellion against their parents or think the world is out to get them, every teenager goes through intense physical, mental, psychological, and emotional changes in a relatively short amount of time. As these changes are happening within and around them, there is a deep longing for stability and continuity. Whether they know it or not, teenagers need a safety harness of sorts as they go through their “jumping off” years. As they mature in their faith and begin asking difficult questions about it, they need something steadfast to which they can cling. They’re searching for something that doesn’t change when everything else is shifting. They want stability in their church. The disconnect between true Christianity and what teens believe is dramatically revealed in a recent book, titled, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, written by Christian Smith. Smith and his colleagues conducted the largest survey to date of teen’s religious beliefs. Based on these extensive interviews, Smith writes that many students who claim to be Christians believe a host of ideas that are not anything close to orthodox Christianity. What they actually believe is something Smith identifies as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” On this view, the only point of faith is to be good, to feel good, and to have a God to always call on for help without expecting anything in return.
Teenagers yearn for individuation of their faith. They are forming their personal identity in all aspects of life, including their identity as a believer. So teenagers will question the teachings of the church and the faith of their parents. If their questions aren’t continually being answered or understood by them, this may slowly lead them into the mindset that there is no evidence for the world around them. Whether their experience results in answered questions and suspicions or not, their closeness will either increase or decrease depending on the person. As we have said in class, it always depends on who you ask since everyone has a different experience or story to tell.
McKee, Jonathan. Do They Run When They See You Coming? Reaching Out to Unchurched Teenagers. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004.
Barna Group. “4 Tough Aspects of Spiritual Growth.” Barna Research. Available from https:// http://www.barna.org/barna-update/faith-spirituality/524-self-described-christians-dominateamerica-but-wrestle-with-four-aspects-of-spiritual-depth#.UoP7pChER8s.