On any given Sunday around 10:30 a.m., a handful of college students sip coffee and chat in Christ United Methodist Church’s youth room, a catch-all space for praise band equipment, kitchen supplies and an air hockey table.
The young adults perch on couches and bean bag chairs in the center of the room, discussing what’s new in their lives and how to mentor the church’s high schoolers on issues like dating, faith and feminism.
Alicia Griffing, a freshman at Salt Lake Community College, is one of the group’s regulars, which seems natural given she was born and baptized into CUMC. But it actually took her a few months after high school graduation to commit to attending.
“I went from being in everything to not having anything to do with the church at all,” she said, noting that she was busy with her job and unsure how to stay connected to church once she’d aged out of youth group.
Young adults often go through a faith crisis like Griffing’s near the end of high school, leading some to drop religious practice altogether. More than 6 in 10 religious “nones” who were raised in a religion (62 percent) say they abandoned their childhood faith before they turned 18, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
These findings are alarming for faith leaders, as well as parents hoping to raise their kids to be faithful adults. Youth programs and parenting routines designed to pass on religious practice appear to be failing, and 1 in 4 Americans are considered nones today, compared with 12 percent 20 years ago, PRRI reported.
However, research on the nones and the experience of young adults like Griffing offer clues on how best to address the exodus of teenagers and young adults away from faith, according to experts on unaffiliated Americans. For example, PRRI’s study showed that only one-third of nones don’t believe in God.
That data point is important to keep in mind if you’re trying to make a difference in young people’s lives, said Richard Flory, a sociologist and senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
“There remains a level of belief in God, spirits and miracles. These people pray a lot,” he said. “That tells me that it’s the delivery system that’s out of whack.”
Parents and pastors
Parents and religious leaders guide young people through the development of their faith, saying prayers with them, reading and discussing scripture and getting them involved in church programs. But research on the nones shows these efforts sometimes come up short.
Six in 10 unaffiliated Americans say a lack of belief in their religion’s teachings was an important reason they left their childhood faith, and 32 percent say they left because their family was never that religious, PRRI reported.
These reasons provide insights into young people’s religious experiences, said Daniel Cox, PRRI’s research director. They show that parents and church leaders may need to be more strategic in how they teach and practice faith in front of teenagers.
“It’s a tall order to expect children to become religious and be interested in theology, history and religious culture without more of a strong push from parents and other authority figures,” Cox said.
But strong pushes toward religious practice have fallen out of favor in many homes, noted Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University professor of sociology of religion, in an email. Modern parents want their kids to choose what’s most fulfilling for them, instead of forcing them down a specific path.
“Giving kids a choice, ironically, means not grounding them in any particular tradition and sending the message that religion isn’t very important,” she said.
Similarly, Vanitta Conrad, CUMC’s director of Christian education, said the teenagers she works with often aren’t prepared to make serious decisions about faith. They are busy worrying about school assignments and their social lives.
“A lot of parents think they’re allowing their students to be grown-ups and make that choice (about church attendance,) but they’re not ready to make that choice,” she said. “It’s really hard to find the balance between faith and fun and school.”
It can be even harder to fit church participation into a busy college schedule, as Desiree Jensen learned a few years ago. Like Griffing, she struggled to stay motivated to attend church at CUMC after she graduated from high school, even though the community had been an important part of her teenage years.
“I was busier with work,” Jensen said. “I wasn’t really drawn to the traditional worship service.”
Her faith community had equipped her with a strong religious foundation but struggled to help her translate high school habits into a mature religious practice. Luckily, Jensen felt comfortable turning to CUMC leaders to look for solutions.
With their support, she founded “Holy Grounds,” the young adult gathering, and reconnected with her favorite parts of youth group: friendship, service projects and spiritual discussion.
“It’s worth getting out of bed for,” said Jensen, who is now a senior at the University of Utah.
Youth programs are most successful at drawing teenagers to religious belief when they help them see faith in action, said Flory, who studied young adults’ spiritual practices while writing a forthcoming book.
Youth groups should “engage the experience of religion instead of sitting around with pizza,” he said.
CUMC has tried to live out this advice in a variety of ways, Conrad said. The 30 to 40 middle and high schoolers in youth group can join a worship band, ring hand bells or sit with friends after church and make blankets for the homeless community.
“There are lots of avenues for kids” to get involved, she added.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long provided its young members with opportunities to study and engage their faith. In addition to attending Sunday services, they can attend weekday youth activities and volunteer opportunities, participate in church-sponsored youth athletics and attend seminary classes, in which high schoolers discuss scripture and doctrine.
“These kids have so much support: youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, bishops, parents and friends,” said Sherry Titensor, a volunteer seminary teacher in Flower Mound, Texas.
At 6 a.m. on weekdays, Titensor leads a class of 22 high school seniors, deepening their knowledge of LDS teachings and helping them prepare for life after high school. Some will serve full-time missions for their church, while others head off to college. The important part is that all of her students know there will always be a place for them in the church, she said.
“Never do we want them to feel like the ball is just dropped and they don’t have a new village or support group wherever they go,” Titensor said.
Besides helping their kids connect with church programs, parents can increase the likelihood that their families remain religious by being religiously active themselves, researchers noted.
“Family environment really matters in providing continuity and future engagement in religion,” Cox said. “If children don’t pick up good religious habits in the home, they’re much more likely to fall away.”
His conclusion is supported by a new Pew Research Center study, which showed that people raised in a home where religion was valued are more likely than their peers to affiliate with their family’s faith.
For example, 73 percent of U.S. adults raised by two Catholic parents who believed religion was very important remain Catholic today, compared with 38 percent who said religion didn’t seem important to their family growing up, Pew reported.
“Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents’ religion as adults,” researchers noted.
The religious habits parents should model will vary depending on what religion a family belongs to, Flory said. Jewish parents may express their religious commitment by abstaining from certain activities on the Sabbath, while Methodists, like Conrad, sign-up to volunteer for community organizations.
Parenting with religious practice in mind involves “teaching, modeling and creating an atmosphere where beliefs are important,” Flory said.
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