Report From Pew Research Center Looks at Christian Expression in Schools

Has faith faded from public schools, or do today’s religiously unaffiliated teens simply overlook it?

Evangelical students notice far more Christian expression in US public schools than their peers do overall and are more willing to engage in conversations with their friends about what they believe, according to a new report out today from the Pew Research Center, the first of its kind.

The release coincides with Focus on the Family’s sixth Bring Your Bible to School Day, when half a million teens are expected to bring a Bible to school as a way to celebrate First Amendment freedoms and share their faith. If the survey is any indication, evangelical public school students are far more likely than their religiously unaffiliated peers to notice the flood of Bibles.

Pew found that evangelical teens are six times more likely than religiously unaffiliated teens to notice students reading Scripture in school outside of class (18% vs. 3%) and nearly three times more likely than the unaffiliated to witness student prayer before lunch (25% vs. 9%) or to see someone invited to a youth group or worship service (45% versus 17%).

“There are substantial differences in what [religious expressions] students tend to see in public school depending on the student’s religious affiliation,” Pew’s report states. But “it is not completely clear what accounts for such large differences.”

Evangelicals’ heightened awareness of faith expressions could be influenced by a “tendency to have religiously similar friendship circles,” according to Pew researchers. Alternately, “religious and nonreligious teens may perceive the world somewhat differently: What may appear as a religious expression to an evangelical Protestant teen may not even be noticed by a nonreligious teen.”

Among all religiously affiliated teens, 31 percent say they personally wear clothing or jewelry with religious symbols to public school, 26 percent pray before eating lunch, and 24 percent invite fellow students to religious activities. Evangelical public school students do all three at higher rates: 38 percent wear religious clothing or jewelry, 39 percent pray before eating lunch, and 43 percent invite peers at school to religious youth groups or worship services.

The biggest gap between evangelicals and fellow students is over whether they actually talk about their faith with their friends at school. A majority of evangelical teens (59%) say they do, compared to fewer than half of mainline Protestants, a third of Catholics, and about one-in-five religious nones.

Richard Ross, a youth ministry leader for five decades, said he has observed a decline in religious expressions at public schools, but he blames Christian adults rather than students.

Almost all evangelical denominations and parachurch groups “are seeing changes in the ways youth ministers are challenging their teenagers,” said Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. On average, “younger youth pastors have softened their call to students to have gospel conversations at school” and “are not networking their efforts in order to establish evangelistic campus clubs on school campuses.”

As a result, he said, “teenage baptisms in almost every evangelical group are dropping precipitously.”

A majority of teens in general (82%) and evangelical teens (64%) say there are no religious support or prayer groups that meet in their school.

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Source: Christianity Today