While teens actively participate in church activities, a new study revealed that most "twentysomethings" disengage from active spiritual lives.
The Barna Group reported that 61 percent of today's young adults had been churched at one point during their teen years but they are now spiritually disengaged – not actively attending church, reading the Bible, or praying.
As teens, most people have been found to embrace spirituality with half of teens attending a church-related service or activity in a typical week and more than 75 percent discussing matters of faith with peers. Three out of five teens attend at least one youth group meeting at a church during a typical three-month period, according to the research group, and one-third of teenagers say they participate in a Christian club on campus at some point during a typical school year.
With many Christian leaders calling today's teens the largest generation, these statistics represent "significant prospects for influencing the nation's 24 million teens," stated the report.
Yet, many of them fall away from the active spiritual engagement that was seen during teen years as they enter their twenties, particularly in college. 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.
Only one-fifth of twentysomethings have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences while the majority disengaged from church activity. And nearly one-fifth of teens were never significantly reached by a Christian community of faith during their teens and have remained disconnected from the Christian faith.
"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," said David Kinnaman, the director of the research, in the study. "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.”
While disengaged from religious activity, most twentysomethings still report being committed to the Christian faith. The study showed that 78 percent of them say they are Christians and most also describe themselves as "deeply spiritual."
Twentysomethings were nearly 70 percent 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.”
Younger adults were found to be 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. The younger crowd, however, visit faith-related websites moreso than adults.
Among those in their twenties and thirties, six percent have beliefs that qualify them as evangelical and 36 percent qualify as born again Christians.
"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," commented Kinnaman. "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.”
Kinnaman said the research group is doing more studies on what leads to a sustainable faith, but some key observances have already been made. One key suggestion youth workers may consider 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," the researcher said.
He continued, describing the importance of helping teens respond to situations and decisions from a biblical viewpoint. Youth groups also have a significant role in training parents to minister to their own children.
"The fact is millions of American teenagers and twentysomethings are alive to God and devoted to His Kingdom," Kinnaman added. "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."