Study: What Teens are Looking for, Learning in Church

( [email protected] ) Oct 10, 2007 03:23 PM EDT
What teens expect most when it comes to churches is to worship or make a connection with God, a new Barna study showed.
What teens expect most when it comes to churches is to worship or make a connection with God. The picture shows Chinese American young people joining a worship evening at an evangelical Chinese Christian Church in San Jose, CA. (Photo: The Gospel Herald)

What teens expect most when it comes to churches is to worship or make a connection with God, a new Barna study showed.

Forty-five percent of American teens said that was very important to them and 42 percent seek "to better understand what I believe," according to the study released Monday.

Other important things they look for in a church include spending time with close friends (34 percent); getting encouraged or inspired (34 percent); and volunteering to help others (30 percent).

Expectations teens prioritized as less important were learning about prayer (26 percent); listening to religious teaching (26 percent); participating in discussions regarding religion and faith (23 percent); being mentored or coached in spiritual development (21 percent); discovering the traditions of their faith (20 percent); participating in a study class about faith (19 percent); and studying the Bible (18 percent).

Most teens also prefer a church that teaches how their faith should influence everyday decisions and lifestyle rather than one that teaches the traditions and background of their faith (39 percent vs. 16 percent, respectively). At the same time, 45 percent said they would not care for either type of church.

"Just because someone identifies what they want does not necessarily mean they know what they need," said David Kinnaman, lead researcher on the study. "Yet, all of the recent attention on young people gravitating to 'ancient traditions of Christianity' misses the fact that the vast majority of American teenagers do not express much interest in or appreciation for such traditions in the first place. Teenagers are a pinch-of-this-pinch-of-that generation, so without intentional decisions on the part of youth workers, many teenagers ride out their teen years in fruitless experimentation rather than genuine forms of spiritual development."

So what are teens learning in church?

According to the Barna study, 65 percent recalled learning about moral and ethical standards in the last 12 months; 62 percent learned about relationships, 55 percent learned about faith traditions and 50 percent were taught personal evangelism.

Fewer recalled church teachings on media, movies and television within the last year (35 percent); money and finances (30 percent); the supernatural world (28 percent); leisure activities (27 percent); government and law (26 percent); art and music (22 percent); health issues (21 percent); and technology (9 percent).

As a generation that grew up on the Internet, 26 percent of teens and 39 percent of born again Christian teens said they learned something about their faith or spirituality online in the last six months. Moreover, 16 percent of teens and 25 percent of born again teens said they had "a spiritual experience" online where they worshipped or connected with God.

"Born again teens are four times more likely to learn about spirituality online than they are to receive helpful perspective and insight about technology at church," said Kinnaman.

"Moreover, although their world is inundated with choices related to media, movies, television, technology, art, music, leisure, and health, most churchgoing teens tell us they rarely recall learning anything helpful on these topics in church. Perhaps as a result, many teens grow up concluding that Christianity is boring, old-fashioned and out of touch with reality. Rather than simply giving teens dos and don’ts, effective youth ministry should help them become engaged, thoughtful Christ followers who have sophisticated, biblical responses to life."

Another concern is over the prayer life of teens. While the study found that 72 percent teens today say they pray in a typical week, the figure is down from 81 percent a decade ago. Furthermore, less than half (48 percent) say they attend a worship service at a church, down from 53 percent. Even fewer attend Sunday school(35 percent), attend youth group (33 percent), participate in a small group (32 percent), and read the Bible (31 percent).

"Helping them connect with God, learn about their faith, and serve others, in a loving and relational environment are their top desires from a church," Kinnaman highlighted. "Keep in mind that young people are not spiritually transformed merely by attending a church, knowing a few Bible stories or being friends with the youth pastor. It takes addressing teens on a much deeper, personal level – such as developing their intellect and vocational passions as well as cultivating their curiosity for the complexities of life."

The report is based on nationwide surveys conducted on teenagers ages 13 to 18 in April 2005 and July 2006. The first study involved 2,409 teens and the 2006 study included 617 teens.