Parents can help teens stay in church
Despite appearances, teens do want guidance when it comes to the decisions they face in everyday life, and parents and churches who meet those needs make it more likely those teens will stay in church as young adults, according to the survey of more than 1,000 adults ages 18-30. LifeWay Research conducted the survey in April and May 2007.
While the study revealed that 70 percent of young adults ages 23 to 30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between 18 and 22, it also indicated several tangible ways parents and churches could make them more likely to stay in church.
Two-thirds of the teens who stay in church as young adults describe the church as "a vital part of my relationship with God" –- demonstrating the importance of each teen having a strong relationship with God, as well as the importance of church attendance, said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research.
"Teens are looking for more from a youth ministry than a holding tank with pizza," Stetzer said. "They look for a church that teaches them how to live life. As they enter young adulthood, church involvement that has made a difference in their lives gives them a powerful reason to keep attending."
By ages 18-22, attending church has become a matter of choice -– and young adults can be very pragmatic in making that choice, added Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research.
"Gone are the days in which young adults attend because they are 'supposed to,'" McConnell said. "Only 10 percent of those who continued attending church did so to please others. Young adults whose faith truly became integrated into their life as teens are much more likely to stay in church. If church did not prove its value during their teen years, young adults won't want to attend -– and won't attend."
Teens who find their pastor's sermons relevant to everyday life also are more likely to keep attending as young adults, the research indicated. Sixty-three percent of those who stayed in church said their pastors’ sermons were relevant. A similar margin said the worship style of the church they attended as teens was appealing to them.
"Attending worship is the basic level of involvement for most who attend church at all. Many never add to or go beyond this as teens," McConnell said. "If as teens they can't relate to the sermons at their church or don't enjoy the worship style, then as young adults they can easily fall away from their only connection to the church.
"While it is a constant challenge for a pastor to communicate biblical truth to multiple generations simultaneously, the importance of targeting teens with the message is clear," McConnell added.
Teens who had adults from church make a significant time investment in their lives also were more likely to keep attending church. Forty-six percent of those who stayed in church said five or more adults at church had invested time with them personally and spiritually.
"The Bible teaches that older women should mentor and invest their lives in younger women. Clearly, this holds true for both of the sexes," Stetzer said. "When adults pour their lives into young adults, both are better for it."
Meaningful relationships with adults at church helps teenagers see church as a place they belong, McConnell said.
"Investment time in young people lives out the love of Jesus Christ in a tangible way," he said. "It proves that a young person belongs at church. It can help connect the dots to help a teen integrate their faith into their life. And it gives the teen a connection to church after graduation when many of their peers are no longer around.
"Anybody wondering if they can make a difference can stop wondering," McConnell noted. "One Sunday school teacher, one chaperone, one discussion leader, one person at church who clearly cares can impact the course of a teen’s spiritual journey."
Teens who, at age 17, have parents who are authentic examples of Christian faith -- proactive and consistent in living out their faith -– also are more likely to keep attending as young adults. Across the board, 20 percent more of those who stayed in church indicated they had parents or family members who discussed spiritual things, gave them spiritual guidance and prayed together.
"Despite the conflicts that often occur during these years, it is difficult to understate the impact of a solid family involved in the faith community on the future involvement of teens," Stetzer said. "And that isn’t something that can be faked."
Youth are experts at noticing inconsistencies between what parents say and do, McConnell added.
"Simply attending church is a positive influence toward the teen continuing as a young adult," he said. "However, any sign that parents have second thoughts is a negative influence. These seeds of doubt include only one parent attending, parents not agreeing on a denomination, and a gap between beliefs at church and life in the home."
Of course, many factors in a teen's life are beyond the control of both parents and church leaders, McConnell noted.
"Many teens have parents who are separated or divorced," he said. "A church's worship style won't and can't appeal to everyone. But this is an exciting study because it shows there are several tangible things parents and churches can do to prepare teens to want to stay in church."
While parents and church members can have a real impact on keeping young adults in church, they don’t control the decision, Stetzer added.
"Whether teens are bombarded with positive or negative influences about church, they all make their own decisions about whether to continue or stop attending," he said. "This study shows the benefit of parents and church members faithfully doing their part, but in the final analysis, we must leave it in the hands of God to work in their lives."
To listen to a podcast with Stetzer and McConnell discussing the research with leaders who serve in student and collegiate ministry, go to www.lifeway.com/insidelifeway.