By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, OCT. 25, 2009 (Zenit.org).- How to attract young people to Christianity is a topic on the mind of just about every church leader today. It’s no secret that a large number of young adults don’t belong to any church, but that doesn’t mean they are insensible to religion, according to a recent book.
In “Lost and Found: The Younger Unchurched and the Churches That Reach Them,” (B and H Publishing Group), Ed Stezzer, Richie Stanley and Jason Hayes, look at “the twentysomethings” and how some churches are striving to make contact with a generation notoriously reluctant to commit itself to institutional religion.
In their study they looked at the unchurched, dividing them into various categories for the purpose of their analysis. There were some who were never involved in any church, those who left the practice of religion after childhood, and those who are either friendly or hostile to churches. It’s not a study based on any one Christian church, but rather a look at how young adults interact with Christianity.
The data in the book comes from several surveys conducted from 2006-8. There was about a 40/60 split between those aged 20-24, and those from 25-29. Over half were college graduates, and eight out of nine had pursued some post-secondary education.
As with other studies of young people the respondents often replied that they were spiritual, even if not always religious. Thus, 43% of the unchurched said they were spiritual, and another 31% claimed to be both spiritual and religious in spite of a lack of any regular attendance at a specific church.
It also turned out that more than 60% of them reported attending church weekly when they were growing up. So, it turns out that many of the unchurched could be more accurately as being de-churched, the authors commented.
The book then turned to detail some of the beliefs of the unchurched. Four out of five of them believe that a supreme being exists and three out of four claim that the existence of God does or would make an impact on their lives.
This initial finding, however, needs to be qualified by understanding what sort of God the unchurched believe in. While a majority responded that they believe in the God described in the Bible, at the same time 58% answered that the biblical God is no different from the gods or spiritual beings worshipped by other religions such as Islam and Buddhism.
In fact, the area with the most agreement between the spiritual and unspiritual young adults was that the God of the Bible was no different from other gods.
“Spiritual or unspiritual, the majority agrees in a bland God,” the authors noted. “Put simply, an abundance of spiritual confusion permeates the belief system of the young unchurched.”
A closer look
When it comes to a breakdown along ethnic lines, 98% of young unchurched African-Americans agreed that God exists, while 84% of Hispanics affirmed this. This compares to 76% of unchurched Anglo-Saxons who believe in God.
More interesting results come when you compare the effects of education on beliefs. Those with college education were less likely to believe that God exists — 79% compared to 94% of those with high school or less education. Agreement that only the God of the Bible exists was only 53% among the more educated; it was 85% among the less educated. Less education also led to a stronger agreement that God’s existence affected their life.
The survey then went on to examine what they thought about Jesus. They were asked two questions: Whether they believed in the resurrection; and if believing in Jesus makes a positive difference in a person’s life.
Around two-thirds of the unchurched agreed that Jesus died and came back to life. And 77% replied affirmatively to the second question. So, the researchers concluded, it’s not as though a majority of young people are staying away from church due to a problem over belief in God or Jesus.
When it came to opinions about the church the reactions were not so favorable. While 73% did agree that the Christian church is generally a positive thing for society, around two-thirds accused churchgoers of being hypocrites and 90% affirmed that they could have a good relationship with God without being involved in a church.
It’s not surprising that the unchurched are hostile when it comes to churches, the authors observed, but the surveys did reveal that a majority are open to hear their friends talk about Christianity. In fact, 89% declared they were willing to let someone tell them about Christianity.
Moreover, just under half said that if a friend became a Christian it would have a positive effect on their relationship. It’s not all positive, however, as 46% agreed with the statement that “Christians get on my nerves.”
The last part of the book examines what some churches are doing in order to attract the unchurched. The authors identified nine characteristics common to these varied endeavors.
— Creating a deeper community by means of a healthy small group system that enables people to connect with others.
— Enabling them to make a difference by leading young people to serve through volunteer activities.
— Providing opportunities for worship that both reflect the culture and also reverence for God.
— Establishing effective communication that varies in style but is more conversational than preachy.
— A willingness to use the language of technology familiar to young adults.
— Building cross-generational relationships by linking young adults to older adults who challenge them to mature.
— Leadership that is honest and authentic.
— Leading by transparency and a personal sense of humanity.
— Taking a team approach to ministry.
Explaining in more detail the point about giving people the opportunity to do volunteer work the authors commented that through such charitable activities not only are the recipients helped, but the lives of the volunteers are changed. Young adults today have a strong desire to change the world, they added, and want to be part of projects.
In the past many Protestant churches required people to be a member of the church in order to participate in volunteer work, Increasingly, however, the book explained that churches give people an opportunity to serve before they join. Many of these newcomers then go on to join church groups after they have made the initial connection through their voluntary activities.
The authors also went into more detail about using modern media technology to attract young adults. Until recently few churches, they argued, appreciated sufficiently the impact of the changes in communications.
Having a presence online can change the way people think about the church, dispelling myths and leading them to join. Using video clips, social networks, and other instruments allows unchurched people to see authentic believers and what they do with their lives and the role that their faith plays.
Technology must be a servant to the Gospel, the authors warn, so it needs to be used to convey a message and not be a tool for its own sake.
In concluding, the authors urge a greater effort to connect young adults to God and the church. If this can be achieved, then the world can be changed. Young adults are seeking things that can be found in Christianity, so we have to find a way to reacquaint them with the church.