Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hemorrhaging Faith: 3 Observations on the Canadian Faith Research Project

I attended a seminar on the results of the Hemorrhaging Faith Research Project, a Canadian sociological study about the faith of young adults who were raised in the church, and why they choose to leave or stay with the local church. I've met sociologist and Hemorrhaging Faith researcher James Penner; he is a warm and intelligent guy, and is deeply passionate about fostering a lasting faith in the lives of young Canadians.

Here are three observations I made from the seminar that I hope can help "stop the bleeding" of our young people's faith:

1. American and Canadian research results are essentially the same. I know that the Canadian researchers tried to make some points of distinction, but practically everything--and I mean everything--that I heard about the state of spirituality with young adults in Canada can find strong parallels in David Kinnaman's You Lost Me and unChristian books, as well as Kara Powell and Brad Griffin's Sticky Faith, Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian, and Christian Smith's Soul Searching. (I blogged a brief review about unChristian here, wrote a longer review of Sticky Faith here, and shared a teaching series based on Almost Christian here).

Here are the similarities in both Canadian and American studies:

  • About 60% of young adults who were formerly connected to the local church are struggling to attend or find a place of belonging in the church. This is happening more frequently with mainline and Catholic congregations than in evangelical circles. 
  • Penner defines three groups who have dropped their faith, calling them "Fence Sitters," "Wanderers," and "Rejecters." In You Lost Me, Kinnaman uses the labels "Exiles," "Nomads," and "Prodigals" to describe the same young adult responses.
  • The current faith of teens and young adults is being inherited from the previous generation. Youth are the barometer of the church as a whole.
  • Dealing with the issues and questions surrounding sexuality and same-sex attraction will become one of the primary issues facing the church in the next decade.
  • The faith and spirituality of parents has a stronger influence on teens than peer groups, much stronger than previously imagined.
  • Creating church cultures where doubt and questions can be asked safely and in the context of community are vital to helping young adults navigate their faith.
  • Young adults need places to serve and contribute to the overall body in order to feel like they belong; churches that empower young people and allow them to use their gifts and talents will find far more success in having young adults "stick."
  • There is a paradigm shift happening from just doing church to being church, from a factory to a garden. I've been talking about this shift for years, and I'm encouraged to hear others championing the call.

The one primary difference in the research? While faith in American congregations is typically being discarded upon graduation from high school, the Canadian research found that faith--i.e. church attendance--was waning strongly in the transition from elementary school to high school. Instead of losing faith before they head off to university, they lose their faith in grade 8. The researchers admitted that this is happening more in Catholic and mainline churches than evangelical ones, but it's still happening. Canadian churches must take a strong look at the transition between children's ministry and youth ministry as much as they look at the transition from high school to university.

2. There is a (strangely) strong connection between church attendance and spiritual health. In all the research I've read, these two seem to be intertwined. The primary way a young adult's faith is measured is in their commitment to church attendance. I'm torn about this. On the one hand, I wholly believe in the local church. I believe it is the primary way God has chosen to share the good news of the kingdom. I believe every Christian needs to be active in a local faith community, a body of believers who worship and encourage and teach and serve and share communion together. That said, I also don't want to equate "spiritual maturity" with "faithfully attending a church program." There are thousands of people in our churches who faithfully come every single Sunday, year after year, and subscribe to a faith of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Just getting young adults to attend a church won't make them robust followers of Jesus. It's a key part of the journey, but it's not necessarily the destination. We must strive to foster a faith that lasts beyond Sunday-morning attendance, an integrated holistic 7-days-a-week faith.

3. Intergenerational ministry is vital in the future of youth ministry. The segregated factory-like model of compartmentalized ministries within the church needs to shift into something more organic and messy, with generations having healthy and counter-cultural interactions with one another. Seniors in high school need to have relationships with senior citizens. We need to prevent church tumors from growing in our churches by fostering an ethos of viewing all Jesus-followers, regardless of age, as whole disciples for the whole church.

How can we foster a faith that lasts beyond high school and well into adulthood? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments!

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