How to Get Teens Excited About God

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Teens gather at "Battle Cry 2006" in Detroit's Ford Field. The event features music, Christian speakers and worship.

It's a question nearly as old as the Testaments: How can church leaders forge a lasting bond with young people?

Youth ministers seeking clues will find many in the results of a new survey of what teens want from church. Pollsters from Barna Group, which tracks teen religious activity, asked 2,400 teens to rank the reasons they attend worship services. Gaining a better understanding of what they believe and making a connection with God topped the list, followed closely by wanting to volunteer to help others and to spend time with friends. Also registering as "very important" factors, though to a lesser extent, were classes studying the Bible as well as issues surrounding religious faith.

When coupled with conclusions of scholarly research, a pattern emerges. "The amount of freedom and opportunity kids have in high school to express and wrestle with doubt, the mysteries of scripture and its applicability to the problems in their own lives is related to the maturity of their faith [as young adults]," says Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller Seminary's Center for Youth and Family Ministry.

The poll also confirms anecdotal evidence collected by those who regularly interact with adolescents. "I've talked to a lot of kids with emotional pain and pent-up anger stemming from a variety of factors including divorce and abuse, and they are looking for hope and help in the church," says Shannon Primicerio, a lecturer and author on religious topics whose work is targeted to teens.

There's a lot at stake. Those who seek but don't find typically abandon religion, often never to return, says Justin Taylor, whose blog mixes theology, culture and politics. "So many youth ministries quickly become irrelevant to teens," he says, "because pastors get kids excited with cool video clips and cutting-edge music, but then when a parent gets cancer and the teenager is lying in bed wondering what life is all about, he or she discovers there's nothing to sustain them."

Furthermore, there's good reason to believe that the current generation of young adults are fleeing church in greater numbers and will be harder to lure back than previous ones. Although 61% of people in the 20-29 age group participated in church activities during their teens, that entire chunk now falls into the spiritually disengaged category. Moreover, only a third of 20-somethings who are parents regularly take their children to church, compared with 40% of parents in their 30s and half of parents who are 40 or older. "Even the impulse of parenthood—when people's desire to supply spiritual guidance for their children traditionally pulls them back to church—is weakening," concludes David Kinnaman, Barna's research director.

"Despite all that's been done in youth ministry in the past 20 to 40 years, at the present rate we're looking at only a small percentage of people who are teens now becoming Bible-believing evangelicals as adults," laments Ron Luce, president of TeenMania, the parachurch organization that has attracted more than 200,000 teens to its stadium-worship events and missions activities already this year. To lower the odds of that outcome, TeenMania will work with 100,000 churches starting next year, planning ministry events aimed at attracting more young people to the pews. The goal is mighty ambitious: to double the size of each of the youth congregations annually over the next five years. Says a determined Luce, "The only way to do it is to teach them to become serious followers of Christ so that the Bible becomes the compass for their lives, rather than pop culture."

Results of the Study: What Teenagers Look for in a Church
The Barna researchers asked 2,409 teenagers aged 13 to 18 why they would attend a worship service at a church, synagogue or temple. Here's what they said:

Reason Very ImportantTotal Important*
to worship or make a connection with God 45% 66%
to understand better what I believe 42 71
to spend time with close friends 34 63
to get encouraged and inspired 34 62
to volunteer to help others 30 65
to learn more about prayer 26 55
to listen to religious teaching 26 54
to participate in a discussion regarding 23 51
to be mentored or coached in my spiritual development 21 49
to discover the traditions of my religious faith 20 53
to participate in a study class about faith matters 19 46
to participate in a study of sacred Scripture 18 36
Source: The Barna Group, Ltd. YouthPollSM 2005
* aggregate % of those who say very or somewhat important