Evangelicals better than mainliners at retaining youth, researcher says

By Bob Allen
Thursday, July 08, 2010

DURHAM, N.C. (ABP) — Evangelical churches do a better job than mainline churches in keeping their young people in the faith, probably because they invest more money in youth ministry, says a Duke University professor who studies characteristics of American congregations.
Mark Chaves, a professor of sociology, religion and divinity and director of the National Congregations Study, said in a blog post July 8 that research from the ongoing survey about the basic characteristics of America’s congregations
confirms that religious groups prioritize youth ministry differently.
Among churches that have 50 or more teenagers, Chaves said white evangelical congregations are substantially more likely than mainline Protestant churches to employ a full-time youth minister.
Fifty-nine percent of evangelical churches with 50-99 teens have a full-time youth minister, compared to only one-third of mainline churches with that many youth. In churches with more than 100 youth, the gap increases to 87 percent for evangelicals to 55 percent of mainline churches.
Chaves said mainline and evangelical Protestants do not differ much on overall programming for youth. Both are equally likely to have youth groups, teen choirs, youth speaking in worship services and to have sent teenagers to a church camp.
But those ministries “are inexpensive compared to hiring a full-time youth minister, and having a full-time youth minister surely enhances the quantity and quality of a church’s teen programming,” the researcher noted.
Chaves said that both evangelical and mainline Protestants lose many young people to “the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated,” but evangelical churches lose fewer than liberal churches lose. He speculated that one reason might be that mainline churches place less value on keeping their teenagers in the faith.
“It is difficult to know for sure, but evangelicals’ deeper concern to reproduce the faith in their children probably leads to hiring more full-time youth ministers, which probably leads to keeping more youth in the church,” he wrote. “
Evangelical churches invest more than mainline churches in youth ministries, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this investment difference reflects a difference in the priority placed on keeping young people in the church.”
Chaves cited a book by University of Washington professor James Wellman, Evangelical vs. Liberal, that observes how different church cultures view youth ministry in different ways.
“For evangelicals, if children and youth are not enjoying church, it is the church’s fault and evangelical parents either find a new church or try to improve their youth ministry,” Wellman said. “For liberals, the tendency is the reverse; if youth do not find church interesting it is their problem.
Evangelicals are simply more interested and invested in reproducing the faith in their children and youth and their churches reflect this priority.”
“Evangelical families emphasize religion more than mainline families do, and evangelical churches involve young people in a denser social web of youth groups, church camps, and church-based socializing, all of which increase the chances that a young person will remain in the fold as an adult,” Chaves concurred. “This is one reason that evangelical denominations have not suffered the same membership declines in recent decades that more liberal, mainline denominations have suffered.”
Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.
A few thoughts from our staff:

Joy: I see a lack of personal initiative from parents and middle-age adults in the church to pass their faith down to younger generations. I would agree with the research that states that evangelicals feel compelled and act consistently to encourage and grow young people’s faith while mainline churches often feel it is the staff’s job to do that for them. I see a lack of personal ownership in our faith and that gets modeled to our young people. How often are we asked to engage personally at church?  Do you have corporate prayers or silent prayers? Does someone read scripture to you or are you asked to read along? Are there actual questions in the sermon that make you think?
What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Evangelicals better than mainliners at retaining youth, researcher says

  1. I come from an evangelical background (Assemblies of God), and I have been a United Methodist youth director (part-time) for almost a year now. I have found what this article describes to be true. Thinking back to my own days in youth group, church and youth activities were the center of my life. Moreover, I think it would be accurate to say that the youth group was the life, heart, and soul of our small church. When I returned to that church after college and worked with the youth as an assistant, the group had grown to the point that the youth often outnumbered the adults on Wednesday evenings. While that church has never had a full-time youth minister, it had obviously done something right.

    I think you are right, Joy. A lot of the problem in mainline churches has to do with the degree to which parents emphasize faith/church. I recently read a book on the religious lives of American teenagers (Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford Univ. Press, 2005]), which argues that teens’ beliefs and practices generally mirror those of their parents. In my own church, I have been battling with poor attendance since I arrived last fall, and it is not just for “churchy” events. I have a hard time getting people to come to parties, concerts, baseball games, bowling trips, etc. But I have also noticed that the same kids who are inconsistent in their attendance seem to have parents who are inconsistent in theirs as well. Church does not seem to be a priority for the family, not just for the youth. And the senior pastor and I are both beating our heads against a wall trying to figure out what to do about it.

    As you say, there needs to be active modeling by the older generation for the younger generation. As an evangelical, was raised to believe that my faith was the most important thing in life and that God should be at the center of all I do and who I am. I’m not sure many of our youth are getting that message–at least not in my church.

    David Melvin
    First UMC, Crawford

  2. Joy, this entire article hits the nail on the head. I totally agree with you about most of the youth’s parents leaving it up to staff or in my case vol. leaders to make sure their youth are getting knowledge of God’s Word. Leading them in a way that they can gain ownership is by far the key to meaningful learning.

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