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National survey report: Teens envision a church more pleasing to God

Young Christians tout meatier Bible study, deeper relationships and less judgmentalism.

Listen up, faithful adults.
Young Christians have ideas for making the church more like God meant it to be — and they’re eager to be heard.
In a national survey, teenage members of Churches of Christ offered advice for a fellowship faced with graying congregations and disappearing millennials — loosely defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Students in this study speak of the church with great love, hope, insight and wisdom,” researchers Dudley Chancey and Ron Bruner reported in the 2012 Church and Relationship Study by Oklahoma Christian University’s Intergenerational Faith Center. “They suggest ways to cope with a changing culture that respect the identity and mission of the church.”
Researchers surveyed 482 students at three national meetings: Winterfest in Texas and Tennessee and the Challenge Youth Conference in Tennessee.
Among the findings:
• Teens want more upbeat worship and meatier Bible study.
• Teens seek deeper, more meaningful relationships with adult Christians.
• Teens desire to “go out and serve” beyond church walls.
• Teens perceive judgmental attitudes as hampering the spread of the Gospel.
Students’ responses revealed a desire to see the church become more welcoming in attitude and practice, said Chancey and Bruner, co-directors of the Intergenerational Faith Center.
“Instead of shunning outsiders, Christians must be adept at reading and adapting to different cultures,” the researchers reported, summarizing the teens’ position. “Christians should listen to the opinions of others with an open mind and describe their own struggles more openly. Consequently, students watch closely for authenticity in the lives of those who speak for the church; life and lesson must be consistent.”

Teens interviewed by The Christian Chronicle echoed the researchers’ findings.
Jasmine Marie Smith, 16, a member of the Newnan Church of Christ in Georgia, said her friends view church people as “judgmental and hypocritical.”
“They don’t feel welcome when they walk through the door like they should,” Smith said. “We are God’s people, and we should be opening our arms up to his children that have gone astray.”
Alex Free, 17, a member of the Caldwell Church of Christ in Idaho, said her agnostic and atheist friends
“feel uncomfortable with the judgments they feel surrounding the tenets I was raised with.”
“I’ve always thought that the best way to share the love of Christ was to love, not evangelize,” Free said. “With this in mind, churches would, I believe, be better to focus less on sin and more on God’s love that is so great that it erases sin.”
Matthew Stitts, 18, a member of the Piedmont Church of Christ in Alabama, advocates more focus on the Bible — and less on personal opinions.
“If adults would let the Bible speak for itself, then that would help the church out,” Stitts said. “Also, people within churches argue and debate each other. That only destroys the church, not benefits it.”
Young people abandoning Churches of Christ after high school have contributed to a membership decline nationally.
The 2012 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States counted 1,554,231 adherents, a number that includes members and children. That’s a drop of more than 102,000 adherents, or 6.2 percent, since 2003.
In the survey by Chancey and Bruner, 78 percent of students said they were “very likely” to attend a Church of Christ as an adult; 18 percent responded “maybe”; and 4 percent replied that they were “not likely” to do so.
“This data … causes concern for several reasons,” the researchers said. “First, many of those students who responded with ‘maybe’ are likely to become what David Kinnaman (in his book ‘You Lost Me’) calls nomads or prodigals, lost at least temporarily, if not permanently, to the church.”
Another concern: Those surveyed were attending conferences frequented by active members of youth groups.
That means, Chancey and Bruner said, that “those who might already be at risk spiritually were not present to participate in this study. Therefore, the real percentages at any particular congregation might be considerably higher.”
Mike Avery, youth minister for the Memorial Church of Christ in Houston, said the survey “represents the students who are pursuing God actively in their lives, which, in my opinion, is a small minority.
“Most students that I encounter are apathetic toward God, church and Christianity,” Avery said. “They see it, at most, as a part of their weekly schedule like math or science class — except they don’t bring their textbook.”
Brett Petrillo, youth minister for the Bear Valley Church of Christ in Denver, said he was skeptical of the findings and “unclear if there is any agenda behind this survey.”
“No matter what anyone thinks or feels, we must always follow what Scripture says about worship, fellowship and practice,” Petrillo said.
A postmodern culture that frowns upon the concept of absolute truth influences teens’ thinking, said Jessica Knapp, youth ministry leader for the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ in Tucson, Ariz.
Teens want to be inclusive of other people and viewpoints, said Knapp, who described the researchers’ findings as “very consistent” with her experience.
“A student of mine is interested in being both Wiccan and Christian, not realizing there is a reason for mutual exclusivity,” Knapp said.
At the same time, young people tell Knapp they want to be part of a “passionate church.”
“They don’t want to fellowship with a bunch of believers who have masks on and pretend everything is perfect,” she said. “They are not interested in checking a box for attending a routine and boring worship service.”
Count Caroline Sutton, 17, among those teens.
“I know this isn’t true of every adult, but the vast majority seem lifeless,” said Sutton, a member of the Naperville Church of Christ in Illinois.
“In my youth group, people pour their hearts out in song, and you can feel the Holy Spirit moving in the room, and people confess difficult sins and talk about their struggles,” she said. “But then during church service on Sunday morning, everybody seems so constricted and still.”
In interviews with the Chronicle, teens challenged church leaders to embrace the younger generation.
Sammi Whitwell, 16, a member of the Garden Ridge Church of Christ in Lewisville, Texas, said adults too often write off all teens as troublemakers and rebels.
“Sometimes, teenagers have great ideas, and nobody would ever know because we are stereotyped as inexperienced and lacking in maturity,” Whitwell said.
Ruth Lalli, 16, a member of the Park Plaza Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla., urged adults to ask more, not less, of her generation.
“If adults raised their expectations, a lot of teens would rise up to meet them,” Lalli said. “Teenagers are definitely capable of doing huge things, but they do need some guidance and encouragement.”

  • Feedback
    I read the comments from the teens and must say I have felt that way myself – when I was young and idealistic (without knowledge & experience). Youth have not had their faith tested (for the most part); they are young and invigorating — no aches & pains to deal with, no life of trials. It is ironic that they find older Christians “stiff and unresponsive” – is that not “judgmental?” It has been my experience with myself and with others that “enjoying worship” comes from within. If you are paying attention to another’s worship, something is wrong — not with them, with you. Jesus told Peter “what is that (John’s life)to you? YOU follow me.”
    Linda Hoeck
    Aberdeen Church of Christ
    Bel Air, MD
    April, 10 2013

    First, thank you for providing the results of this survey as questionable, from a statisticians view point, as they may be. Using the results as published in the article I have opened a dialogue with the congregation on the challenges of facing a changing society. From the pulpit I have provided scriptural reasons why we can or cannot make to face the challenges presented by our youth. It is always good to test the spirit, whether young or old, of the congregation. From that, using the Bible as the guide, will come growth in Christ.
    Dennis Pence
    15th Street Church of Christ
    Ottawa, Kansas
    March, 13 2013

    Modernism and liberalism have been creepimg into the Church for decades now. It’s produced many splinters which have become thorns to the body of Truth. In the 50’s & 60’s if you saw a sign on a building that said Church of Christ you knew pretty much what you were going to get on the inside. Not anymore. Satan has been hammering away at the walls of Truth for a long time now. The church took about a hundred years from the Restoration Movement to reach its greatest strength a half century ago. Since then it’s been utter chaos and getting worse. If our youth want to contribute to church growth then they should pray for God to open their minds and their hearts and to lead them in the way they should go. May God bless all of our youth.
    Jimmy Carter
    MacArthur Park
    San Antonio, Texas
    March, 4 2013

    They are complaining that:
    – our churches worships are dead and boring
    – adults don’t respect them
    – churches are too judgmental and not very loving.
    “Worship is not time for bearing our souls”
    “take a survey from teens and you’ll know how to do it”
    “love dont pay the bills”
    With respect, it seems to me like some of the comments to this post are proving some of the comments of the teens to be accurate.
    JD Morris
    Central Church of Christ
    Spartanburg, SC
    February, 19 2013

    I agree with so many of the items that these teens brought out in the open and I want to thank them for responding. The one thing that I would like to address is that during worship service, we should be more serious and it is not the time for bearing our souls to all or speaking out in the assembly. I so wish our teens would come to the Ladies meetings and they would hear these confessions and troubles that we are facing. I am sure the male teens would also hear these things when they visit with the men. I personally try very hard to bridge the generation gap and have an open mind and listen.
    Once again thank you to all the teens that are attending this function. Some of ours are there and I am excited for that.
    Lillian Humphries
    Anderson Church of Christ
    Anderson, South Carolina
    February, 17 2013

    Remember if you want to really know how to grow the church, make a better school, build a business, run your home, or whatever… take a survey among teens and you will know how to do it. Yes sir!
    Blue Starr
    Claremore, Oklahoma
    February, 15 2013

    This story of the comments from teens across the country is extremely encouraging to me. Two years ago, CT staff wrote,”Gossip is rampant in local churches.”
    The amazing 2012 autobiography of
    Rosaria C. Butterfield, “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert” will help anyone willing
    to “examine yourselves”.
    A tenured Eng. prof. at Syracuse U.,& openly lesbian,she received the birth from Above in April 1999. Began in 2003 with her husband Kent, the 148 p. book
    shows 13 years of life in Christ –
    birthing, adopting & homeschooling
    children to be devoted to Jesus.
    It calls me to deeper devotion. [email protected] Phx.
    Wayne McDaniel
    Northwest church of Christ
    Phx, Az
    February, 14 2013

    I always hear something great about someone at a funeral. The Great Commission is to go out and preach the Gospel beyond church walls. The truth is that “Love don’t pay the bills”! For God so loved the world but if Jesus didn’t come to die, where would we all be? I may love my family but if I don’t go to work and pay the bills, what happens? Have you tried telling the electric company, “I Love you”? Is there Absolute Truth? Is 2 + 2 = 4? Is that my opinion and/or how I interpret mathematics? I have always heard that there are too many hypocrites in the church. I always respond that I might be one of them and/or say to come on in, there’s room for one more! I see more hypocrites in America.
    todd padgett
    Northwest/Rosehill/Chisholm Trail
    lawton, oklahoma
    united states
    February, 14 2013

    Jesus said that when the Spirit came, He would convict the world of sin, righteousness, & judgment (John 16:8). Why are we surprised when worldly people don’t like that? From the remarks of some of the ones interviewed, they don’t like it either. Talking about sin and being loving are not mutually exclusive. It isn’t either/or; it’s both/and. This article makes me incredibly sad.
    Joe Slater
    Justin Church of Christ
    Justin, TX
    February, 13 2013

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