Review: Becoming Better Grownups
Right around the halfway point of our world-wide extended Spring…
Three years after her baptism, Lindsay said she struggles to maintain the level of passion that led her to accept Christ.
“I don’t really feel like I’m drifting from the church,” she said, “but I don’t feel nearly as compelled and interested as I once was. I think that … I’m much more interested in doing other things than listening about the exact same Bible stories I’ve been hearing my whole life.
“I know life without God can’t be easy, but right now I’m finding it hard to remember that he wants to be in my life.”
She’s not alone. Nearly half of American adults change religious affiliation at least once in their lives, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.
Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, the survey found.
Church growth experts suggest that youths comprise a large percentage of the estimated 78,000 members that Churches of Christ have lost since 2003, according to the 2009 edition of the directory, published by 21st Century Christian.
That doesn’t necessarily mean church youth groups across the nation are shrinking. Some are thriving, according to teens interviewed by the Chronicle.
Hannah Shelton, who moved to Searcy, Ark., three years ago, described the youth group at her former congregation, the Estes Church of Christ in Henderson, Tenn., as “booming.” The church’s youth minister, Brad Montague, “always encouraged us to not keep our youth group lives and school lives separate, but rather to invite our school friends to youth activities,” Shelton said.
Annalyse Faulk, 18, said she has noticed a slight drop in the number of teens at her congregation in Jackson, Tenn.
“I know some people who have left Churches of Christ for Baptist or (other) churches,” she said, “and I know some people who have left entirely.”
“Leaving entirely” is a national trend, according to the Pew survey. In recent years, the group that has grown the most due to religious change is “unaffiliated” people — who claim no religion, the survey found.
“I do not recall anyone who has left the Church of Christ for another church. I only know people who have left the church completely,” said Brandon Avedikian, 17, a member of the Woodward Park Church of Christ in Fresno, Calif. “It is so easy to fall away without the support of close family and friends, and it is so easy to do stupid things to fit in that cause your faith to go down the drain.”
Felicia Perez, 16, another Woodward Park member, said she believes some teens leave the church after high school because “they only inherited their parents’ faith and never developed their own.”
NO ‘BRAND LOYALTY’
“Being a part of the Church of Christ isn’t too important to me, but I would not be the person I am today without it,” said Sammy Williams, 18, a member of the church in Beebe, Ark., about 17 miles southwest of Searcy.
Williams, who plans to attend Harding University in Searcy this fall, believes that churches must remain true to Scripture.
But he dislikes the negative feelings some church members have toward his friends who worship with other faith groups.
“I feel more comfortable inviting friends to youth stuff rather than the actual congregation,” Williams said.
“This is because most of my friends think that everyone at my church thinks they are going to hell.”
Most teens interviewed by the Chronicle said that the name “Church of Christ” is not a key factor in deciding where to worship. Jessica Schildt, 16, a member of the Canyon church in Arizona, said that young Christians seek “solid relationships with people they can trust and lean on.”
“It’s great to belong to a Church of Christ,” Schildt said, “but frankly, if I were hunting for a church after college … I would have other requirements as well. “I guess I just don’t understand the significance of it like the previous generations seem to.”
But Sydney Johnson, a 17-year-old member of Woodward Park, said that being a member of a Church of Christ is very important to her “because I feel we are the true church.” Neither of her parents attends a Church of Christ. “I actually inherited my faith from my aunt Sandy,” she said. “She was one of the strongest Christians I know.”
Churches of Christ “follow the word of God instead of manipulating his words,” Johnson said. “I feel like I am learning and connecting with God every week instead of going to a concert.”
Annis Nelson, 19, said she loves her close-knit family at the Church of Christ in Eagan, Minn., where her father serves as youth minister. After she graduated from high school, she enrolled at a nearby community college and continues to worship with the small church.
If she moved, however, “it would be hard to feel part of a congregation where nothing is offered for people my age,” she said. College-age classes are rare among churches in her part of the country, she added.
“It is important to me to worship and love God and follow the Bible just as it is, without other doctrine to clutter up what God really wanted,” she said. “Right now the Church of Christ is the best example I can find of that, and I’m not searching for a replacement.”
FUTURE — AND PRESENT — CHURCH
“The way I see it, many teen ministries are glorified day cares,” said Scott Kenney, 17, a member of the Fellowship Church of Christ in Russellville, Ky., where he and his sister comprise the entire youth group.
At some churches, youths attend ball games and play laser tag, but they “aren’t engaged in real discussions that confront their faith,” Kenney said.
Kristin Baldwin, a 16-year-old member of the Ulysses, Kan., Church of Christ, agreed.
“A lot of us just don’t realize the grave danger we really are in,” Baldwin said. “Maybe we should go back to the ‘fire and brimstone’ style of preaching. We are supposed to fear God, but teens today don’t.”
In addition to hearing meaningful messages from the pulpit, young people in the church are “looking to be a part of something,” said Kayla Thomas, 17, a member of the Naperville, Ill., Church of Christ.
“Adults feel like teens are incapable of being a part of the service or active members,” she said.
Most of the teens interviewed by the Chronicle have participated in mission trips — working with inner-city children, painting school buildings in Africa or assisting on medical missions to Central America. Some also are involved in mission work in their communities.
“I’ve noticed that we always have more teens at church when we are going to go and do something to help others,” said Nathan Clark, 16, a member of the Agape Church of Christ in Portland, Ore. “I believe that teens … are looking for a place where they feel useful — not just another member at the church.”
Jeff Scanlon, 17, and fellow members of the Manchester, Conn., Church of Christ have participated in mission trips to Honduras. Regardless of where they settle, “many of us simply want to be missionaries when we’re older,” he said.
He’s keenly aware that the adults in his congregation see him and his friends as the future of the church.
“I also would like to think that we are the present and active church,” Scanlon said. “I think that kids want to be utilized as part of the body. They want to see change in this world and see that religion doesn’t just have promises for eternal life, but actually has huge implications for how we bring change and healing in the world today.”
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