Have you ever considered having the congregation reaffirm their baptismal vows to high school seniors at a service celebrating their graduation?
As young pastors in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we do not need statistics to tell us what our eyes can see: In general, our peers are missing from the pews.
However, young people are not absent from the church. That fact led us to a yearlong research project aimed at answering these two questions: 1) what is that keeps young people in the pews, 2) what are best practices for helping young people develop robust, vibrant faith?
We hypothesized that a key factor would be relationships — those that young people developed in high school with faithful adults, and how those relationships were tended to in college and beyond. In our work, we obtained stories and data that affirmed our hypothesis. We also obtained some that simply astounded us.
Ultimately we realized that, theologically and practically, our ministry with young people is rooted in the baptismal covenant — the promises we make to the youngest members of our community to guide and nurture them by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to follow Christ and be faithful members of his church.
This promise cannot end when our students graduate from high school.
The research and what it shows
Our research focused on highly devoted emerging adults in the PC(USA). We created an online survey that was sent to the 370 alumni of the Miller Summer Youth Institute at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a two-week seminary immersion experience for rising high school seniors. Students who attend SYI are some of the most highly devoted Presbyterian teenagers in the country, chosen for the program for their exemplary leadership and service to the church. The survey asked questions about current involvement in worship services and congregational life, involvement in campus ministries during college, aspects of individual and family faith practices while in high school, and relationships with adults of faith while a teenager. Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 32, and the survey return rate was above 30 percent.
Here is some of what we learned:
» We asked participants about the adults of faith active in their lives as teenagers. The three most frequently listed adults were youth leader, pastor and church member (all listed with about the same frequency). This finding emphasizes the importance of youths being involved not just in a separate youth ministry, but also with the senior pastor, congregation and intergenerational ministry.
» Our hypothesis stated that students who had more adults of faith in their lives as teenagers would be more involved in the church in college and beyond. This expectation held true, as those who listed six or more adults of faith tended to have greater involvement in congregations after high school.
» 86 percent of the SYI alumni stayed in touch with their home congregations after high school. The ways they stayed connected varied, but a connection remained, allowing a place for congregations to have a continued role guiding and nurturing the young people raised in a congregation.
» Almost half the participants worshiped as often in college as they did in high school. Most whose worship frequency changed only did so slightly. This demonstrates that the patterns established during high school and before (we would argue even during elementary school) really do matter. We need to teach our young people how to and why we worship before sending them off to college.
» These highly devoted young people are spiritually hungry, and will look beyond the PC(USA) to be fed. Only 6 percent of the participants were involved in a Presbyterian campus ministry, although about half were involved in some campus ministry, regardless of affiliation. Half of students in campus ministries were involved in para-church ministries. Three-fourths of students involved in para-church ministries were, at the time of the survey, attending worship outside the denomination.
Implications for Congregations
Parents are the biggest influence in the faith development of children and teenagers.
» Even teenagers who did not identify their parents as important religious influences, but attended worship with their parents anyway, demonstrated that they were influenced by the faith and practices of their families. Parents do play a significant role in helping shape the faith lives of the young people.
» This leads us to believe that the church needs to provide support to parents, and programs that help them provide needed guidance to their children.
Congregations need to place a renewed emphasis on the education of members during their middle and high school years.
» This likely means rethinking confirmation programs, and either delaying when confirmation occurs or viewing the years after confirmation as equally important in helping to form highly devoted young people who have solid understanding of the church and Scripture.
» A concurrently run program for parents of confirmation students could help promote family discussion and enrich the parents’ lives of faith as well (as faith practices in the home do impact a young person’s faith development).
High school seniors deserve some special attention:
» Highlight students and give them leadership roles to engage them as they begin to transition out of the youth program.
» Develop a mentoring program with high school seniors that utilizes individual mentors who maintain this relationship with students through high school and beyond, whether they go to college or seek employment. (Many congregations already follow this model with confirmation.) The mentors would provide spiritual support in tangible ways, such as helping youths find a campus ministry and place to worship after graduation, checking in with them about their relationship with God amid the transitions of emerging adulthood, and helping their home congregation stay in touch with them.
Congregations should play a role in helping their young people find religious communities to engage in when they move elsewhere for college or a job.
» Researching the campus ministries that exist and the congregations close to campuses and providing that to graduates can make the transition easier for young people. This can be done by a mentor, someone on the Christian education committee or a staff member.
» Even better, calling a congregation and asking that they welcome a young person will make them feel like this could be a place they belong.
» Pastors need to teach what it looks like to find a congregation beyond the walls of their individual church home — which they will need to do unless they remain in their local community after high school.
» If you are a church near a campus community, make sure a new, young person does not leave a worship service or church event without having anyone welcome them (which has happened multiple times to both authors).
Maintain relationships with your graduated students who are in college.
» Continue relationships and nurture beyond sending them the occasional card. Cards matter, but dialogue and continuing to build relationships do a better job of shoring up faith.
» Have church staff, mentors or other congregation members share meals with students while they are home on breaks, or visit students at their schools — two obvious ways to begin nurturing those relationships.
» Stay connected with the parents of graduated students. Parents still stay connected to and influence their children after they leave the home, and often need as much support in this transition as the emerging adults themselves.
If we live out our baptismal vows, we believe that many of the practices discussed above will help enable young people to live into their faith, not run from it, as they transition through emerging adulthood. No one, whether child, youth or adult, ever stops growing in faith. It is critical that we remember the baptismal covenant we make to our young people and to God time and time again.
EMILY CHUDY is the temporary co-pastor at Central Presbyterian Church in Downingtown, Pa., where she oversees ministry to families. MEGAN LECLUYSE is campus minister at the Christian Association at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.