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There is hope for youth ministries, but they must innovate to survive

Table Farm and Table Bread, an urban farm and micro bakery of The Table UMC in Sacramento, California. Courtesy photo

(RNS) — Traditional forms of youth ministry are losing their effectiveness. Attendance numbers at weekly worship are down across the board, and anecdotally, pastors, youth ministers and campus ministers are almost universally reporting greater difficulty in accessing and engaging Gen Z. Currently, 40% of 13- to 25-year-olds claim no religious affiliation or institutional trust in religion, continuing a decades-long trend of erosion.

Although many have rushed to proclaim these trends as evidence of declining demand from young people for religion, we firmly believe that’s the wrong story.

The reality is that our world has undergone a significant shift in the last 20 years. The decline of institutional trust, increasing demographic diversity and rise of social media among many other factors mean that young people are operating in a much different social environment than the one that gave rise and success to the program-driven models of youth ministry that have dominated the church landscape for the last 50 years.

As Megan Dobbins wrote in the blog “The Rebelution”:

For years, the American Church has approached youth ministry as a numbers game. “Whatever gets them in the door” has been the anthem, turning the church ‘relevant’ in order to connect. Cool lights were installed, loud music was played, all the pizza was bought, and a room filled up with teenagers to give us a thirty-minute motivational speech about how fun it is to be a Christian. This has gone on for more than four decades … (but) we are now faced with an entirely new phenomenon and a new generation.

Gen Z is no longer engaging with religious institutions in prototypical ways, though majorities say they’re religious (71%) or spiritual (78%). According to Springtide Research Institute’s State of Religion & Young People 2021, most don’t attend weekly worship services, and only a quarter (27%) say they attend a youth group.

However, Springtide also found that about the same number of young people have gotten more religious over the last five years as those who have become less religious. They’re simply not conforming to existing frameworks for what it means to be a typical “Christian,” “Muslim” or even “atheist.”

Gen Zers are more likely to engage with art as a spiritual practice (53%) than prayer (45%), more likely to engage in yoga and martial arts as a spiritual practice (40%) than attend a religious group (25%), and more likely to practice being in nature (45%) or meditation (29%) as spiritual practices than study a religious text (28%).

Photo by Kaylee Garrett/Unsplash/Creative Commons

As Nancy Ammerman in her 2013 book “Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes,” wrote: “In a time of significant change, we cannot assume we will find religion in the predictable places or in the predictable forms. And if we do not find as much of it in those predictable places as we did before, we cannot assume that it is disappearing.”

Two years later, in a presentation at a meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Ammerman went on to say: “We are only just now coming to terms with the fact that more and more religion happens outside of traditional institutions.”

This shifting landscape requires that we approach youth ministry differently if we want to have success in reaching and engaging Gen Z and the generations to follow.

Fortunately, Springtide Research data suggests that there is still a positive association between engagement with a religious youth group and a flourishing spiritual life.

Fifty-nine percent of young people who attend a youth group agree, “I try hard to carry my religious beliefs over into all my other dealings in life,” compared to 43% of those who do not, while 37% of youth groupers agree, “Over the last five years I have become more religious,” compared to 26% of those who do not.

Those attending a youth group are also more likely to agree that they feel connected to a higher power (19% vs. 15%) and know a higher power exists with no doubts about it (27% vs. 22%).

There are signs of hope out there that young people are flourishing in their faith lives despite the overwhelming and misguided decline narrative by those who only focus on a few traditional markers such as attendance and affiliation.

One example that came out of the work at Princeton’s Institute for Youth Ministry is “Table Bread,” a ministry of The Table United Methodist Church in Sacramento, California. The Table believed that the baking and breaking of bread could create community for young people that alleviated some of the isolation and loneliness they experience. As they form authentic relationships around baking bread, they have rich and honest conversations centered around Wesleyan concepts and questions.

The project eventually evolved into a youth-led social enterprise toward forming intergenerational community through farming and bread-making.

An intriguing example from outside Christianity was shared with us by Asha Shipman, Hindu chaplain at Yale University:

Among Hindu and non-Hindu students I’ve interacted with who self-ascribe as nonreligious, they often cultivate a form of spirituality that is deliberately unbounded; larger than a single institution, not confined to one day a week, and manifested as a mosaic of practices and beliefs. For example, they may express their spirituality through dance, through music or through volunteer work. Those who come to our Hindu worship services may also pray to aspects of the Divine from other religious traditions.

The programs I offer and co-sponsor at Yale that emphasize these aspects of Hinduism do draw many non-Hindus as well as Hindus who consider themselves as nonreligious — and perhaps people who might check off that “none” category. This includes programs on yoga, meditation, and community art.

Another example outside Christianity was shared with us by Adam Lehman, president of Hillel International, a Jewish organization that engages college students at more than 550 universities across the globe:

The current generation of students is the most diverse ever, including in how they define themselves spiritually and religiously. Beyond the many traditional religious services and experiences Hillels typically offer, we also provide students a mix of informal learning programs, civic engagement, community outreach and service opportunities, Israel engagement experiences, leadership and career development programs, cultural experiences and social events.

While these experiences are typically grounded in some way in Jewish wisdom, tradition and community, they don’t assume or require of participants any particular religious or spiritual beliefs. Beyond honoring the substantial diversity of the students we serve, our approach also reflects the fact that, while Judaism is a religion, it is also more than just a religion.

The Table United Methodist Church in Sacramento, California. Photo courtesy of The Table UMC

These are just three of the many examples of faith groups across the country who are innovating their approach to reach young people and promote spiritual flourishing. What distinguishes these efforts is that they don’t rely on bowling alleys and movie theaters to get young people in the door, nor do they surrender to the decline narrative that deems young people “the disengaged.”

They understand that even young religious nones (“nothing in particular”) have spiritual curiosities and impulses that defy the category they are assigned in surveys and polls. Around half of young nones told Springtide in 2021 that they are at least slightly spiritual (57%), are at least somewhat flourishing in their faith lives (47%) or feel at least slightly connected to a higher power (48%).

How can we reframe the conversation about young people and religion to appreciate the efforts of these groups and highlight Gen Z’s dynamic spirituality? We need to focus more on the possibilities instead of the problems — more on what’s happening than what’s not happening.

Right now, the dominant and misleading narrative is one of decline. But we are working to change that, and we hope you would be encouraged to do the same.

By Josh Packard, Abigail Rusert

Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is executive director of Springtide Research Institute. The Rev. Abigail Rusert is director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

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