Recently the Pew Research Center released its survey “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” You may have read as much about this survey as have I. It shows that Americans are less likely to call themselves Christians, that many influential Christian denominations are in decline, that the American religious landscape is becoming more diverse.
One of the survey’s findings is especially disturbing: younger adults are less likely to express Christian identity than were earlier generations at the same age. This affirms what many have asserted anecdotally: today’s American young adults are less likely to come to Christian faith, less likely to persist in the Christian faith in which they were reared, and less likely to adopt or return to faith when they marry and have children. That last trend is perhaps the most troubling.
This problem does not lack for proposed solutions. Many decry shallow preaching and teaching for failing to equip adolescents with the tools they need to develop an adult faith. Many re-fight the worship wars, one side calling for gatherings that are even more “contemporary” and the other for a return to history and tradition to correct seeker-sensitive failures. Not a few say that the identification of Christianity with conservative politics is the problem, with ardent activism for the poor as the answer. Close on their heels are those who blame overemphasis on sexual morality, calling for greater understanding of and even approval for premarital sex and same-sex marriage.
As a New Testament scholar, I’m hardly qualified to offer an expert opinion on such matters. But as someone who has worked constantly with late adolescents and young adults since I was one myself, I have opinions. Certainly many factors are involved. I suspect that all the alleged causes have contributed. I remain certain, however, that if Western culture is moving to a place where biblical Christian teaching, whether about sex or anything else, is offensive to it, the church dare not trim its message to the contemporary cultural template. Even if doing so had a positive impact on numbers, abandoning biblical truth kills the church—by definition.
But as someone trained to look for what others may have missed, I wonder whether all of these “solutions” are missing something significant. And as someone who enjoys an association with well-informed scholars in a variety of disciplines, I like asking my colleagues their opinions.
One such colleague is Dr. Nick Tomeo, with whom I served at Cincinnati Christian University and years before that at Southside Christian Church in Munster, Indiana. An expert in the application of educational studies to youth ministry, Nick tells me that there is much ardent opinion but little real research on why younger Americans embrace or reject Christian faith.
But the research that exists is provocative. Nick points to work by Dr. Kara Powell of Fuller Theological Seminary and summarized in Zondervan Publishing Company’s Sticky Faith resources. Powell’s research shows a strong correlation between significant intergenerational relationships in adolescence and persistence in faith in adulthood. That is, kids who regularly rubbed shoulders with mature, committed Christian adults who had a real interest in them were significantly more likely to embrace and maintain Christian faith than those who did not.
Those insights say something about how the American church ought to approach the problem of declining numbers of Christian young adults. They suggest that what is important is certainly not that we change our message to suit cultural trends. They suggest that programming “attractional” events for young people is probably useful but probably secondary, and arguably damaging if not accompanied by something else. That “something else” is this: older Christians need to commit themselves to building real relationships with adolescents and young adults. That mission needs to extend beyond youth leaders and teachers. It needs to be a conscious, deliberate mission of every “senior” Christian, that is, every Christian over the age of 30.
As someone who passed 30 nearly 30 years ago, I think that being deliberate about making friends with those younger than myself has added benefits. Almost to a person, the mature adults whom I most admire have consistently cultivated formative relationships with younger people. They demonstrate real interest in their juniors, not as “projects” but as individuals. Sometimes they formalize those relationships and call them “mentoring.” But mostly they simply are who they are with younger people.
And the older folks benefit as much as the younger. They find themselves enriched, challenged, energized. They’re the opposite of the miserable crank who yells, “Get off my lawn!” They’re more likely to be hosting impromptu cookouts on their lawns, with lots of unplanned conversation that inevitably turns to life’s most significant issues. At times they may be tired, confused, and frustrated. But over time they’ll thank God for what they witness in the lives of those with whom they connect.
As a professor at Johnson University, I would have to work hard to avoid intergenerational relationships. Many in my generation will have to be more creative to make intergenerational connections. But those who do will experience a surprising blessing. And they may contribute to what might show up in a Pew Research study a generation from now.
Written by Jon Weatherly. Dr. Weatherly serves as Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University.