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How to keep young people connected to church

Roland Martinson’s study offers some ideas.

Five of ten bridesmaids, waiting through the night for the bridegroom to appear, kept their lamps trimmed and ready. (Matthew 25: 1-13) Until recently, only 10% of youth in mainline denominations have remained faithful. The outcome of a new study led by Dr. Roland Martinson of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, suggests that the picture is getting brighter.
“The news for parents and congregations regarding faith formation is the recognition of what they can do to pass the faith on to the next generation,” says Martinson, professor of children, youth and family ministry at the ELCA seminary. Results of the extensive four-year study, released in August 2005, point to eight shared traits of committed young people who remain active in the life of their faith community as adults.
“The way the congregation defines itself as church is as important as the youth ministry program,” Martin-son says. “Critical factors include the congregation’s faith maturity, its climate, and involving youth in activities of the whole church both as participants and leaders. The pastor can make a critical difference, and here we’re talking about the pastor’s theology, the pastor’s understanding of the church, and the pastor’s understanding of youth ministry.”
The study involved 131 congregations of seven de-nominations and was supported by an $800,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment. Congregations wanting to retain church participation as youth reach adulthood would be wise to study the following list of traits of faithful youth.
n Faith is deeply embedded in their family, family identity and lifestyle.
n Three adult Christian mentors, such as coaches or employers, play important roles in their lives.
* They have spent three or more months in service in the name of Christ, such as working as a mission volunteer or camp counselor.
* They believe their church is “cool,” which to them means quality relationships, interesting preaching that addresses key questions, engaging music, worship, and a feeling that all are welcome and valued.
* They believe they’ve been involved in some of the best ministry after confirmation — in high school or college.
n From the age of 10, their leadership has been invited in many ways, for example, piano playing at church events.
* The church has been there for them in a steady, compassionate and truly helpful way as they have moved through crises in their lives.
* At critical intervals in their faith journey, a friend of deep faith has invited and included them in their faith community.
Martinson finds reason for optimism in attitudes of current youth, sometimes called the Millennial Generation. “Although there are still large numbers of disaffected teenagers, about 60-65% see the church as a viable institution. In exemplary congregations, we found that young people have a positive sense of God’s participation in the world and in their lives. This is a change from Generation X.”
Metro Lutheran asked Stacey Peterson, 15, a member of Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA), Lindstrom, Minnesota, how her congregation has encouraged her in her faith. “I appreciate my congregation so much,” Stacey says. “They are very positive, and my pastor [The Rev. John Golv] focuses on the youth. This focus is one of the founding missions of our congregation.
“I find the music most interesting, but now that I’ve had Confirmation, I like listening to the Gospel reading and the sermon, too, seeing how the pastor gets the message across. Sunday mornings I’m in church, go home, and then I always end up back at church later, for other activities.”
Martinson’s colleagues in the study are Dr. Tom Berkas, St. Paul; Mark Brekke, Minneapolis; Dr. Merton Strommen, Minneapolis; and Hal Weldin, St. Paul.
An advisory council represented the seven participating denominations: Assemblies of God, the ELCA, Evangelical Covenant, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Southern Baptist and United Methodist.
From the seven participating denominations, 475 congregations nationwide were nominated for the study, chosen for their history of nurturing a vital faith in young people. After evaluation and self-selection, 131 congregations completed a 350-item written survey.
Pastors, youth ministers, adult volunteers, parents and youth aged 13-18 constituted the 6,000 individuals responding.
Lord of Life Lutheran (ELCA), Maple Grove, Minnesota, was among the 131 exemplary congregations. In addition, 240 of the participating pastors and youth ministers responded in writing to four open-ended questions relating to their ministries. The research team made 21 site visits to a small, medium and large congregation in each of the seven denominations.
Findings of the study will be shared locally in a December 1 workshop (see box), in a major book scheduled for publication in Spring 2006, and in a forthcoming user’s manual.
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