By Curtis Booher and Phyllis Fox
Parents matter. More than anyone—peers, teachers, youth ministers—the greatest single influence on a teen is his parents. That may shock some parents who feel like a discarded shoe when their children reach adolescence. Research proves parents have the greatest effect on their children’s choices, including their religious and spiritual practices. Teens long to be cared for and taken seriously and they need authentic relationships with their parents and other caring adults.
Christian parents need support from the church and that means more than youth group and Bible studies. The alarming rate of teen church dropouts (61-88 percent depending on the research study) requires urgent attention. When young people leave the church, we lose the spiritual assets of fresh talent, spiritual gifts, and passion that the body of Christ needs to be complete. It’s reminiscent of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and the solution lies in a partnership of parents, church members, youth, and church leaders.
It’s Time for a Chat
Teens hunger for connection to their parents and actually say that not having enough time with their parents is one of their top problems.1 Parents and teens are overloaded with work and school, meetings and after-school activities. It’s easy to see how families can become detached.
Even advertisers recognize the issue. Think about Kentucky Fried Chicken’s television commercial—the one with the dad, mom, brother, and sister sitting around the table with a bucket of chicken. They are having a discussion about dad’s youthful adventures in a rock band. KFC is promoting their product as a conduit for family time. A research study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported the more frequently teens have dinner with their families, the less likely they are to smoke, drink, or use drugs.
What is there to talk about? Fifty-one percent of teens in the study said they would like to talk more about religious matters with their parents. According to USA Weekend magazine, one in three teens say they rarely or never have a conversation with a parent that lasts longer than 15 minutes.2 Teens want deep, meaningful discussions. They need to know what their parents believe and why.
The Lilly Endowment commissioned Christian Smith to conduct a comprehensive research study of teens’ religious practices and beliefs. Smith concluded young people experience spiritual drift due in part to a lack of knowledge about their faith. He says,
The vast majority of teens who call themselves Christians haven’t been well educated in religious doctrine and therefore really don’t know what they believe. . . . Parents and faith communities should not be shy about teaching teens. Adults do not hesitate to direct and expect from teens when it comes to school, sports, music, and beyond. But there seems to be a curious reluctance among many adults to teach teens when it comes to faith. . . . Parents, ministers, and adult mentors need to develop more confidence in teaching youth about their faith traditions and expecting meaningful responses from them.3
One of the key instructions for parents is in Deuteronomy 6:4-7:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
Christian parents are the foremost spiritual nurturers of their children. David Kinnaman of the Barna Group says, “As we look at the interviews with teenagers and with young adults—their perspective theologically, and even their perspective about the world—very few have what’s called a ‘biblical worldview’ or perspective about the world that’s informed by the principles of Scripture.” In addition to knowing the love of Christ, they must have a solid foundation that comes from the Bible. It’s critical that children are taught from the Word of God, and the home is the primary environment for instruction.
LifeWay Research found that 57 percent of teens remain in church after age 17 when it is an established expectation.4 Teens need to hear that church attendance matters to their parents. Parents must also walk their talk. Parents who attend church regularly, and who genuinely like church and actively serve in church, are more likely to have teens who remain in church. Fathers actually have a greater impact on teens’ decision to stay in church after age 17.5
How the Church Can Help
Church members, youth leaders, and church leadership can support parents in numerous ways.
LifeWay Research indicates that less than 50 percent of teens drop out of church after high school if seven or more adults from church are involved in their personal and spiritual lives as teens. Of those between 15 and 18 who have no adults investing in their spiritual lives, 89 percent will drop out of church.6
Church members of every age can help. With so many families living far from grandparents and older relatives, parents miss a lot of sage advice and teens lose opportunities to hear stories of life journeys from older generations. Being friends with their children’s friends is a great way for parents to invest themselves in the lives of young people. Young married couples and single adults often have time to spend with teens in the church and make good youth sponsors. College students bring energy and can be ideal role models of the next step for high school teens.
Parents of teens can partner with a local church’s youth ministry, and the church’s youth ministry staff should encourage this. It’s more than driving the van or baking cookies for an event. Build activities into the youth group schedule where teens and parents can be together. Ideas might include an annual camping trip for dads and sons, a mom and daughter Bible study, or “rites of passage” events for life milestones that include entire families. Students spend a few short years in youth ministry but a lifetime with their parents. Promote parents as heroes whenever you can.
Church leaders should realize that parent ministry is as critical as youth ministry and it requires as much thought and planning. The church must come alongside parents, teaching and mentoring them for the most vital role of their lives.
Create and promote opportunities for families to serve and learn together. Mission trips, family retreats, and community service projects are great opportunities to bring teens and parents together. Plus there’s an added benefit: 47 percent of teens who continue attending church after age 18 indicate they had regular responsibilities at church.7
The key model for the church and her families is found in Scripture and the church’s heritage.
O my people, hear my teaching; listen to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old—what we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done. He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands (Psalm 78:1-7).
Lots of experts ponder why teens leave the church when they get their driver’s license or complete high school. We must ask ourselves why teens transitioning to young adulthood feel they no longer need the church and/or see God as relevant.
This “graduating God” epidemic must become as critical of a concern for churches as it is for Christian parents. Imagine the difference in our churches if parents were taught the biblical model of developing a legacy of Christ’s love that would affect future generations of their families. We think much of the solution is found within the body of Christ and is based on intergenerational relationships—with teens and parents, youth and church leaders, and other adults willing to invest themselves for the building up of the kingdom of God.
1“Raising Responsible and Resourceful Youth,” U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, May 2000, White House Conference on Teenagers.
2“Teens Tackle Their Identity Crisis,” USA Weekend, www.usaweekend.com.
3Christian Smith, Soul Searching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 267.
4“Teen Influences on Church Dropouts, Church Investment, Family Influences on Teens,” LifeWay Research, 22.
5“Teen Influence on Church Dropouts, Church Investment in Teens Between Ages 15 and 17,” LifeWay Research, 21.
7“Teen Influence on Church Dropouts, Teen Church Involvement Prior to Age 18,” LifeWay Research, 32.
Curtis Booher is assistant professor of Bible and Christian ministries with Milligan College in Tennessee. Phyllis Fox is director of Youth in Ministry, a partnership of Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.