Canadian research looks at how to help youth keep the faith after high school
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Parents, pastors, and youth workers have known for some time that when students leave high school for the workforce or additional education, their chances of taking faith with them are low. That phenomenon was well documented in a 2011 Canadian study called Hemorrhaging Faith. But is there a way to turn bad news into good? To explain why some young adults stick with faith, and for Christian groups to ensure that happens more frequently?
That question is addressed in a new report called Renegotiating Faith: The Delay in Young Adult Identity Formation and What It Means for the Church in Canada. About a hundred youth ministry personnel across Canada read a draft copy in May, and then met in Burlington, Ont., to discuss this major new study and contribute to a practical booklet of action steps for churches.
The report (a free download at www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca) and the action booklet (coming later this fall) are part of a series of resources being produced by a Young Adult Transition Research partnership that includes The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Power to Change–Students, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Youth For Christ and Truth Matters.
The initial Renegotiating Faith report, more than 150 pages, is based on specially commissioned online surveys at the Angus Reid Forum – which isolated almost 2,000 young adults who had a Christian upbringing – and almost 800 more attending Christian postsecondary institutions. It also draws on a parallel survey with Christian youth and young adult ministry workers about how they are supporting young adults through this transition.
Improved spiritual outcomes
Outlined in the report are several issues facing young adults including delayed adulthood, social media influences and the popular all-religions-are-the-same world view.
But the report’s good news is that spiritual outcomes are significantly improved if (1) postsecondary students find a faith group within a month of starting their postsecondary studies, (2) a mentor keeps in touch with them through the summer after high school and well into October of the next year, or (3) that mentor or someone else personally introduces them to a faith group in their new home and assists in negotiating a role in that group.
Many of the participants at the May consultation agreed the role of mentoring is particularly important – several said they wished they’d had a mentor or any kind of older non-parental friend.
Research shows youth who aren’t mentored into Christian community during their first months away at school are likely to find other community instead – and stick primarily with that for years instead of engaging with Christian community.
The postsecondary transition is largely about adult identity formation, says Rick Hiemstra, lead researcher for Renegotiating Faith and director of research for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He points to psychologist Erik Erikson as he explains identity is formed when you negotiate a role within a community – so a religious identity needs a religious community to mature in.
Forming adult identities
Young people developing their own adult identities usually require a non-parental community, Hiemstra says. Historically a career, marriage or moving out of the family home were markers of moving into adulthood and into wider adult communities. But today, as the report details, it’s taking from five to seven years longer to go through those stages, thanks partly to underemployment, precarious employment and the high cost of housing.
With little power to assert their independence from parents, some young adults have chosen to abandon the faith of their parents for a different world view, says Hiemstra – a universal and gnostic world view that sees religions primarily as ways to bring social harmony, and so concludes they are all basically the same. (Renegotiating Faith uses the term gnostic to indicate how this new view can feel like a revelation only insiders can understand.)
That needed non-parental community is also something young people find on social media, but that can be a risky place, says Hiemstra. "On social media, if you say something stupid, a million people can laugh at you. You always feel exposed."
Real Christian community, by contrast, if it is available to a developing young adult, can offer a safe place to ask hard questions without laughter and scorn. It can make a huge contribution to shaping an adult identity that includes faith, says Hiemstra.
Community shapes faith for all ages
Community is crucial to individual faith development, agrees Syd Hielema. He was also at the May consultation in his role as team leader of faith formation ministry with the Christian Reformed Church. He points out, "Underlying every act of discipleship is a relationship, and faith journeys are always embedded in communities. Christianity is a corporate faith, even though in North America it can become individualist.
"This notion of renegotiating one’s place in a community after leaving home is so rich … and so is the report’s emphasis on mentoring rooted in deep relationships. If digital communication has done anything, it has brought home how significant real live relationships are."
After 40 years’ involvement in youth ministry, Hielema believes the transition out of home is by far the most significant life moment in faith journeys. He commends the report for focusing on that transition, but also thinks church communities should lay the groundwork earlier – as young as two or three years old – by creating the space for conversation.
"The Church is an intergenerational body, and the nuclear family on its own is [an] insufficient discipleship environment," he says. "Every child, teen, and young adult should have adult believers speak into his or her life in various contexts – learning to exercise leadership, how to have conversations, knowing what it means to be human, ways that crises are navigated.
"If discipling is the adult goal, then the trajectory of that begins at birth, but continues past youth group and into their next community [after a dislocation such as moving away to university] for at least two months. When you think about it, it’s obvious."
One church he knows intentionally organizes youth group visits to seniors. The kids ask deep questions, get answers, and the seniors are thrilled with the company and the chance to pass on Christian wisdom, Hielema says.
And it’s the community’s responsibility to make these conversations happen, says Letty Wong, student ministry associate at Ambassadors for Christ, another participant in the May consultation. In a recent conversation, a pastor told her he was surprised to hear young adults wanted deeper conversations at church because none ever brought up that desire.
This didn’t surprise Wong since youth are generally more comfortable behind a screen, and some churches have a reputation for being inflexible. Anonymity might be more conducive to questioning, she adds. "But to really journey you need closer relationships."
Mentoring challenge for ethnic churches
Then there’s the added dimension of immigrant culture, adds Wong, whose ministry serves the Chinese Canadian Church. She has found it’s not just the transition right after high school, but faith can also be abandoned in the transition back into the community after completing education.
"Most of the students I work with are English speaking, and the Chinese Church is split into English and Chinese. If you’re [a postsecondary graduate] on the Chinese side, you’re considered an adult, but on the English side, you’re the child of so-and-so. When they come home to live after university and before marriage, the Church still does not regard them as adults."
Ambassadors for Christ has recently been looking into developing partnerships to encourage engagement back in the church graduated students grew up in, says Wong.
The group already has a long history of encouraging mentor relationships. Its annual March Break conference has been bringing adult volunteers together with high school students since 1971. Two groups of young leaders train together for months before this Teens Conference – one group of high school volunteers, another of young adult mentors ages 25–35.
At the two-day conference, the younger volunteers lead small peer groups, but are also paired with young adults to build even deeper relationships, ones intended to serve the high school students through university, reinforced by additional partnered events like an annual May conference called Campus Challenge.
Christian camp crucial
Christian summer camps are another excellent vehicle for young adults to negotiate new roles for themselves within the broader Church, especially when they take months-long leadership roles. Renegotiating Faith shows time and space in Christian communities such as camps – away from parents and the home church – encourage spiritual and personal growth.
Lynda MacGibbon, a vice-president at InterVarsity, one of the organizational partners in the Young Adult Transition Research, says InterVarsity’s goal "has been always to put leadership in the hands of young people before they’re really ready, so they can gain experience and grow under the guidance of others. The report suggests giving roles to teens and young adults shapes who they are. That strategy is going to continue for us."
InterVarsity has four Pioneer camp sites and five Circle Square sites. Young adults taking leadership roles at these camps are "helped to grow into understanding who God has shaped them to be," she says. Their faith is further strengthened by mentoring younger Christians at camp. Throughout the school year, young adults take leadership roles in InterVarsity’s university and high school campus groups. This peer approach helps young adults reach others with the gospel and "move into adulthood as followers of Jesus."
In some cases InterVarsity staff, interns and university students live together in community houses near campus where they host Bible studies and meals and learn practical skills like budgeting. These community homes exist across the country from Fredericton to Vancouver.
Gap year helps faith
One of the surprise findings of the report was the positive influence of taking a year to focus on faith formation after high school before starting postsecondary education. Those who took a gap year proved more likely to attend religious services as an adult, to have had a home church mentor, to connect with a new church after moving out of their parents’ home and to connect with a Christian campus group. Those who went straight into postsecondary fared worse on faith.
Iona Snair, who trains and equips youth workers for Youth Unlimited, was not surprised. (Her group, also known as Youth For Christ, is another partner in the Young Adult Transition Research.)
Snair says she has witnessed the benefits of a gap year and believes it’s because "We’re teaching people experientially how to pursue God for themselves. When young adults grow up in church, they may not come out with experiential faith. This gap year gives them the chance to be separate from families without the challenge to faith that comes from being in university."
However, most parents encourage their children to go straight into postsecondary for fear any delay in starting will become permanent. Not so Ian and Charlotte Kirk, a couple in Kelowna, B.C. They encouraged their children to take a gap year – and the kids were "excited about the prospect," Ian says.
The gap year wasn’t an invitation to play hooky, Ian says. The goal was to work at something faith-based to give all three the chance to mature and make their faith "their own and not ours. They were raised in the Church – Compass Point Bible Church in Burlington, Ont. – went to Christian camps, but we really wanted them to have their own faith experience before going to university."
Throughout high school the Kirks prepared their children for this gap year experience, stressing the importance of "depending on the Lord."
All three served in missions for their gap year. Two went on to postsecondary afterward, and the third continued to work with the missions organization she went overseas with. All are married and raising their children in the faith.
Listen to our interview with Rick Hiemstra at www.TheEFC.ca/Podcasts.
Watch our Oct. 10 webinar on this research at www.TheEFC.ca/Webinars
FT ON THE GO
We think this article would be great to discuss with your small group or Bible study. We encourage you to make copies and share a brief discussion using these questions. To share electronically just point group members to www.FaithToday.ca/Renegotiating-Faith-in-Young-Adulthood. Let us know how it goes!
- What efforts does your church community make to help high school graduates keep the faith? What would it take to keep in touch with them over the summer and fall after graduation?
- How is taking a gap year after high school graduation seen in your circles? How could you help ensure more discussion of such options in your church?
- Do you tend to think and refer to young adults mainly in relation to their parents? How could you move away from that and help mentor their faith development?