In the Spotlight

News & Features
Keeping Teens in the Flock
By Gretchen Lehmann
April 23, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

News headlines in recent years have declared a crisis at many churches. The problem? - more than 50 percent of teenagers stop going to church. According to some religious scholars, these findings aren't new, they follow a pattern in church attendance since the 1940s.

IT'S 5:30 ON A SATURDAY NIGHT, half an hour before the weekly program "Looking Up" is set to broadcast from the KCFB studios in Sauk Rapids. You'd expect the teenagers here would be scrambling around, grabbing CDs, or typing up that last script. But the mood in the studios is more like a slumber party than a radio program.

Several teens are sprawled out on the floor talking about what they did this weekend; two are making an ice cream run, and all around there's plenty of music. It's a relaxed atmosphere, one which belies the serious intent of the show.

"Looking Up" is a mix of Christian rock music and discussions on life as a Christian teen. All the music and conversation on the show is created by and for young people. Missy Miller has volunteered as a co-host for the program since it began two years ago. She says at first the show was all about music, but now more and more kids are calling for advice or a prayer.

Miller: These phone calls that have been coming have been so needy that it's, like, it's shown us that we need to be talking about these issues, you know, we need to be talking about suicide and stuff.
Missy says her peers are searching for something real and genuine to guide them through their daily lives. And they want help with the tough questions such as "why am I here?" and "what am I supposed to do with my life?" The young hosts of "Looking Up" often share personal stories on the show and talk about how they have found the answers to their problems through God and the Bible. Nineteen-year-old volunteer Jolene Ploof says this show lets young listeners and volunteers know they are not alone. It's something Jolene wishes she'd had five years ago.
Ploof: I was depressed, I didn't know why I was here, I wrote those depressing poems about how there was no meaning in life.
Jolene says all she remembers of her early teens is feeling hopeless. Jolene was raised in a Lutheran family, but by the age of 14, church had become routine and she felt as though religion wasn't very relevant to her life. At 19, Jolene is now a very different young woman. The smile almost never leaves her face as she talks about finding God.
Ploof: When I accepted Jesus into my heart my voids were filled like within the next week. I mean, I was like a completely happy person. I was totally different - I was totally happy, I had joy, I had peace and I had a reason to go on.
Jolene's story is fairly typical of the teens who volunteer on "Looking Up." She now attends a non-denominational church in the Brainerd area. She says she's heard the talk about kids falling away from church, but she doesn't see it. At her church the pews are packed with teens, and the youth group is active and growing. Many of the "Looking Up" volunteers say their churches are just the same.
Unidentified group members: Well, my church is just awesome as far as teens - sometimes my youth group on Sunday nights, there's more people there than there is on Sunday mornings.... On Wednesday we had a Lenten service, and during the time of offering you can go up and pray. Well, the altar was packed with kids, you know, these kids really have a hunger and a thirst for God.
University of Washington comparative religion professor Rodney Stark says he's not surprised by these kids' stories. In the 30 years he's been doing research on church life in the United States, he says he's found a predictable pattern in church-going. Teens do fall away from church - that's something which has been happening for more than 50 years; but Stark says they don't all disappear.
Stark: The kids are there, they're just in a different place than their grandparents were.
Churches popular in the 70s and 80s, such as Methodist or United Church of Christ, are now seeing a drop in congregation size. Stark argues it's because they've gone with popular trends and shifted the focus from God to more secular topics. But he says many church leaders continue to point to teen defection as the reason their congregations are dwindling.
Stark: I hear an awful lot of excuses from denominations that are losing market share over that effect, but you can go to some of these churches and not hear anything about religion. And that puts you in a very difficult situation.
Teens are now flocking to the non-denominational and Evangelical Free congregations - churches that emphasize spirituality without focusing on tradition. Stark says if the trends of the past hold true, these churches could just as easily be replaced by others in the next 10 to 20 years.

Rick Heltne trains Youth Directors for Lutheran, Baptist, and Catholic congregations at the Minneapolis-based training center, Youth Leadership. Heltne says the big problem he sees between teens and church is that teens have no role in the worship service. Perhaps even more important, Heltne says not enough church leaders are reaching out to young people.

Heltne: The church cannot sit within its four walls and invite students to come and expect it. I think we need to take much more of an initiating posture to connect with kids in their worlds and settings.
Heltne says teens are the future of a healthy congregation. But if the only concern is "keeping" kids at church, they're doomed to failure.
Heltne: If we are seeking to equip kids to lead faithful, Christian lives, if we have a vision of what we're hoping to have happen in the lives of kids, then the things we do to make a difference in the lives of kids will lead them to be a part of that community that has had an impact on their lives.
The kids at "Looking Up" get this idea. They say week after week they'll continue to share their experiences as young Christians and let teen listeners know church can be a place where they can get the support and prayers they're looking for.