The Barna Group will soon be releasing a report on its global study of nearly 25,000 teenagers, ages 13-17, both in and out of the church. Billed “the Open Generation” due to characteristics like “optimistic, engaged, malleable, curious, authentic, inclusive and collaborative” that is less common in people only a few years older, today’s teens have a positive perception of Jesus. About 35 percent say Jesus was an advocate for justice, which falls in line with their overwhelming opinion (87 percent) that teens have the potential to make positive change in the world.
That said, only 33 percent believe Jesus was raised from the dead, and “21 percent say he is active in the world today.” That number creeps up a little (to 32 percent) when looking at Christian responses.
What can we learn from these statistics? Today’s teens are open and curious; they think Jesus was a cool guy. They believe they can change the world, and Jesus did too! But they aren’t seeing evidence of his presence on the earth today. How can the church respond to these perceptions, and opportunities, effectively?
We’ve been reading reports and studies for decades now, saying that young people are leaving the church in droves. It used to just be mainline denominations suffering the biggest blow, but even evangelical churches are starting to see some decline. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the exodus.
A 2019 Barna study of 18-35-year-olds, called “the Connected Generation,” gives some indication, though of course it doesn’t speak to the thoughts of the 13-17 age group. Still, it gives an idea of what younger Christians think is missing from church:
● 17 percent: Opportunities to fight injustice and oppression
● 18 percent: Friends not attending
● 12 percent: Opportunities to help the poor and needy
Furthermore, half of respondents said people at church are judgmental, only 14 percent said someone in their church community cares deeply about them, and 44 percent said attending church is not an essential part of their faith.
Reginald Bibby, University of Lethbridge researcher who has studied the church in Canada for decades, noted in his 2012 book, A New Day: The Resilience and the Restructuring of Religion in Canada, that three big changes are affecting numbers in church pews: shifting from a sense of duty to a market model, where church is viewed as something that must be of practical benefit; deference to discernment, meaning that churchgoers no longer accept a pastor’s word without question; and a desire for the church to keep up with the times when it comes to race, gender and sexual equality.
Life, and the church, are changing. There’s no question about that. This month, we thought we’d get the perspective of a girl who attended church with her family as a young child, but now at age 14, no longer does so.
You can learn more about Barna’s 2021 study of teens around the world at barna.com/the-open-generation.
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