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Peeling back the truth about youth and the church

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Hemorrhaging Faith report is a gift of data and story


Text adapted from Rick Hiemstra in Faith Today. Used by permission. www.faithtoday.ca
Illustrations: Audrey Plew

Canada’s churches have been given a gift, and its authors have been travelling the country to help unwrap it. The gift is the first major contemporary study of Canadian young people who were “raised Christian,” or as MBs often say, “grew up in a Christian home.” Only one in three of these people, aged 18–34, is still in church. The other two are gone, and the question is “why?” Why do they leave, stay, or return to church?

Hemorrhaging Faith, a study under sociologist James Penner and project director Rick Hiemstra, was commissioned by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and additionally underwritten by other Christian organizations.

What’s the problem?

Penner, lead author, wants the real contribution of this project to be fact-based discoveries that are useful to the kingdom of God. His team provides hard data churches can use to address the attrition of their young people. As he leads workshops across the country, he is happy that the study is a conversation-starter.

Penner says the gatherings draw “change agents – in a good way.” He finds an optimism in workshop attenders who seem confident that “we can make a difference and we want to.”

Hemorrhaging Faith “is not just an academic project,” says Penner. “It is a practical tool that shows that faithfulness to Jesus can be nurtured in the 21st-century, and when it’s shared with churches, it becomes a conversation piece.

“We get to come in and just give this encouraging message.”

Some of the study’s findings are new to church leaders; others are reminders or confirmation of what leaders already know.

√ The greatest church-leaving age is not after high school graduation, but in or after middle school.

√ Times of transition put young people at highest risk of dropping out of church.

√ Parenting and the home environment that model faith as a way of life are the most important spiritual influences on children.

√ Teen and young adult cultures emphasize experience to define what is true; today’s young generation does not respond to theoretical education alone.

√ A church community that’s active, supportive, and intergenerational is a major influence on keeping young people in the faith.

√ Churches open to “going deep” with teens and young adults address questions youth may be wrestling with (issues of identity, Lordship of Christ, living in faith, ethics, Canadian cultural norms). These types of conversations also give young people a sense of being included in the church family.


The study involved a hybrid research design, drawing upon the strengths of two approaches. First, detailed individual interviews were conducted with 72 people, aged 18–34, who were “raised Christian.” Those interviews (collected, transcribed, and analyzed by young adult researchers Rachael Harder and Erika Anderson, and francophone sociologist Bruno Désorcy) produced many insights for the research team and provided the basis for the second phase, survey questionnaires (administered by the Angus Reid Group), answered by 2,049 people in the same age group. The sample of young adults ranged geographically across Canada and denominationally from Roman Catholic to evangelical.

Additional sponsors who joined the EFC initiative (begun with a budget of $67,000 March 2010) enabled the research team to be thorough and comprehensive as costs rose to three times higher than the original budget. The project was finished and results were announced in September 2012. The full report is downloadable (for $15) at www.hemorrhagingfaith.com.

“Unwrapping” workshops

Penner’s “gift unwrapping” started with an invitation to present the study results in Moncton, N.B., last September. Since that time, he has visited Canadian cities from the Maritimes to B.C. This spring, he was invited to Abbotsford to do a series of workshops, and since then has been to Winnipeg, Calgary, Kitchener, and Victoria. And so it may continue for the Alberta-based professor who teaches sociology of youth at the University of Lethbridge, where his mentor and colleague Reginald Bibby does his renowned sociology of religion work.

Penner’s workshops normally consist of a series of meetings involving denominational church leaders, parents, students, and others who are interested in young adults and their spiritual welfare. The study report sprinkles questions throughout its 100-plus pages, and these normally form the basis of table discussions and plenary sessions. Because the study covers the full sweep of Canada’s trinitarian denominations, the workshops also draw widely from a variety of church organizations.

How do you take your church?

Many attendees at the Hemorrhaging Faith sessions have commented on the usefulness of four basic categories used by the researchers to define young adults. Penner’s team named the four: Engagers (“Church is good” – 23 percent of respondents), Fence Sitters (“Could I have church on other terms?” – 36 percent), Wanderers (“Church is not for me” – 26 percent), and Rejecters (“Church is bad” – 15 percent). Penner says these typologies have provided a language for the church to talk about the clusters of thoughts and behaviours that shape young adults’ ways of viewing Christ, Christian lifestyles, and church life.

The clusters are well described by Rick Hiemstra in Faith Today, who announced the research findings in the magazine’s autumn 2012 issue. (See sidebar)

Penner identifies four “present drivers of faith and church,” noting that young adults who were “raised Christian” encountered:

√ spiritually consistent parents,

√ personal experience of God,

√ vibrant intergenerational church,

√ powerful biblical teaching.

The survey shows that emerging adults strongly believe “what I do is synonymous with who I am.” That means that a personal criticism from the church about behaviour, according to prevailing belief within the age group, is understood as criticism not of “what I do” but “who I am.” In this framework, it can follow that “there is no room for me in this church.”

Sex in an age of delayed marriage is one such issue. Penner tells of one interviewee who lamented that people used to hit puberty at 13 or 14 and get married at 17 – which was three years of being “horny” – but now many are not marrying till their 30s. The church’s present discourse is not helping young people navigate this terrain, says Penner. Biblical teaching must help young people engage their experiences and lifestyle issues.

Penner says conversations at deeper levels help. “Are we engaging people through pat answers or thoughtful theological and pastoral analysis?”

Parents are paramount

Hemorrhaging Faith confirms the view that parenting is the most crucial part of a child’s development.

“So, how can we help parents?” Penner asks. The study shows that, by watching their lives, children learn from parents and other close adults who allow themselves to be broken and in pursuit of healing. Being honest and transparent with others “because Christ defines me” is a strong example to maturing young people, he says. “One of the key elements in that position is, ‘I am not defined by my sin.’”

The study showed a strong correlation between parents’ overt practice of their faith (at-home prayer and devotional time, Bible reading, willingness to talk about how faith applies to life) and their children’s own adoption of Christ as their Lord.

To help others encounter and trust God, says Penner, “we need to model a posture of radical trust ourselves, believing without hesitation – like Jesus did – in God as our loving and forgiving Father.”

Church also plays a significant role, the study shows. Not only is the church’s importance to parents a determining factor in young adult attitudes to church, but being accepted and valued, having a chance to try their gifting, forms a profound influence on who stays and who leaves.

Prophetic words

“How do we value young people?” Penner asks. “How do we make our churches become places of healing?” He observes, “In community: this generation wants to lead, to be valued, to contribute. We have young people waiting to serve.” He says Canadian churches are blessed with “a beautiful opportunity to work intergenerationally together.”

The gift of the study’s findings is passed on through Penner’s local workshops, as insights from those first young interviewees are discussed and shared among Christians who want to act, to see the church-leaving pattern end. The interviews guided the broad survey, and now they guide the talk around workshop tables. Penner hopes the process will bring forth changes that benefit a new group of young people, youths like the interview subjects.

“There is a degree to which there was a prophetic piece in there,” Penner says. “How the millennial generation talked was powerful. There was a call to the church to live at a new level of authenticity.” And that, as Penner sees it, is a gift.

—Barrie McMaster, B.C. correspondent

Read more on the subject

→I’m sticking to church

→Emerging adulthood: a new stage on the journey?

→Consuming youth

→Why don’t young adults go to church?

Updated Feb. 10, 2014: links added.

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1 comment

Joe Bigliogo July 4, 2014 - 15:16

So what if young people don’t align their beliefs to Christianity. Whether it’s another religion, no religion or a full on atheist position, as long as they are encouraged through thoughtful inquiry to form their beliefs on their own. This should be the goal of a free and enlightened society. For many people including myself skepticism, atheism and humanism are the products of this. There is no shame in being an atheist. Do not makes us out to be deviants and outcasts.


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