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New Research: youth ministry and young adult faith

Dr Ruth Perrin

04 Mar, 2019

 

How can youth workers help teenagers with their questions, doubts and with building a resilient faith? Dr Ruth Perrin offers reflections following her extensive research.

 

As a researcher into young adult faith, reading ‘No Questions Asked’ was a fascinating glimpse into the world of young people. I have spent the last two decades working with students and graduates across the North of England; most recently working on a project using retrospective interviews to investigate what causes faith to thrive or fade as people ‘emerge’ into adulthood through their twenties.[1](If you’d like to know more check out www.discipleshipresearch.com)

There are some findings that are pertinent to youth work, so, I offer three observations from the accounts of nearly 50 young adults that might give food for thought about the long-term effects of youth ministry on adult faith, and the role of questioning.

1. Teenage wrestling grows long-term faith muscles

My sample ranged from whose faith was thriving to those who no longer believed in God. One pattern among those who had lost faith during their twenties was that they had nearly all been a star of their youth or student group. They had received lots of affirmation and social status, enthusiastically (and often uncritically) engaging in all sorts of Christian activity. However, when they hit the adult world and were exposed to alternative worldviews that faith had gradually evaporated. It had been a deeply painful experience for them to find the things they thought they were sure of unravelling.

Of course, everyone’s journey is unique, and not every enthusiastic young person loses their faith. But many of those who reported really wrestling with faith as teens and students seemed to have fared better in the long run. I wonder whether understanding that faith is complex, and that doubt is common as a teenager, creates spiritual resilience in young adults.

 

There are at least two things to consider in the light of this:

  • Encouraging critical thinking among our keenest young people. Do we give them resources to reflect on their beliefs, rather than just assenting to the Gospel out of a desire to please others?
  • Recognising that those who are struggling are often taking their questions seriously. Do we encourage them that the spiritual work they are doing is important rather than a problem?
 

2. Exposure to ‘other’ is vital to establish ‘self’

Even if growing up into adulthood takes longer now, the late teens and early twenties are still really important developmentally, and the process of ‘disruption’ is vital to owning a youthful faith in this stage.[2]This disruption can come from a variety of places. A number of my participants had come to faith or returned to it as late as their mid-twenties, having gone looking for something to make sense of their life. A significant number talked about the how a gap year or year abroad had stretched their perspective and pushed them to hold tightly to God, which had a long-term benefit in developing both character and faith maturity.

"The process of 'disruption' is vital...a number of my participants had come to faith or returned to it as late as their mid-twenties, having gone looking for something to make sense of their life."

Equally, being exposed to alternative types of Christian tradition, ideas and views (often at University) and having to choose their own church had made a real impact in deciding about their own beliefs. For many, taking that journey and working out what really mattered to them alongside cohorts of peers doing the same task had been really significant. Several of those who had not left home or changed church in their late teens told me, with hindsight, that they wished they had.

 

Very often we want to protect our young people from exposure to things we think are unhelpful and keep them close. However, disrupting ‘normal’ (whatever that is) at the right point and developing capacity to decide what we are in relation to what we are not, appears to be really important for identity and faith development. This has several implications:

  • The need to model and encourage respectful, thoughtful engagement with ‘other’. Young people have limitless access to a big, wide and often dark world. Do we help them critique and think about what they hear and watch in the light of God’s desire for human thriving?
  • The importance of taking care of those who don’t leave home. A number who started work at 18 described the isolation of being ‘left behind’ as most of their peers left and of ‘falling between’ youth and adult ministries. How do we help them to have, and process, those sorts of ‘other’ experiences?
 
Research-Religion-2019-1
 

3. Doubts, questions and relationships

Finally, it was clear from my data that learning how to ask questions, how to manage doubt, and feeling safe to have those conversations is absolutely vital to the long term wellbeing of young people’s faith. A number who had lost their faith had felt unable to articulate their doubts. They didn’t think that was allowed in church and so they had withdrawn, processing those things alone or with equally disillusioned peers. For others, naïve enthusiasm gave way to the challenges of young adult life and they became frustrated with repetitive, simplistic answers from their church community.

 

In contrast, many of those who thrived referred not just to peers but ‘elders’ who had walked with them through their uncertainty. When inter-generational faith community works well it is a beautiful thing, and older friends are clearly an enormous blessing to young people. What does this mean for youth-work?

"A number who had lost their faith had felt unable to articulate their doubts. They didn’t think that was allowed in church and so they had withdrawn, processing those things alone or with equally disillusioned peers."

 
  • Encouraging middle-aged and elderly people that teenagers and Millennials want to be their friends– they usually don’t believe me until the young adults start clapping! But we can do our best to provide them with older friends to help them on their faith journey.
  • Explaining that doubt is not the enemy of faith.Instead, it’s part of it, like bicycle pedals we push on to move forward. God is big enough to handle their doubts, is not angry with their questions, and they don’t have to pretend.

We don’t know the challenges that ‘Gen Z’ are going to face over the coming years. Our task, in my view, is to lay foundations and encourage skills and attitudes for them to build on. Some of them will not chose to follow Jesus, but my evidence suggests that many will look back from a secure adult faith with deep gratitude for the time, love and investment they received from you as they wrestled and worked out what they believed.

 

This article originally appeared in the ninth edition of The Story (2019, Vol. 1).


[1] Emerging Adulthood is a phrase coined to describe the extended developmental journey to established adulthood many young people experience. J.J Arnett Emerging Adulthood: the Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[2] This has been argued since Fowler, but I think there is still validity in the importance of 17-22 for faith development despite other cultural changes.

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