I recently met Charlotte and learned about her MA research, which you can read about below. Her project highlights the balance between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ drivers of young people’s engagement with Christian faith, and what different groups might expect these to be. It is a helpful reminder of the way this balance often changes over the teenage years as faith becomes more personal, and of the importance of recognising the choices and motivations of the minority of young people in society who areactively interested in Christianity.
We want to encourage more research into faith-based youth work and youth ministry, so if you’re doing an MA or PhD do get in touch by emailing me at email@example.com
Youth religion, parents and personal agency
In 2017, as part of my M.A in Religious Studies, I spent some time with a surprisingly popular Christian youth group (henceforth YG) operating out of a charismatic church in North-West England.
YG regularly attracts around seventy young people to its explicitly religious Friday night programmes. Given that young people are the ‘least-churched age group’ in Britain, more likely to identify as non-religiousand consider religion unimportant than older generations, this is impressive.
To explore this phenomenon, I conducted interviews with 16 attendees (past and present) and the church’s two youth pastors, as well as distributing a quantitative questionnaire to 36 attendees and observing a month’s worth of YG programmes.
Much existing research on the topic of youth religion focuses on highlighting factors that shape religious outlooks. Parents, peers, schools and congregations are generally discussed as potential influencers and a large proportion of the debate attempts to identify which is strongest and therefore most worthy of our attention.
My research with YG highlighted that youth religiosity is much more complex than it is often given credit for. Though each of these four factors did play important roles in encouraging young people’s initial attendance, decisions to continue attending were freely made by young people themselves and for their own reasons. Therefore, to discuss youth religion as merely the product of external factors is inaccurate and overly simplistic.
Peer and parental influence were explicitly evidenced in participants’ explanations of why they initially attended YG – ‘my parents encouraged me to start attending when I started secondary school’; ‘my friends invited me’.
Congregational influence was also evidenced in that the majority of attendees grew up as part of the church from which YG operates. They progressed through its well-developed and extensive children’s ministry, transitioning into YG at age 11. The congregation as a whole expected this transition, creating a culture in which it was ‘the norm’, ‘a natural progression’, and ‘just what everyone our age did’.
I had no contact with schools and therefore their influence was harder to measure, but it is noteworthy that most attendees of YG were pupils at the same C of E Secondary School. YG youth leaders were regularly invited to conduct assemblies here, essentially being endorsed and advertised by the school, and therefore perhaps explaining high attendance rates from pupils.
Initial attendance appears largely influenced by the external factors above. However, the decision to continue attending after this first introduction was usually motivated by more personal, or internal, factors.
When asked why they regularly attended YG, responses generally fitted in 3 camps:
I go to have fun
I go to see my friends
I go to learn about God/Christianity
Friends appear to be influential in both initial and continued attendance and therefore appear to be both external andinternal drivers. References to peers in relation to initial attendance placed the emphasis on the friends – ‘they invited me’ – whereas in relation to continued attendance, participants placed the emphasis on themselves – ‘I want to see my friends’.
The difference is subtle but significant, showing a shift in how attendance is perceived by young people from something suggested or encouraged by others around them, to something that they, personally, want to do.
This shift is perhaps more clearly evidenced by considering the roles of parents.
When asked about why they first started to attend, the vast majority of young people either mentioned that their parents encouraged it or had parents who enabled it by providing lifts and paying for excursions. Only a handful visited completely of their own accord - ‘I just noticed [YG] as I was walking past one Friday evening and I decided to come in and see what was going on. It looked fun, so I stayed’.
Nevertheless, no responses to questions of continued attendance referenced parents. That is, after being introduced to YG, young people described taking ownership and responsibility for their attendance, developing a desire to participate regularly because it offers them something that they find of personal value.
In fact, some attendees explored religion via YG specifically against the wishes of their families. One interviewee’s guardians described YG as a ‘cult’ another’s parents ‘didn’t like her going’ and a third’s father was expressly ‘anti-church’. They attended regardless, proving that although parental support can be very influential as evidenced by my other participants, it is not a necessary precursor to youth religiosity.
Religion as motivation
That some found this value in YG’s religious teaching – ‘I go to learn about God’; ‘I go to get stronger in my faith’ – is significant. Although mentioned by a relatively small proportion of the overall sample (friends and fun were much more popular motivations), it reminds us that someyoung people are more overtly interested in faith and dowant to engage with it.
Much research on youth religion unfortunately possesses a rather patronising tone, assuming that young people’s religious outlooks are the result of external forces whose views young people passively accept as their own.
Although such forces were evidenced as influencing the attendance of my participants at YG, internal, or personal, motivations were also in action. Young people continued to attend YG because the explicitly religious programmes offered something that they found personally appealing.
No one was forced or coerced into it, and where external factors played a role in initial attendance, this developed into a personal desire to attend which for some, revolved around YG’s explicitly religious nature.
Statistically, a small minority of young people are making such choices, but the choices of the majority should not be discussed as though universal and homogenous. Many young people are apparently not interested in religion and do not wish to engage with it. However, some young people areand doand it should not be assumed that this is the product of passively accepting parental, peer, school or congregational influences.
Youth religiosity (or the lack thereof) is the product of a complex web of motivations both external and internal. Discussions on the topic should embrace and reflect this.
Giselle Vincett and Sylvia Collins-Mayo, ‘(Dis)engagements with Christianity amongst young people in England and Scotland’, Annual Review of the Sociology of Religion: Volume 1: Youth and Religion, ed. Giuseppe Giordan, (2010), pp. 219 – 249 (p. 226).
Linda Woodhead, ‘The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: the emergence of a new cultural majority’, Journal of the British Academy, 4, (2016), pp. 245-261(p. 247).
Leslie J. Francis and William K. Kay, Teenage religion and values(Leominster: Gracewing, 1995) p. 187.