About one year ago, I was scrolling through the ol’ Twitter feed (which is an eclectic mix of ministry, theology, golf, baseball, music, and 90s wrestling) when I came across a post promoting a report called “The State of Religion & Young People 2020: Relational Authority” by Springtide Research. I’ve always liked research like that and had never heard of Springtide. So I clicked it. I was as challenged by the data as I was impressed with Springtide.
Ever since Springtide has been a resource that I have pointed hundreds of people toward. It has been so helpful in better understanding what is going on in the lives of young people and how effective the church is at fulfilling its mission. It doesn’t hurt that the folks at Springtide have been pretty awesome themselves in my connections with them over the past year.
If you’re not familiar with them, here’s Springtide’s mission:
“Compelled by the urgent desire to listen and attend to the lives of young people (ages 13–25), Springtide™ Research Institute is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning.
We exist at the intersection of religious and human experience in the lives of young people. And we’re here to listen.
We combine quantitative and qualitative research to reflect and amplify the lived realities of young people as they navigate shifting social, cultural, and religious landscapes. Delivering fresh data and actionable insights, we equip those who care about young people to care better.”
The State of Religion and Young People
In early November, their State of Religion & Young People 2021 report was released. The focus this year? Navigating uncertainty. Seems to ring pretty true, right? I (Brett), along with my fellow Orange Student Specialists—Charlie and Candice—wanted to take some time to share some of the key pieces from the 2021 study and a few of our thoughts to go with them.
Before we dive into that, here are a few things to know about the data:
- For quantitative data, they surveyed over ten thousand 13-25 year olds in the United States. For qualitative data, they conducted 65 in-depth interviews. So yeah, it’s pretty extensive.
- Their focus is broader religion in the United States. That obviously includes, but is not exclusive to, Christianity. This in no way discounts the importance of the information in my mind.
- Their focus is “young people”—who they categorize as 13-25 year olds. So, yes, some of this data doesn’t just represent who we currently have in our student ministries, but also those who have graduated from them in the past six to seven years.
Key Takeaways from Springtide Research
Okay . . . now let’s get to the goods. Here are five takeaways from the Springtide research report that we think student pastors should be paying attention to.
1. “When we asked young people about their experience one year into the pandemic, only 10% of young people ages 13-25 told us that a faith leader reached out to them personally during the year.”
BRETT | Oof. This one hurt. This stat originated from their 2500 person study “The New Normal: 8 Ways to Care for GenZ in a Post-Pandemic World.” I asked Springtide to break it down by affiliated and unaffiliated and they shared that even among the young people who identified as ‘affiliated’ to a faith community, only 13% had a faith leader reach out to them.
I read it to say that only 13 in 100 students who identified as affiliated to a faith community had a volunteer or staff leader attempt to engage with them between March of 2020 to March of 2021. That sure doesn’t mean it’s true of all churches. I know of so many who made so many efforts to connect with every student on the roster. Still, this should challenge us to do better.
At Orange, we talk a lot about the idea of leading small. So much of that has to do with structuring our ministries around the idea of small groups and relational discipleship—where there are adult leaders relationally responsible for the students on their roster, not just the ones showing up.
I would hope that this Springtide research stat challenges us to get more serious about recruiting shepherds, not chaperones. To get better at creating systems and developing leaders to stay engaged in the lives of our students whether or not they’re showing up on a regular basis.
2. 54% of young people report: “Religious communities try to fix my problem instead of just being there for me.”
CHARLIE | My mind kept coming back to this stat because it felt so personal for me. I am a fixer, I believe that lots of youth workers are fixers. We feel passionate about helping our students discover Jesus and through that relationship, lead them to make wise choices, care deeply for the world around them, and ultimately live a life of faith. All of those things are wonderful, but in those in-between conversations—in the life that happens in the margins—we are quick to give answers.
Oftentimes, we are quick to say: “Let me connect you with so and so.” We are quick to send an article or Scripture, but we are are slow to stop and slow to listen. Friends, I believe we need to stop being so quick to give answers and solutions.
I would hope that this stat challenges us to be present, to mourn with our students, to breathe deeply with them, to allow our time lamenting with them to be the fix. To walk with students as they discover answers and learn alongside them.
3. 45% of students say: “I do not feel safe within religious or faith institutions.”
CHARLIE | Of course all of us want to be a safe place for students! We want our ministry and small groups to be safe. However, when students come to us with the most vulnerable thing they could possibly tell us and we communicate our theological view, we have blown it. How we lead hinges on how safe our environment is and how safe students believe they are. I truly believe every youth worker wants their ministry to be a place for students to come to when they are hurting. But the stats tell us a different story.
I would hope that this stat challenges us to rethink how we train our leaders on how to handle these tender moments. Ninety-three percent of communication is non-verbal, so we need to practice our responses. Have a plan in place on how to handle these conversations long before they take place. We, the church, have been entrusted with so much when it comes to how a student believes they are seen in God’s eyes. And we have to be a place where students feel like they are loved and are safe no matter what!
4. 58% of students say: “I don’t like being told answers about faith and religion. I’d rather discover my own answers.”
CANDICE | I grew up in a lot of different churches that were all different denominations (that’s an entirely different story for an entirely different blog). But one common theme among them all was just how inappropriate it was to ask questions. I remember being young and consistently hearing that and not really understanding why.
As a child, it even sounded like the adults around me were just regurgitating what they were told and didn’t really believe it themselves. It also felt like they were afraid to really explore our faith. But afraid of what? Did they think our Christian faith wasn’t strong enough to withstand my teenage questions? Imagine the air and the hope I felt the first time I heard someone say, “God is big enough to handle all of your questions.” I was in college. Religious literacy is something that’s mentioned quite a bit in Springtide’s research. They say that many students aren’t necessarily unchurched, they’re rather religiously illiterate or naïve.
As a youth pastor, I always encouraged students who were seeking and even exploring other religions. But I also shared with them that as they were exploring other faith traditions, to really explore their own as well. Just because someone has been a part of a church for many years doesn’t mean they really know about faith. Asking questions doesn’t mean students are about to walk away from their faith—it actually positions them to stand on a stronger foundation. It puts them in a better position to articulate their faith and to own it. And that’s what we want students to be able to do, right? What would happen within Generation Z if every church encouraged religious/faith exploration?
If instead of telling students what to think, I would hope that this Springtide research stat leads us to guide students in how to think and through what lens. What if we even gave them tools to research? They’re already Googling anyway. Let’s encourage and guide their exploration.
5. Survey question: What were some of the things you did that helped you cope during your challenging or difficult time?
CANDICE | This particular chart sent me down a pretty wild train of thought. I went back and forth on whether or not the church should fall in line with students regarding how they naturally cope or if students should align with what our faith teaches us when coping with challenges. It might sound strange or even heretical. But traditionally, faith teaches us to pray, meditate, read the Bible, fast . . . you know, those things we’re supposed to do when we’re working to navigate all that life throws at us.
I’m not saying that anything is wrong with what the Bible and our faith teaches us—I practice them all regularly. For me, seeing student responses to this question in black and white made me wonder if we should be a bit more intentional about expanding how we teach students to connect with God. If 39% of students are turning to their hobbies to cope, why not intentionally teach them how to use what they love as a means of connecting with God? There is undoubtedly power in prayer, but how much more powerful would it be for a student artist to use that gift as a means of engaging with God in a deeper way?
If 44% of students turned to their friends, how can we be intentional about encouraging students to invite their friends to be a part of what the youth ministry is doing?
I would hope that this stat would challenge us to embrace our students’ diverse practices of coping and do the work to intentionally lead them through learning to experience God through many different avenues.
Rethink Youth Ministry
So, what does all of this Springtide research data mean for the church? Well, I think it’s clear that it’s time to shut the doors.
Well, sort of. I sure don’t think that the answer is closing churches, but I do think an answer is relying less on what happens inside of the church walls. I don’t know, maybe “answer” is the wrong word here. All I know is that data like this challenges me and pushes me. It makes me rethink what we’re doing . . . what our goal is . . . how we can be more effective. And not more effective so more students can be certain, but more effective so that in the midst of the uncertainty that life (and adolescence) brings, students can find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control in their lives. More God, Spirit, and Jesus. And more wholeness.
I think we can do that. But I think we have a ways to go to do it better.
P. S. We didn’t even scratch the surface of this year’s Springtide report. We can’t encourage you enough to read it yourself!