Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Souls in Transition: Who Is Most Likely to Stick Around?

Earlier this year, the news was filled with stories about millennials and their exodus from church. CNN, for example, declared: “Millennials Leaving Church in Droves, Study Finds.”

According to the story, which featured results from a Pew Research study, “almost every major branch of Christianity in the United States has lost a significant number of members, . . . mainly because millennials are leaving the fold. More than one-third of millennials now say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 percentage points since 2007.” 

If you’re interested in digging into this phenomenon, check out Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of  Emerging Adults, by Christian Smith (with Patricia Snell). Smith’s findings, drawn from a longitudinal study (surveys and interviews) of young people and their religious beliefs and practices, vividly reinforce much of what we hear these days (e.g., that religious indifference in this age group is common) while also pointing out that some young adults do, in fact, remain strongly committed.

Smith and his colleagues began their study with 13-17 year-olds (N=3,290), reporting the results in Soul Searching (2005). Souls in Transition (2009) is a follow-up study, reporting data collected from a group of the original sample (N=2,458 surveyed; 230 interviewed). 

The book is heavy on data and rich with useful insights. The main takeaway: Teaching young people the faith is critical. Absolutely critical.

If young people aren’t taught the faith—if it isn’t modeled and encouraged by parents or other influential adults—their drift away should be no surprise.

Of course, there are other factors to keep in mind, which Smith is quick to point out. For example, the priorities of “emerging adults” (a group that typically includes the ages of 18-29; in Smith’s study, 18-23) don’t always mesh well with religious engagement. As Smith notes:
These years involve complex processes of incorporating new relationships and experiences into ongoing, developing lives, while sustaining and renegotiating old relationships with parents, siblings, friends, former adult mentors, and others. . . . Most [emerging adults] are at pains to keep open as many options as possible, to honor all forms of social and cultural diversity without judgment or even evaluation, and as quickly as possible to get on the road to autonomous self-sufficiency. Little of that encourages them to put down roots within particular religious communities that engage in committed faith practices. (280)
The life phase itself­—characterized by transition, disruption, myriad possibilities, and emerging autonomy—presents challenges to religious commitment, yet as Smith’s data indicate, some emerging adults do remain highly committed to their faith in these years. Who are they?

In chapter 4 of the book, Smith breaks down data by religious tradition, and the results are fascinating. You can look at virtually any table in the chapter, and the results are the same: conservative Protestants, black Protestants, and LDS members consistently indicate stronger commitment to religious beliefs and practices than other groups of emerging adults (e.g., mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jewish youth, and the non-religious).

For example, when asked to indicate the importance of religious faith in shaping daily life, the average percentage of those who said it was “very or extremely important” was 44%; three groups indicated stronger commitment (CP: 57%, BP: 72%, LDS: 59%), while four groups indicated less of a commitment (MP: 33%, RC, 34%, J, 16%, NR, 17%).

The results follow the same pattern for a host of other questions. Emerging adults who are CP, BP, or LDS are more likely than their peers, for example, to attend religious services, believe in God, think that Jesus is the Son of God, and expect to be attending religious services at the age of 30.

That bit of news will be encouraging for some (and should be kept in mind when considering sweeping generalizations about the millennial population), but the results are still cause for concern. Take that last item: “expect to be attending religious services.” The conservative Protestant response, for example, is higher than average (67% compared with 53%), but it’s still just two-thirds of the total.

That brings me back to the point about teaching the faith, and equipping young people with the “religious capital” to remain committed.

In an interview with Christianity Today, Smith was asked: “What are the traits of religious American teenagers who retain a high faith commitment as emerging adults?” His response summarizes one of the clear conclusions of Souls in Transition:
The most important factor is parents. For better or worse, parents are tremendously important in shaping their children's faith trajectories. That's the story that came out in Soul Searching. It's also the story that comes out here. . . We emphasize above everything else the role of parents, not just in telling kids about faith but also in modeling it.
In the book, Smith actually identifies five important factors: frequent personal prayer, having seriously committed parents, engaging religious faith in a way that makes it very important in one’s daily life, having few religious doubts, and having many personal religious experiences. All of these factors can be tied directly or indirectly to religious teaching, modeling, and practice.

This isn’t a magic bullet. I’m sure you know people who have become involved with church whose parents were not very involved, and people who were brought up in religious families who ended up drifting away.

Smith simply points out patterns, and they’re patterns worth noting. The data suggest that the past is a powerful shaper of the future. The foundation matters. As Smith points out, “what happens religiously before the teenage years . . . powerfully conditions most of everything that happens thereafter” (248, original emphasis).

The current concern about millennials is understandable, but after reading Smith’s book, I’m thinking a little harder about a different generation: the 0-14s.

ART: Saint Bernard Church (Burkettsville, OH); clerestory, Let the Children Come to Me, detail. By Nheyob (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Confessions of a Luther Prep Senior

Today’s guest post writer is Molly Hennig, a senior at Luther Preparatory School in Watertown, Wisconsin. Luther Prep, owned and operated by the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), is no ordinary high school. It’s a Lutheran boarding school, with students from 28 states and 9 foreign countries. What’s it like to go away to high school? Below, Molly answers that question with a reflection on her time at Luther Prep. 

*  *  *  *  * 

Five years ago, I had no idea where I would go for high school. I was torn between going to Fox Valley Lutheran High School [Appleton, WI] along with my grade school friends and going to Luther Prep by myself. Luther Prep always fascinated me in my younger years; I went to many concerts for my cousins Becca and Monica Rehberger, and I always left feeling two things: impressed and curious. What was Luther Prep like? What could one possibly experience when living away from their family? How could a school possibly have such a large group of students who sang so well? After shadowing Monica for a day and witnessing once again the strength of the music program, my interest in the school solidified and became a certainty. My parents also wanted me to go to Prep [more on that below], and so I went.

I would not rate my freshman year as a smooth experience. I had to start fresh; there was no one from my school or town to join me for high school. Friends were made, lost, and remade. Bonds were formed and strengthened. For the first time in a long time, I had to bring myself outside of my indecisive shell and show myself for who I was, which is a very difficult thing to do, especially for a growing teenager. At times I felt alone, at other times I felt right and happy with the world. I can now look back and see that my experience was not an abnormal one, but a universal one.

Years passed, and the awkwardness faded and was replaced with discovery. Every day was a step closer to knowing myself. Needless to say, that journey has not yet ended and perhaps will not end in a long time, but my high school years included some of the largest strides forward. If I had to include the central things that I learned over the course of four years, it would be as follows: I learned what I loved to do, I learned how people could be, I learned how to live on my own, and I learned how God provides and guides.

Every year Prep puts on a musical. Certain of my love for singing and dancing, I tried out my freshman year and snagged quite a hefty role in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. At first I was very excited, yet I soon came to realize the stress behind the glamour of a show. Having been in an intense show choir in seventh grade, I knew that show biz was not all fun and games, but I can say that I wasn’t prepared for the toll that frantic rehearsals and loss of voice could take on the mind and emotions. In the end, it was all worth it, and there wasn’t any doubt about the joy and contentment that I felt when I performed. I knew that it was what I wished to devote my life to. Every following year I have taken pleasure and love in the pressure and devotion of putting on a musical, from being the Jitterbug in The Wizard of Oz to being Mary Poppins herself. Thanks to the high expectations and full support of my directors Professor Randy Bode and Dominique Wrobel, and the loving guidance of Linda Moeller, John Fricke, and Kathy Appelt, I have started my long trip to becoming a singer.

Along with learning more about myself, I learned about other people. A misconception about boarding schools is that they are very tailored and almost utopian. That’s what I assumed before I came to Prep. On the contrary, living with over one hundred other teenage girls trying to find themselves just may be the craziest experience a high schooler can have. I met every kind of girl and boy and got to know a few quite well. From socialites to rebels, sports stars to bookworms, everyone showed their soft side at one point or another. Underneath even the most difficult people, I realized, was a very sensitive and scared little kid. With that I grew to tolerate my classmates, even the ones that I believed needed to change their behavior. I also grew to accept the fact that people are put together differently than I am, and so I grew to understand and live with the philosophies and practices of my dearly close and very different three roommates Kaitlin, Lydia, and Bethany. The things I learned about other people will stick with me not only through college, but also throughout the decades to come.

Another lesson was how to handle myself when my parents weren’t around. I had to provide for my own needs and wants, I had to control my own use of my money, I had to make difficult choices on my own, and I had to be brave when encountering strangers. Most kids don’t develop a sense of self-responsibility until they start college, but here I learned very quickly and effectively. I took standardized tests and bought food, and I did it on my own.

Undoubtedly all that I learned will never lose value, but the single most important kind of knowledge that I gained was knowledge of my Lord God—my providing Father, my gracious Savior Jesus Christ, and my strengthening and empowering Holy Spirit. Luther Prep does everything to develop an indestructible faith in God and devotion to spreading His Word. Chapel is held twice daily for the entire student body, it is a rule to attend church once weekly, and pretty much every class you take grows you closer to Jesus Christ, even the ones that don’t have to do with the Bible at all.

Luther Preparatory School’s sole responsibility is to provide workers in the field of ministry and introduce them to the teaching and preaching of the Word. You could almost say that they shove the field of ministry into every student’s face, which isn’t close to being a bad thing. Every Christian kid, whether future teacher, pastor, or baker, needs to know how to let their light shine before others. The program that Luther Prep offers students, from Taste of Ministry to Project Timothy (which, according to my roommate Bethany, was one of the greatest experiences of her entire life), prepares a teen for such a task. The endless mass silent prayers after chapel and doctrinal lectures by wise Professor Hahm have given tremendous power and strength to my faith and to my desire to uphold God’s great commission and make disciples of all nations.

Only God himself knows what I will be doing after my short time at Luther Preparatory School ends. I haven’t an inkling of my state of being ten years from now. All I do know is that what I’ve learned and what I’ve grown into at Prep will carry me well through time. My anxiety spells and obstacles, my celebrations and moments of peace, my heated arguments and breakdowns are never going to fade. They’ve been too large a part of my life to be forgotten. Thank you, Lord, for allowing me such a place to remember.

*  *  *  *  *  

A final note: In her article, Molly mentions that her parents wanted her to attend Luther Prep. Grace Hennig, Molly's mom, explains why: 

“Brian and I encouraged Molly’s desire to try something challenging and different for high school, and we knew that she would be in good hands, in regular worship, and in God's Word.  The lump in the stomach that comes with sending a 14 year old away from home for school really never goes away, but Molly's dad and I are both on the protective side as parents. We hoped that Molly would benefit from the influence of other adults and from figuring out a few things on her own, including whether she’d like to be in ministry someday.  We’re thankful that she’s been very happy at Prep and that she’s gained life-long Christian friends as well as an increased desire to serve the Church.”