I was born in 1987. Looking back over my childhood, I can proudly say that I was a “church kid.” Every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, I was there with my family for service, Sunday school, and Bible Study. Even during my high school and college, I took my faith seriously and participated in church activities even when people questioned why. I grew up and befriended other “church kids”; however, in later years some tend to distance themselves farther away from the church. It turns out that this is a normal phenomenon in my generation.
Earlier this year, there were two major studies published that came to the same conclusion: more “millennials,” or people born since the 1980s, are losing belief in God. In April, the Public Religion Research Institute and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs released the results of the 2012 Millennial Values Survey. According to the survey, 25% of college-aged millennials (age 18 to 24) identified themselves as “religiously unaffiliated,” compared to the 10% that identify themselves as a “black Protestant.” Of those that are now non-religious, many grew up in religious households.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press published their own survey stating that although “the United States continues to be a highly religious nation,” 68% of millennials say that they never doubted God’s existence, a 15-point decline from 2007. In fact, only 55% of millennials say that they agree with the three religious values presented in the survey: the existence of God, the personal importance of prayer, and belief in a Judgment Day. In contrast, two-thirds of older generations say that they believe in all three statements.
Although the Pew survey doesn’t show how each racial group views religion, researchers behind the Millennial Values Survey were surprised with their results. “There was some expectation that racial divisions among this cohort would be somewhat muted compared to what we see in the general public,” writes Daniel Cox, the Research Director of PRRI. “However, we found dramatic differences in the view of white, black and Hispanic Millennials.” One noteworthy difference: African Americans, as well as other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than Caucasians.
KEEPING THE FAITH: Surveys show African American millennials, as well as young adults from other ethnic minorities, are less likely to leave the church than whites.
Cox believes that there are two reasons why African American millennials tend to stick with their religious upbringing. First, African Americans generally are more religious than their white counterparts, meaning that we are more likely to attend weekly services, pray, and express religious views. According to the Millennial Values Survey, this applies to millennials: 77% of black Protestants stated that religion is either very important or the most important thing in their life. Second, Cox writes that the black church has and continues to be a central part of our community. “I think because it plays such a significant role both spiritual and socially for many African Americans that religious commitment remains strong among African American Millennials,” he writes.
One thing that is noticeably missing from both surveys: how millennials of different socioeconomic levels view religion. Fortunately, there are past studies that could give us some clues. According to a 2010 report, children from in low-income neighborhoods and attend church regularly earn a higher GPA than their wealthier counterparts. In addition, young people who attend religious activities at least once a month are more likely to enjoy school, be in gifted classes, and work harder academically than those who attend religious activities les often. Mark Regnerus, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests that religion is just one of many positive extracurricular resources for more affluent teens; as a result, religion tends not to be as important later in life. In contrast, religion for a lower-income teen is one of very few positive influences in their lives. Since religious organizations are more accessible in urban areas, it acts as a positive distraction from negative influences like gangs.
Despite the high number of black millennials staying in the church and the well-documented benefits for urban millennials, the question remains why many are leaving in the first place. One reason is that millennials have mixed feelings about modern Christianity. Although 76% believe that Christianity “has good values and principles” and 63% state that it “consistently shows love for other people,” 62% describe Christianity as “judgmental,” with 63% saying that it is “anti-gay.” However, the answer might be in the way the church conducts youth and young adult ministry.
Drew Dyck, author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith and How to Bring them Back, suggests that youth ministries today focus more on reeling people in than nurturing spiritual growth. “Some have been reduced to using violent video game parties to lure students through their church doors on Friday nights,” he says in an interview for BibleGateway.com. “There’s nothing wrong with video games and pizza, but their tragic replacements for discipleship and Bible teaching. Many young people have been exposed to a superficial form of Christianity that effectively inoculates them against authentic faith.” In other words, youth ministries cannot survive on lock-ins and pizza alone. As for parents, Dyck says dropping teens off for a few hours doesn’t make up for what they see at home: “Parents need to be modeling and teaching a dynamic faith at home. They are the primary faith influencers.”
As Christians, the news about millennials leaving the church can be discouraging. But we can use this research to reflect on how our ministries and parenting styles are helping — and hurting — this generation. As we turn from a focus on simply packing the pews with young people to teaching them how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we will follow what was said in Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
It takes a person with a calling to work in children’s ministry. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences to realize that you can help develop the spiritual faith of a child. Statistics from the Barna Group suggest that if you minister to ten children, four of them will accept Christ by the age of 13. Sadly, research also shows that six out of ten children, who are active in church during their teen years, will become spiritually disengaged by the time they become young adults. One way to reverse this trend is to create learning environments that include games and interactive activities. This will help children develop a dynamic personal relationship with Christ and establish a foundation of faith.
Many churches have been content to let children sit in the sanctuary trying to make sense of a sermon or Bible study that was clearly prepared for adults. Or, in cases where efforts were made to set aside classes for children, the approach basically involved a chalkboard, and maybe a flannel graph or puppets. Some of these tools still work for preschoolers, but to engage elementary-age and tween students, you will get more results with interactive activities.
If you spend the majority of your class time talking to children, studies show that they will retain only 5% to 10% of what they hear. A teacher can increase effectiveness by showing them pictures, posters, and maps, for example. Children will retain 20% to 30% of what they see. However, if the leader really wants to have a lasting impact, he should introduce a hands-on activity or experience. Children retain a full 75% to 90% of what they do.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean just letting kids run around the classroom because you didn’t make time to plan your lesson. I am talking about intentional play, such as a game or activity, with a strategic purpose that is a part of the lesson plan.
Children engaged in interactive activities use more of their senses than just hearing, and we provide opportunities for them to fellowship with each other. While children are playing, teachers can reinforce virtues of cooperation, sportsmanship, encouragement, and Christ-likeness. This will encourage group dynamics that help to keep down distractions that crop up when kids get bored, and that keep the children focused on the task at hand.
Our goal is not only to meet the children where they are spiritually, but also to get them excited about the Gospel message so that they come back willingly. Plus, we want them to be so excited about what they are learning at church that it transforms their lives and they are inviting their friends to come with them.
Here are three activities you can introduce in your children’s ministry.
1. Scripture Memory
This high-energy game will increase Scripture memory and takes minimal preparation. You will need colorful latex balloons and two copies of the memory verse printed in a large font. Prepare the balloons prior to class time. Cut the verse into pieces, like a puzzle. Make sure that the cut pieces match their corresponding piece. Put each puzzle piece into separate balloons, blow them up, and tie them off. Then do the same thing for the copy. You should have two sets of balloons with a part of the memory verse inside each balloon. Divide the class into teams. A member from each team will run to a designated spot, turn and run back to two chairs you have set up. They will put the balloons on the chairs to pop them. Their teams will collect all of the pieces and assemble the memory verse. The team that assembles the memory verse and recites it wins. Stickers or small pieces of candy are good rewards.
2. Visual Prayers
This simple activity packs a powerful punch! Give the children sheets of paper and have them trace one hand. The thumb is closest to our heart—it reminds us to pray for our family. Have them write a prayer request for family on the thumb. The index finger points out things we don’t always see, or it instructs us. Write a prayer request for teachers. The middle finger stands tallest. Write prayer requests for those in authority such as government leaders, pastors, etc. The ring finger is weak and can’t stand alone well when you put the other fingers down. Write prayer requests for those who are sick, elderly, in prison, or in need of help. The pinkie finger is the smallest. Write a prayer request for yourself.
Then have the children exchange the sheets and place their own hands on top of the sheet they received and pray for their classmates. Or the teacher can collect the sheets and pray for the children throughout the week. (This activity was originally submitted to Children’s Ministry Magazine by Nancy Paulson.)
3. Lesson Review or Conversation Starter
Make a “Throw and Tell Ball.” Buy a basic inflatable beach ball. Write generic questions like “What is your favorite movie and why?” or lesson specific questions such as, “What happened to the main character in our story?” or “What Book of the Bible did our story come from today?” Cut the questions out and tape them onto each panel of the beach ball. Have the children lightly toss the ball or pass it around. When the teacher says stop, the child holding the ball can answer the question under his right thumb.
We can help children make Christ their own. The task is set to us as parents, teachers, and children’s ministry leaders to not only get them excited about who God is, but to help them see His connection to them. When children really know God themselves— not just know about Him or know stories in the Bible—then we will see children with deep roots that will last. They will be the illustration of Psalm 1:3, “They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do.”
It has been refreshing to watch the NBC News special series Education Nation inspire a national discussion on teaching American children. Especially impressive has been hearing from the diversity of excellent educators — whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so on — from across the country. But even as a wonderful national conversation unfolds, on some level everyone understand that any significant transformation for our children must happen at the state and local levels.
Recently, The Virginian-Pilot, the major newspaper in my area, ran a story about student-teacher racial imbalance in South Hampton Roads schools. The Sept. 17 headline, “Teacher-student racial imbalance widest in Va. Beach” honed in on that school district’s difficulty recruiting black teachers who could help increase black student achievement.
The article cited a 2004 study by Thomas Dee, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, who found that white and black students in Tennessee tested better when they had teachers of their own race. Yes, diversity is very important but it’s not the main problem. The headline should’ve read, “Too many weak white teachers failing students.”
Whether white, black or other, excellent educators know how to teach ALL students regardless of their color. Overemphasizing diversity sends a message to weak white teachers that it’s okay to mis-educate students who don’t look like them. It lets these teachers — who are dishonoring the profession — off the hook.
Since the majority of teachers are white, this problem has, in part, been ruining generations of black and Hispanic students across the country. It almost claimed one of my children who attended high school in nearby Suffolk. During a parent-teacher’s conference, my wife and I endured a meeting with our daughter’s theater teacher that proved to be a turning point in our child’s education. She had approached the teacher for help to prepare to audition for the area’s Governor’s School for the Arts, which offers intense training to gifted students. Students attend their regular high school in the morning, then arts classes in the afternoon.
The weak teacher (who is white) gave my daughter (who is black) the cold shoulder. During the conference we asked the teacher about this. Displaying an air of annoyance, she told us that our daughter (who had been acting since age seven) had shown little to no talent. She said our daughter had no chance of getting in because the teacher’s “more talented” student (who was white) had auditioned previously and didn’t make it. In fact, no theater student from that high school had.
Recalling our own high school experiences with discouraging teachers and guidance counselors, my wife and I simply eyed each other instead of blowing gaskets. We knew who and what we were dealing with. We looked at our daughter, whose blank expression masked her fury and embarrassment. Our daughter knew it was time she stopped undermining herself and stepped up her game.
A few weeks later she successfully auditioned for the Governor’s School. Two years later she graduated (this past June) and is now away in college studying theater and psychology.
Strong teachers, whether they are white, black or other, inspire students. With hormones raging, middle and high-schoolers tend to respond negatively to teachers whom they sense don’t care. This happens too often with black and Hispanic students under white teachers who are weak or worse. Instead of saying, “I’ll prove you wrong,” like my daughter did, many of them act out (not doing homework, not studying, cutting classes, etc.), thinking that they are somehow getting back at the teacher. After it’s too late, these mis-educated students realize they’ve only hurt themselves.
Black, Hispanic, and low-income students of all races are being suffocated each year. It’s near hopeless if their parents are deadbeats or otherwise unable to actively engage. Unless the student has an internal drive to achieve and or has family support pushing him or her, one teacher, one authority figure, with one discouraging word, can strangle their will to succeed. Likewise, one teacher, one authority figure with an encouraging word can inspire a student toward greatness.
The article noted that Virginia Beach has had trouble finding black teachers — despite major HBCUs Hampton University and Norfolk State University being in its backyard. To provide some context, Virginia Beach has 440,000 residents with a 20 percent black population, but the city has never had a black mayor and just recently appointed its only African American on the city council. Sadly, the community can’t seem to shake a racist image linked to a clash between police and black college students at Greekfest in 1989. The incident drew unwanted national attention.
But Virginia Beach is not alone. Other districts are having trouble finding black teachers as well, as many black graduates are pursuing higher-paying careers. The promise of fatter paychecks is likely not the only reason for their disinterest. I suspect the bad experiences many of them had with teachers in middle and high school is also at the root. People often choose careers because someone inspired them. Why go into a field in which you had to overcome discouragement? Perhaps as black students have better experiences with strong teachers in middle and high school, more of them will aspire to teach after college.
Diversity can help, but it’s not the cure. There are also many black and Hispanic weak teachers who have low expectations of students who look like them. In the article, Professor Dee offered the solution: “We need teachers who are flat-out good and who we can train to be good for all students,” he said.
How many eighth-grade Bible studies lead with Lamentations? Or Leviticus? Not many that I’m aware of.
Yet last I checked, Lamentations and Leviticus are part of the biblical canon, along with Romans and Revelation and lots of other heady reading material.
Should it matter to pastors, then, that the average graduate of America’s city schools reads at an eighth-grade level and that many high school graduates don’t even rank that high?