Retaining Youth: What Matters and What Doesn’t So Much


I have been reading the book Why they Stay: Helping Parents and Church Leaders Make Investments that Keep Children and Teens Connected to the Church for a Lifetime, authored by Dr. Steve Parr and Dr. Tom Crites (Westbow Press, 2015). The book presents the outcomes of an American research study involving 1391 individuals aged between 26 and 39. The purpose of the study was “to understand if there were significant relationships in the backgrounds and habits of young adults that may have impacted their commitments to stay in the church.” I wish to highlight some of what they identified as factors of significance, and some things that didn’t seem to matter so much.

One caveat – in so doing, I am not going to refer to those parts of the book which discuss the post-high school life stage.  The American collegiate system of post-secondary education – which usually involves young adults moving away from home for a number of years after high school – is significantly different from the system in place in Australia, New Zealand and the UK (among other places).  I will leave it my American friends to write about those sections of the book.

So, what does the book tell us?  Let’s begin with what does not seem to matter so much …


What Doesn’t Matter So Much

  • The research revealed that it didn’t matter what particular Christian denomination children and youth attended.
  • There was no connection between having a youth worker on church staff during one’s teen years and whether a person was active in the church as an adult (what mattered was that quality ministry to children and youth was provided, not whether the delivery involved employed staff).
  • There was no correlation between a particular school environment (public, private, private Christian, home schooling) and adult church involvement.
  • There was no correlation between participation in formal “rite of passage” process in the teen years (e.g. Confirmation ministry in my own faith tradition) and adult church participation.


What Does Matter

  • It is vital that young people emerge from their teenage years with a sense of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ, linked to personal experiences of God at work in their lives through their childhood and youth years.
  • Parental faith matters: “If parents model a close relationship to the Lord, it may be the most influential thing they can do to encourage their child to stay in the church.”  The “family model of spirituality” is the “top cumulative effect on remaining active in church”.
  • As an extension of parental faith life, family worship attendance matters:  those who do not attend church regularly as children and youth are unlikely to become regular attenders themselves as adults.
  • For those who grew up attending church, a good relationship with both parents is a very strong indicator of future church involvement.
  • The style of discipline used by parents is of significance: those whose parents have a more “balanced” disciplinary style (involving instruction and correction in a spirit of love) are more likely to stay plugged into the church.
  • Parental involvement in church roles and service activities is significant:  parents who go beyond “consuming” of church and contribute themselves to church life are more likely to see their offspring continue in the life of the church.
  • Involvement in cross-generational worship matters: those who attended worship services that separated them from their parents when they were children were 38% more likely to have strayed as a young adult than those who were not in separate worship services.
  • Although having a youth worker does not correlate with whether one stays connected as an adult, having sufficient activities for young people while growing up does matter.  Larger churches will, of course, employ youth workers to ensure that this is possible.  Smaller churches will use the time and talents of volunteers to ensure ministry delivery.  As Parr and Crites express, “find a way, no matter what size church your attend, to minister to youth.”
  • Within the range of child and youth ministry activities provided by a church, camps matter: attending church camps as a teen has a positive correlation with a person being in church as an adult
  • The likeability of the church pastor matters – pastors need to portray a sense of concern and interest in the children and young people of their churches.
  • There is value in consistency and longevity of ministry to children and young people.  “Rotating youth pastors in and out every couple of years is worse for the students than having no youth pastor at all.”


Reflecting on the above, what strikes me is the vital importance of faith mediated through positive, healthy Christ-reflecting relationships with parents, youth leaders, pastors, and persons of other generations within a church community.  It is the “Christ through people” factor that seems to make the most difference … faithfully modelling lives of discipleship to our children and young people in such a way that they too meet him, learn from him and experience the joy of serving him.

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