It's a tall order to expect children to become religious and be interested in theology, history and religious culture without more of a strong push from parents and other authority figures. —Daniel Cox, Public Religion Research Institute's research director
On any given Sunday around 10:30 a.m., a handful of college students sip coffee and chat in Christ United Methodist Church's youth room, a catch-all space for praise band equipment, kitchen supplies and an air hockey table.
The young adults perch on couches and bean bag chairs in the center of the room, discussing what's new in their lives and how to mentor the church's high schoolers on issues like dating, faith and feminism.
Alicia Griffing, a freshman at Salt Lake Community College, is one of the group's regulars, which seems natural given she was born and baptized into CUMC. But it actually took her a few months after high school graduation to commit to attending.
"I went from being in everything to not having anything to do with the church at all," she said, noting that she was busy with her job and unsure how to stay connected to church once she'd aged out of youth group.
Young adults often go through a faith crisis like Griffing's near the end of high school, leading some to drop religious practice altogether. More than 6 in 10 religious "nones" who were raised in a religion (62 percent) say they abandoned their childhood faith before they turned 18, according to Public Religion Research Institute.
These findings are alarming for faith leaders, as well as parents hoping to raise their kids to be faithful adults. Youth programs and parenting routines designed to pass on religious practice appear to be failing, and 1 in 4 Americans are considered nones today, compared with 12 percent 20 years ago, PRRI reported.
However, research on the nones and the experience of young adults like Griffing offer clues on how best to address the exodus of teenagers and young adults away from faith, according to experts on unaffiliated Americans. For example, PRRI's study showed that only one-third of nones don't believe in God.
That data point is important to keep in mind if you're trying to make a difference in young people's lives, said Richard Flory, a sociologist and senior director of research and evaluation at the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
"There remains a level of belief in God, spirits and miracles. These people pray a lot," he said. "That tells me that it's the delivery system that's out of whack."
Parents and pastors
Parents and religious leaders guide young people through the development of their faith, saying prayers with them, reading and discussing scripture and getting them involved in church programs. But research on the nones shows these efforts sometimes come up short.
Six in 10 unaffiliated Americans say a lack of belief in their religion's teachings was an important reason they left their childhood faith, and 32 percent say they left because their family was never that religious, PRRI reported.
These reasons provide insights into young people's religious experiences, said Daniel Cox, PRRI's research director. They show that parents and church leaders may need to be more strategic in how they teach and practice faith in front of teenagers.
"It's a tall order to expect children to become religious and be interested in theology, history and religious culture without more of a strong push from parents and other authority figures," Cox said.
Youth Coordinator Patsy Simons looks at the work of Fiona Kelsey during a service project at Christ United Methodist Church in South Salt Lake City on Oct. 16, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
But strong pushes toward religious practice have fallen out of favor in many homes, noted Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University professor of sociology of religion, in an email. Modern parents want their kids to choose what's most fulfilling for them, instead of forcing them down a specific path.
"Giving kids a choice, ironically, means not grounding them in any particular tradition and sending the message that religion isn't very important," she said.
Similarly, Vanitta Conrad, CUMC's director of Christian education, said the teenagers she works with often aren't prepared to make serious decisions about faith. They are busy worrying about school assignments and their social lives.
"A lot of parents think they're allowing their students to be grown-ups and make that choice (about church attendance,) but they're not ready to make that choice," she said. "It's really hard to find the balance between faith and fun and school."
It can be even harder to fit church participation into a busy college schedule, as Desiree Jensen learned a few years ago. Like Griffing, she struggled to stay motivated to attend church at CUMC after she graduated from high school, even though the community had been an important part of her teenage years.
"I was busier with work," Jensen said. "I wasn't really drawn to the traditional worship service."
Her faith community had equipped her with a strong religious foundation but struggled to help her translate high school habits into a mature religious practice. Luckily, Jensen felt comfortable turning to CUMC leaders to look for solutions.
With their support, she founded "Holy Grounds," the young adult gathering, and reconnected with her favorite parts of youth group: friendship, service projects and spiritual discussion.
"It's worth getting out of bed for," said Jensen, who is now a senior at the University of Utah.
Youth programs are most successful at drawing teenagers to religious belief when they help them see faith in action, said Flory, who studied young adults' spiritual practices while writing a forthcoming book.
Youth groups should "engage the experience of religion instead of sitting around with pizza," he said.
CUMC has tried to live out this advice in a variety of ways, Conrad said. The 30 to 40 middle and high schoolers in youth group can join a worship band, ring hand bells or sit with friends after church and make blankets for the homeless community.
"There are lots of avenues for kids" to get involved, she added.
LDS youth meet for a seminary class in the Dominican Republic. | Photo courtesy of Chad H Webb
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has long provided its young members with opportunities to study and engage their faith. In addition to attending Sunday services, they can attend weekday youth activities and volunteer opportunities, participate in church-sponsored youth athletics and attend seminary classes, in which high schoolers discuss scripture and doctrine.
"These kids have so much support: youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, bishops, parents and friends," said Sherry Titensor, a volunteer seminary teacher in Flower Mound, Texas.
At 6 a.m. on weekdays, Titensor leads a class of 22 high school seniors, deepening their knowledge of LDS teachings and helping them prepare for life after high school. Some will serve full-time missions for their church, while others head off to college. The important part is that all of her students know there will always be a place for them in the church, she said.
"Never do we want them to feel like the ball is just dropped and they don't have a new village or support group wherever they go," Titensor said.
Besides helping their kids connect with church programs, parents can increase the likelihood that their families remain religious by being religiously active themselves, researchers noted.
"Family environment really matters in providing continuity and future engagement in religion," Cox said. "If children don't pick up good religious habits in the home, they're much more likely to fall away."
His conclusion is supported by a new Pew Research Center study, which showed that people raised in a home where religion was valued are more likely than their peers to affiliate with their family's faith.
For example, 73 percent of U.S. adults raised by two Catholic parents who believed religion was very important remain Catholic today, compared with 38 percent who said religion didn't seem important to their family growing up, Pew reported.
"Those adults who say religion was very important to their family while growing up and whose parents frequently discussed religion are more likely than others to continue to identify with their parents' religion as adults," researchers noted.
The religious habits parents should model will vary depending on what religion a family belongs to, Flory said. Jewish parents may express their religious commitment by abstaining from certain activities on the Sabbath, while Methodists, like Conrad, sign-up to volunteer for community organizations.
Parenting with religious practice in mind involves "teaching, modeling and creating an atmosphere where beliefs are important," Flory said.
Sarah Jones didn't doubt religion's importance growing up. Her evangelical Christian parents taught her to view everything through the lens of faith, first, home schooling her, and then sending her to a Christian high school.
In spite of this religiously saturated upbringing, Jones considered herself an atheist by age 22. She sometimes wonders what her faith leaders and family could have done to keep her active in a religious group.
"I wish I hadn't been isolated from the world as much as I was," said Jones, who is now 28. "I don't know if being exposed to a more intellectually rigorous Christianity would have made a difference, or if I would have eventually come to the same conclusions."
Her experience points to another factor affecting young people's relationship to religion: flawed approaches to addressing difficult issues. Many faith communities fail to create open forums for teenagers and 20-somethings to ask tough questions.
Doubt or confusion can drive someone to seek answers elsewhere, such as from people who have no emotional investment in keeping readers or listeners interested in religion.
"With the advent of social media, young people are exposed to such a variety of different views from a young age. There's a lot of ideological competition," Jones said.
Today's high schoolers are growing up in a culture that's changing rapidly, and they're not afraid to challenge religious doctrines that feel out of step with reality, said Dave Brunetti, director of campus life at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah.
"When I was young, it was very unusual to stand up and challenge a belief or something you were taught by the good sisters of the Holy Cross. You just didn't do it, or you did it when you were 21 or 22 and long out of their vision," said Brunetti, who graduated from a Catholic high school in 1976.
His students are bolder than his classmates were, and they're willing to bring up difficult topics like immigration, divorce and same-sex marriage. Brunetti encourages these discussions, as long as participants are respectful of their peers' beliefs.
"Our focus is to make sure that students have an understanding of and a basis for discussing complicated different viewpoints," he said. "We're going to back it up with a foundation of what the Catholic Church teaches and why the church teaches it, but we shy away from the sense that you're only a good person if you believe this."
He added, "Kids just don't buy that."
Faith communities need to create an atmosphere where members feel like they can be themselves and express their concerns. Being tight-lipped can lead people to be uneasy about organized religion, which many young people are already predisposed to be, Ammerman noted.
"The baby-boomer generation was famous for its willingness to distrust 'the establishment,' and the young adults of today are the children of the boomers," she said.
Ammerman highlighted the power of relationships in helping people overcome their concerns about organized religion. Strong bonds can also sustain faith during a period of doubt or frustration.
"The research I've seen that is most convincing says that relationships matter. It's both about families being committed to participating together and about youth having other adults in a congregation who are trusted figures," she said.
Will the nones come back?
Many nones say they've given up on organized religion for good. Only 7 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they're looking for a faith community, PRRI reported.
Younger nones are slightly more likely to be searching than their older counterparts, but it's still a low rate. Around 1 in 10 unaffiliated people age 18 to 29 (11 percent) say they're looking for the religion that's right for them, compared with 5 percent of those who are 30 to 49 years old and 6 percent of those who are 50 to 64 years old, the survey found.
Faced with the rapid increase in religiously unaffiliated Americans, it's easy for religious leaders and parents to get discouraged. But being exposed to faith during childhood does increase the likelihood that someone will return to it as an adult, even if they take some time off, said John Green, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.
"Just because somebody isn't actively seeking, doesn't mean they aren't susceptible to religious appeal. They may move to a different city or meet different people. Things happen that lead people into religious activity," he said.
Only around half of U.S. adults say they've had the same church attendance habits throughout their life, according to a recent Pew study. Around 1 in 4 Americans (27 percent) say they attend more often now than in the past, citing reasons like family changes and having more time in their schedule.
In light of these findings, youth pastors and parents can focus on laying the groundwork for children to have a strong faith life, and then hope that skeptical young adults will warm up to religion as they age, Green said.
Youth at Christ United Methodist Church in South Salt Lake City donate time making baby blankets and cat toys on Oct. 16, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
"As people become more settled in careers, families and their lives, they see a greater relevance in social institutions," he said.
Conrad's hope is that teenagers graduate from CUMC's youth group knowing that they can always turn to the church for help.
"We want them to know they have a faith family they can always reach out to," she said. "We want them to be prepared to deal with life from the perspective of having faith."
She put her trust in this approach when her youngest son, who is now 23, left for college. He didn't embrace faith-related opportunities on his campus, although he did attend church with the Conrads when he was home.
"We would say, 'So, have you checked out any churches?'" she said, noting that they tried to keep religion on his radar without nagging.
Now, her son's involved in a faith community again. He had more time to look for a church after college and started dating a woman who also came from a Christian background.
His time away from organized religion forced Conrad to accept that she had done what she could and be patient until he settled into his own religious routine.
"You do the best you can," she said. "You pray a lot."