Photo illustration by josh ferrin, deseret news

TAMPA — Will Mitchell remembers childhood Sunday mornings as dramatic. Hunched over a bowl of cereal he would whine about how he didn't want to go to church. Mom's response: "You're coming, so hurry up and get ready."

He would grumble up the stairs and put on a wrinkled shirt and tie, arguing with his dad the whole time. By the time the family was in the car, the tension was thick and everyone was angry.

"The opposite thing that religion is supposed to do," Mitchell says wryly.

The Sunday battles got worse as he grew older, and his confirmation at age 16 was the last time he went to church.

Now, as a 21-year-old Catholic-turned-atheist-turned-agnostic who has a complex spiritual relationship with God, Mitchell said he left because he felt the church discouraged new ideas and critical thinking.

Yet it was critical thinking that brought him to a new place of spirituality.

"Over time, I leaned from 'probably not a God,' to 'there has to be a God,'" he says. "As I learn more and more it becomes apparent in everything that there is more to the story."

Mitchell's faith journey is personal, but not unusual.

Nearly 59 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 with a Christian background disconnect, either permanently or for an extended time, from church life after age 15, according to a recent study by the Barna Group, a nonpartisan group in Ventura, Calif., that studies the intersection of faith and culture.

Religious leaders are desperately trying to reverse such statistics through a variety of approaches, but before they can gather the lost sheep, they need to understand them, says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of "You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church ... and Rethinking Faith."

Today's youth are awash in technology that promotes global connectedness and the sharing of ideas but deepens individual alienation. Young adults are increasingly skeptical of authority and institutions yet eager to make a difference and find meaning in their lives.

When asked about religion, young adults expressed concerns across six broad categories, ranging from what they see as their church's overprotective, exclusive and anti-scientific nature, to their own shallow experience with Christianity.

It's crucial that religious leaders understand these concerns, Kinnaman says, so they can adjust their ministries to "cultivate lasting faith in every generation." Their efforts won't be perfect, but leaders should "take comfort in the fact that God is at work in the spiritual journeys of teens and young adults even as we are trying to figure out what to say and how to say it," Kinnaman writes in his book. "Faith, ultimately, comes from God. And we can be confident that he cares more than even we do for today's young people."

Delivering doctrine

After the first few sermons at Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Ill., Scott Gnuse suddenly realized the book he was holding — the one he'd read since childhood — was a mystery to him.

The then-18-year-old had grown up attending a nondenominational Christian church with a casual preaching style and an entertainment-driven youth ministry. He could "spit out Bible passages like it was nothing," but when it came to explaining and applying God's word, he was at a loss.

"When I finally... had the Bible explained to me, more than just using little bits and pieces of it here and there to reinforce points the pastors were making, it was very eye opening," said Gnuse, now 22. "I loved it. I couldn't get enough of it. I still can't get enough of it."

Gnuse disconnected from his childhood church, only to reconnect with one that offered him more depth and greater understanding. In fact, nearly 23 percent of youth surveyed by the Barna Group said that "the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough."

In some churches, Bible study has been replaced by more exciting options like rock bands, pop-culture discussions and lavish youth trips and activities.

"But what (churches) discovered is when the kids got out of high school, all they learned how to do was play games and have a good time," said Gary Gilley, Gnuse's pastor at Southern View Chapel. "We don't think we're called to entertain the children. Although we have fun activities, we train them to walk with Christ and be involved with God's church."

And for 36 years, Gilley has been teaching the Bible without any watering down or spicing up.

"We're not just talking about fluff," he says. "We're teaching the word of God, and God has something to say that's pertinent to (their) life."

And He can say it in a variety of ways.

Derrick Wilcox, youth minister at Union Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., allows his students to use Bible apps on their iPads or smart phones, and they can even message him gospel questions during services.

"We, as leaders, have to think outside the box," he says. "It's not watering down the message, but adjusting the method of how we bring that message."

Empowering parents

But that message shouldn't just come from church, says Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller Youth Institute and author of the book, "Sticky Faith."

"Too many parents have become 'dry cleaner parents,'" she says. "They drop (their kids) off Sunday at 9 a.m. dirty and want to pick them up 75 minutes later all clean, with the youth pastor (as the one) who has done all the cleaning."

Instead, pastors, adult church members and parents must all work together — with the parents in the lead — to teach and model faith to the next generation.

Now, when Powell's 5-, 9- and 11-year-old kids see her reading the Bible or praying, she'll tell them what she's praying for, or what she's learning. And at the dinner table, she'll ask her husband, "How did you see God at work today?"

"So every night we're introducing God into our conversation with our kids," she said.

Despite such efforts, some teens will still wander. That doesn't mean parents should give up or consider themselves failures.

"Be patient," advises Erica Brown, author and scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. "We can give a spiritual inheritance to our children but we can't forget that they also have to receive it on their own terms. They are not us. The best we can do is model sincere faith and upright morals and wait and see without judgment."

It's a fear of judgment that forces some teens into a "double life," where they hide immoral or illegal behavior from parents and religious leaders because they don't feel safe confessing, says Jeff Schadt, a non-denominational Christian minister in Durango, Colo.

To help prevent such deception, Schadt encourages parents to remember they're raising adults, not children.

When parents see their children as the leaders of tomorrow rather than the feisty teens of today, they stop imposing their own expectations and instead help their teen identify their own long-term goals, then offer support.

"If parents ... move from being a parent to being a shepherd, a coach, a mentor with our pre-teens and teens, and focus on our influence, our voice, our relationships," Schadt says, "then we can have far more influence than the world."

Devotion in the dorms

As Judy Cozzens walks to the post office in Edina, Minn., carrying 1,800 personalized letters, she prays they'll help the Catholic high school students who receive them.

"We're finding through some studies that only about 15 percent of (Catholic) kids going to college find the campus ministry programs," said Cozzens, chair of College Connection for Catholics, a non-profit group linking Catholic students with college ministries. "College is a place of sex, alcohol and drugs. We want (students) to have support so they avoid some of the pitfalls that are going to be a scar for life."

Making a faithful leap from high school to college can be problematic, which is why Cozzens keeps writing letters, and why Schadt founded Youth Transition Network, a non-profit that links students with youth ministries, Christian friends and roommates before they get to campus.

"A lot of our kids hit campus thinking it's going to be easy," Schadt says. "They're looking forward to freedom, but they're not forecasting the stress, loneliness and the need to be loved and accepted spiking through the roof in a way they've never felt before. It sends them into culture shock and they often bond to the very first thing that will meet those needs. Often it's not the most healthy option."

And because many young adults view their faith like a jacket, they simply take it off when it clashes with their new lifestyle, Powell says.

FYI's "College Transition Project" — a longitudinal study of 500 youth group graduates over three years of college — found that many of them defined faith as a list of behaviors, rather than a "gospel of grace that flows into behaviors," Powell said. "They don't realize that faith is so much more than a jacket."

Which is why religious leaders must emphasize — to children, teens and young adults — the power of faith within families and homes, as well as in their education and vocation, says Kinnaman.

"What's necessary," he says, "is helping these young adults recognize how faith matters in every sphere of life."

KEEPING FAITH ALIVE: Advice for adults

Focus on doctrine. Flashy activities may be fun in the moment, but they often lack foundational truth that helps youth become devoted to their faith.

Prepare for transitions. Talk to high school students about finding a church during college and help them get used to the adjustment by visiting other churches while they're still at home.

Share what you believe. Talk with your children often about your own faith journey and how you feel about God.

Walk the talk. If you're not excited about worshipping, or fail to live up to your own lectures, kids will see it. And they hate hypocrisy.

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Get to know them. Youth who have positive relationships with adults at church besides their parents or youth minister are less likely to wander.

Involve youth in the ministry. Whether it's teaching Sunday School, playing with children in a nursery class or serving as ushers, help youth feel needed and appreciated as part of the church.

Be open to questions and concerns. Young adults are trying to make sense of the world around them and if they don't feel safe voicing their thoughts in church, they'll go elsewhere.

Source: Deseret News interviews