Like many pastors, I’ve been involved with youth ministry since the beginning. My first field education assignment was to spend a summer running the youth program. My first call was to a staff position in youth and children’s ministries. In that era churches saw youth ministry as a way to attract teens to the church by entertaining them. Youth ministry idea books were full of silly sporting events and elaborate scavenger hunts. Lock-ins, the bane of any youth leader’s existence, were very popular. The church eventually learned that when it came to entertainment, it couldn’t compete with what the rest of the world had to offer. Nor was entertainment (with some prayer and bible study mixed in) building Christian faith in young people. In the 90’s, I turned to leading hands-on mission experiences for youth.
For the past twenty years, the churches I have served have offered home repair mission trips for youth to southern Appalachia nearly every year. It remains a great way to build leadership and discipleship in young people. It helps keep youth involved in the church; but by itself, it’s hardly enough.[i] In the last decade, our congregation has added a youth choir to the mix. It has created the advantage of having older children and youth not only present in worship, but also leading worship on a regular basis.
One thing in all of these forms of ministry to youth has remained the same – the battle for their time and attention. Sports teams, the school musical, dance lessons, music lessons, and all that homework for Advanced Placement classes all compete for the time and attention of young people. I can’t help noticing that the greater the family’s economic resources, the more over-scheduled the teens seem to be. It begins early. Just getting on their calendar is a challenge. However, as our congregation has grown more diverse racially, socially and economically, I’ve noticed that this is not as prevalent for families with fewer resources. These are the teens most eager to engage, most likely to show up on a Sunday morning for worship or for a youth activity.
So, I was fascinated by a recent piece of research by Jeannie Kim of New York University.[ii] She studied the effect of regular worship attendance at age 17 on the total years of schooling attained by age 25. She found that youth who frequently attend worship completed .69 more years of schooling than those who did not. The effect on lower income youth is more profound. Those who attend worship frequently complete 1.1 more years of schooling. Middle income children complete .82 more years of schooling. For high-income youth, the difference is not statistically significant.
Additionally, attending religious services regularly improves the chances for low-income youth to obtain a college degree by 22% and for middle income youth by 12%. For high-income youth, the improvement in obtaining a degree was insignificant. Add these results to older research that shows a link between religious involvement and reduced risk of criminal activity, delinquency and drug use[iii] and you can see a powerful, measurable effect on youth, especially low-income youth.
I hope this will strengthen our resolve to reach young people, especially those whose families have fewer economic resources. Perhaps for the wealthiest in our congregations, it’s like the story of the Zen master. A seeker came to him and he offered him tea. He kept pouring until the cup overflowed and the seeker protested, “Can’t you see that my cup is full!” The master replied, “I do see. Come back when your cup is empty.” It’s on the young whose cups are the emptiest that we can have the greatest impact.
[ii] Jeannie Kim, “The Academic Advantage of Devotion: Measuring Variation in the Value of Weekly worship in Late Adolescence on Educational Attainment Using Propensity Score Matching,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, September 2015, pp. 555-574.
[iii] See Kim’s article for extensive documentation.
Rev. Beth Lyon is Pastor of Glenside United Church of Christ in Glenside, Pennsylvania. She has been an Ordained Minister since 1986, serving congregations in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.