What kind of church attracts students?

The most recent edition of Immerse, a bimonthly journal for youthworkers, features a thoughtful piece* on churches that attract and retain students. The author, Christy Lang, cites several research papers and presents findings both surprising and useful. Here are three samples from her article:

Drawing on developmental theory, Lytch notes that adolescents have particular needs for forging identities, adopting worldviews and developing skills for living in an adult world. Given those needs, she says, particular kinds of opportunities for church involvement are especially important. She writes, “When teens are attracted to churches, they are attracted because the churches engage them in intense states of self-transcendence uniting emotional and cognitive processes. Churches ‘catch’ them on three hooks: a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence.”**

Three key concepts here for youth are belonging (understanding themselves as accepted members of the community); sense of meaning (hearing faith articulated in relation to their lived experience and having opportunities to express faith); and competence (developing skills in church that relate to skills they need in the rest of life, so that church isn’t something to leave behind in childhood).

Busy youth workers don’t need to create busier calendars. Focusing on belonging, believing and competence enables youth workers to address the places where youth are most likely — and most longing — to connect to their communities of faith. As we do this, we must consider theologically what it means for church to be a place where belonging, believing and competence are done faithfully.

This type of insight doesn’t lend itself to a quick new program. She’s describing a culture. Yet, culture is servant to the astute.

*Communities of Disciples: Why the Kind of Church We Are Makes a Difference, by Christy Lang, appears in the March/April 2011 issue of Immerse: A Journal of Faith, Life, and Youth Ministry

**Carol Lytch, Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004