"Bye-bye church. We're busy." That's the message teens are giving churches today.
Only about one in four teens now participate in church youth groups, considered the hallmark of involvement; numbers have been flat since 1999. Other measures of religiosity — prayer, Bible reading and going to church — lag as well, according to Barna Group, a Ventura, Calif., evangelical research company. This all has churches canceling their summer teen camps and youth pastors looking worriedly toward the fall, when school-year youth groups kick in.
"Talking to God may be losing out to Facebook," says Barna president David Kinnaman.
"Sweet 16 is not a sweet spot for churches. It's the age teens typically drop out," says Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, which found the turning point in a study of church dropouts. "A decade ago teens were coming to church youth group to play, coming for the entertainment, coming for the pizza. They're not even coming for the pizza anymore. They say, 'We don't see the church as relevant, as meeting our needs or where we need to be today.' "
"I blame the parents,"who didn't grow up in a church culture, says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan.
His megachurch would routinely take 600 teens to summer church camp, he says, "and many would be forever changed by that experience. But this summer we don't even have a camp.
"Remember, 80% of kids don't have cars. Their parents could be lazy or the opposite — overstressed and overcommitted. If parents don't go to church, kids don't, either."
Don't forget the overcommitted teens themselves, the recession and growing competition from summer mission trips, says Rick Gage of Go-Tell Youth Camps, based in Duluth, Ga.
Registration fell 22% in 2009 but stabilized this summer with 2,000 middle- and high-school teens at five camps in four states. Attendance peaked in the late 1990s at 5,000 teens, Gage says.
Chris Palmer, youth pastor at Ironbridge Baptist Church in Chester, Va., says its youth group enrollment slid from 125 teens in 2008 to 35 last winter.
He pulled participation back up to 70 this year by letting teens know "real church, centered on Jesus Christ, is hard work," Palmer says. "This involves the Marine Corps of Christianity. Once we communicate that, we see kids say, 'Hey, I want to be involved in something that's a little radical and exciting.' "
Rainer agrees. He says teens today want Scripture, they "don't want superficiality. We need to tell them that if you are part of church life, you are part of something bigger. The church needs you, too."
But first, they have to find the kids.
Sam Atkeson of Falls Church, Va., left his Episcopal church youth group not long after leaving middle school.
"I started to question if it was something I always wanted to do or if I just went because my friends did," says Atkeson, now 18. "It just wasn't really something I wanted to continue to do. My beliefs changed. I wouldn't consider myself a Christian anymore."
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