What Youth Do at Church... and Why

By Bart Frost

Youth Participation

As mentioned in the previous post in this series, this survey has some flaws. The first question we asked was a check-all-that-apply, "When I attend church, I go to..." that had five possible responses:

Because we didn't define the time period, we don't know if this comes from the last year, last six months, or just gives a general sense of preferences. It was left to the respondent to decide what church attendance means to them. There is also no qualitative data to back up the data we have. We don't know why they responded the way they did.

The breakdown is relatively unsurprising, especially when we take into account that most of the youth who took the survey were on a Coming of Age trip.

  • 46% of youth (159) attend worship, 44% (154) attend Religious Education (RE) classes, 61% (212) attend youth group, 67 % (233) attend Coming of Age, and 24% (83) attend Our Whole Lives (OWL).
  • 30 youth said they only attend youth group when they attend church.
  • 84 out of 84 youth that attend OWL participate in some other aspects of church life.
  • Two youth stated they only attend worship at church.
  • Seven youth only attend religious education classes.
  • 45 youth only attend Coming of Age classes.
  • Only one youth said they didn't attend anything, but we'll write that off as a error.
The Analysis

None of these results are surprising, as the number of folks who attend Coming of Age almost matches the number of respondents who identified as 8th and 9th graders and typically congregations do either Our Whole Lives or Coming of Age in a year.

What is more interesting are the numbers of youth who report only attending one part of church programming - such as the 30 youth who say they only attend youth group at their congregation. That's about 8.5 percent of the overall responses, but 11 percent of youth who say they attend youth group at church. Let's compare this to some other results.

The Our Whole Lives results are unsurprising because many congregations require an agreement to Our Whole Lives participation and youth from the community are unlikely to join the youth group or Coming of Age class on a trip to Boston. And, yet, if youth attending Our Whole Lives are also participating in other parts of congregational life, what are the obstacles preventing the 30 youth who only attend youth group or the 45 who only attend Coming of Age?

These are the questions we are most interested answering. What are the limits to youth involvement in church? Why do they attend what they attend?

As we continue parsing through the results, what is the correlation between the number of youth who attend worship and other parts of congregational life? 157 youth attend worship and something else. Is this because most congregations start everyone in worship and then send them off to religious education?

There is one statistic that astounds me though: 45 youth attend only Coming of Age. I assume this is because Coming of Age meets at the same time as religious education and/or worship and these youth are too young to attend youth group. I personally find it troubling because Coming of Age is about honoring an important milestone and helping youth reflect on their spirituality. If they aren't attending worship on Sunday mornings, I would argue they are missing an opportunity to reflect on Unitarian Universalist worship and congregational life.

Finally, I wish our survey had asked why youth attend the programs they attend. Attending Sunday morning worship services as a youth is a major marker in young adults and adults who remain affiliated with religious institutions as they age. If only 46% of our youth are attending Sunday morning worship, it would seem that we aren't equipping our young people to participate in congregations in the future because the other programs and experience we provide are so different. Or maybe our worship planners need to take a look at the other ministries of the congregation and alter worship to reflect those better? What are your thoughts?

Please share what you find surprising or your take on this information in the comments!

Up next: Youth's favorite parts of church and why