Growing Up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church by John P. Bowen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
At a recent meeting in one of our parish’s churches, vestry members suddenly realized that not one of their children currently attends an Anglican church. Some of the young people have changed denominations, while others have simply opted out. This experience – which could be easily duplicated in many congregations within the Anglican Church of Canada – begs the question: Why have these young people left the Anglican Church?
John Bowen, a friend and professor from Wycliffe College, an Anglican seminary within the University of Toronto, provides some thoughtful potential answers in his recently released book, Growing Up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church.
In his book, John offers answers within carefully structured limits. He draws the entire population of his research study from his many years as a worker in a Leadership Training Program at the Christian Ontario Pioneer Camp. John follows up with these students (many of whom are or were Anglican) and asks them about their current levels of church and faith commitment.
This book will not address all Anglicans’ concerns about why their children and grandchildren no longer attend church. Why not? Because the population that John draws from (including both students and their parents) is unusually committed to church life, to the point of sending young people – and having the young people interested in going – to a several-week-long Christian leadership camp, with all its associated sacrifices and expenses.
However, some of John’s findings can be applied to the Anglican church as a whole. First, the young people who have stuck it out in the Christian church over the years say that what keeps them going back, despite many devastating disappointments in both the church and their personal lives, is first of all their personal relationship with God. Second in line is the support of their local Christian community.
Significantly, the church was also a main factor in the decision of many young people to leave and not come back. In their case, the church proved either inflexible in terms of explaining the claims of Christianity or incapable of living them out. Those who left simply did not receive the intellectual or friendship support they expected and needed from their church communities, and hence their decision to leave is understandable. After all, how many among us would remain part of a group where we felt neither sure of the local values nor personally welcomed and appreciated?
Many who have left the church, however, have not left their faith in God. These young people expressed an interest in returning to church, if they could somehow find one that offered a warm community of friends. This is made even more difficult in today’s highly mobile society, where people are constantly moving across town or across the country.
In the end, what most young people in the study were looking for was “a good church.” Toward the end of the book, John offers ideas on what makes a good church, including the quality of its community life, openness to questions and new ideas, social activism that resonates with the desire of young people to influence the world for good, and excellence in whatever worship style the church attempts.
Basically, what these young people – and, arguably, Anglican and all other young people – are looking for is a church community where they can find authentic friendships, passionate worship of God, and the ability to exercise their creativity and skills as they live out their Christianity. And judging from the lack of young people in our Anglican churches, they have unfortunately not found it with us. The question is, what are we willing to do about it?
-review by Julie
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