For those who care about the faith of the next generation, the book Sticky Faith is a must read. Youth experts Kara Powell and Chap Clark record the findings of the "College Transition Project,” which is a six-year research study of over 500 graduating seniors. Here is their stated goal: “To better understand the dynamics of youth group graduates’ transition to college, and to pinpoint the steps that leaders, churches, parents, and seniors themselves can take to help students stay on the Sticky Faith path” (18).
According to their research, between 40 and 50 percent of kids who graduate from a church or youth group will fail to stick with their faith in college. Only 20 percent of those who left the faith planned to. That means 80 percent of those who abandoned the faith were planning to stick with it. On the positive side, they estimate that between 30 and 60 percent return in their late twenties. But this still means between 40 and 70 percent of students who leave their faith never return.
Powell and Clark make a few initial points I found particularly helpful. First, parents influence the faith of students more than anyone (or anything) else: “More than even your support, it’s who you are that shapes your kid” (21). My research and experience as a teacher confirms that this is true. Second, there is no sticky faith bullet. There is no single reason why kids leave and no single reason that will make them stay. Young people are complex and their faith is influenced by a host of factors.
The core of building a sticky faith, say Powell and Clark, is helping kids develop a clear and honest understanding of the gospel and biblical faith. Sadly, most Christian kids understand the gospel in terms of what we do. We do go to church, read our Bibles, and pray, and we do not watch the wrong movies, cuss, be sexually active, drink, or talk back. Yet this misses the core of biblical faith, which involves trusting God (John 6:28-29). Whether they are doing homework assignments, serving the poor, choosing a college, or responding to a bully, our role with the next generation is to help them genuinely trust God in all they do. Instead of giving simple answers when problems arise, we ought to ask the simple question, “How can we trust God in this situation?”
One of the most powerful parts of Sticky Faith was the emphasis on having conversations with students about faith (not lectures!) Sadly, only 12 percent of mothers and five percent of fathers have regular conversations with their kids about faith. Creating space for genuine conversations about God and faith is one of the most helpful steps we can take to help students build a lasting faith. As a teacher, I give my students assignments that require they engage with their parents about important theological issues. The more we talk with our students about faith, and the more we foster conversation with other significant adults, the better chance they will have of sticking with it.
Here are a few of the practical things Powell and Clark found in their research about Sticky Faith:
§ Kids who left the faith report having questions about faith in early adolescence that were ignored by significant adults (parents, pastor, teacher).
§ A factor causing kids to shelve their faith is the segregation of kids and adults in church. Kids who attend church-wide services are more likely to keep their faith.
§ The more kids serve and build relationships with younger children the more likely they are to hang on to their faith.
§ Short-term mission trips seem to have little impact on the lasting faith of young people (they are not more likely to give to the poor or become long-term missionaries).
§ The more students feel prepared for college the more likely their faith is to grow.
Sticky Faith is a powerful book. That’s why I recommend picking up a copy, studying it, and applying it to your own kids or the kids you work with. There is just one key point I wish they had included—the importance of apologetics in preparing this generation. By apologetics I don’t mean arguing about faith. Apologetics is also not about providing pat answers for complex issues. It involves the biblical command to respectfully give reasons for what we believe (e.g., 1 Peter 3:15). As David Kinnaman points out in UnChristian, one of the reasons we are losing a generation is that we are not teaching them how to think. I have seen apologetics help many students develop a sticky faith beyond youth group. And I have seen many kids without apologetics training lose their faith.
As I was writing this blog on a plane to Denver, a young man next to me sparked up a conversation. He proceeded to share how he grew up going to a Baptist church in Ireland. He left his faith when his college anthropology professor tore into Christianity. He felt stupid believing in the biblical God and so walked away. What brought him back five years later? Someone gave him a DVD of a Christian apologist who laid out the scientific evidence for God. I hear this type of story over and over again. Apologetics is critical for helping students build a sticky faith.
According to Powell and Clark, the doubts young people have generally involved four questions. Two of these key questions are: “Does God exist?” and “Is Christianity true or the only way to God?” These are apologetic-oriented questions that we must help students work through. I agree wholeheartedly with Powell and Clark that we need to create safety zones for kids to doubt. And let’s make sure we view their doubts as an opportunity to lovingly and patiently guide them to the truth.