How Many Teens Stick Around After the Sermon?

by Linda Lyons, Education and Youth Editor

More than 4 in 10 American teens go to church or synagogue every week -- about 43% according to the most recent Gallup Youth Survey*. What exactly do they do there? The August 2003 Youth Survey asked teens (aged 13 to 17) if, in addition to religious services, they also take part in other church activities such as fellowship groups, religion classes, and choir rehearsals. Nearly a third of teens (30%) said they take part in these types of activities at their church or synagogue.

Teen Fellowship Programs Thrive

Past surveys tell us that youth fellowship programs are among teens' favorite extracurricular religious activities (see "Religious Activity, Teen-Style" in Related Items). Teens' lives are often chaotic, even under the most stable family circumstances. The strong, constant presence of a youth leader -- someone other than a parent to listen and offer guidance -- can be a powerful draw.

"I really love going to my church youth group meetings every Sunday evening," says Margaret, a 16-year-old Episcopalian from Wisconsin. "It's like a venting session with friends and a youth leader who you know cares about you and what you have to say." The opportunity to socialize and bond with a group outside of high school can be particularly appealing to teens, especially those who don't feel they fit in with the popular crowd at school. "My youth group gives me another peer group. Yes, we have church in common, but we come together to share our different ideas about people and our life experiences -- it's not just religious issues," Margaret says.

Added Bonuses

Singing in the choir offers teens similar access to peer groups, with the added advantage of interaction with supportive adults. There are other advantages, as well. Taylor, a 14-year-old high school freshman from New Jersey, has traveled with his choral group to nearby Connecticut to sing with other choirs, and as far as Paris and London to sing in concerts at Notre Dame and Canterbury Cathedral. "The singing trips are an added bonus," says Taylor, who has sung with his church choir for six years. "The real benefit of this commitment is having a second family who holds you accountable for your actions."

Taylor also feels that teens in his choir are better at avoiding risk behaviors such as alcohol use: "We're too busy to get into too much trouble." Gallup data may support this idea -- just 8% of those who said they had participated in religious activities other than church services in the last week also said they had occasion to use alcohol, compared to 25% of those who had not participated in such activities. The percentage of teens who simply attend church services who said they use alcohol was slightly higher, 12%.

David Knight, a Unitarian Church youth pastor who has worked with teen fellowship groups for many years in several New Jersey churches, agrees that teens who participate in such groups are better prepared to cope with the challenges of growing up. "Any group of peers centered around something purposeful is a positive experience for teens," he says. "Youth fellowship groups, in particular, are a good place for teens to test out all the risk behaviors associated with coming of age. The fact that they choose to attend creates a sense of openness to receive the information in a new way."

Social Benefit?

Gallup surveys continue to find that females of all ages tend to have higher religiosity than males do. Teens are no exception. Fifty percent of all teen girls attend church or synagogue on a weekly basis, compared to just 36% of boys who attend. The same ratio holds true for extracurricular activities -- 37% of girls participate in youth fellowship programs, choirs, and religious classes versus 24% of boys.

But this trend may be changing. Knight said that to his great surprise, while he usually has far more girls than boys in his fellowship groups, he has 25 boys and only 6 girls this year. "The word may be getting out," he says, "that church is a terrific place to meet girls."

*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 517 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Aug. 1 and Aug. 29, 2003. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

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