DURHAM — Evangelical
churches do a better job than mainline churches in keeping their young people
in the faith, probably because they invest more money in youth ministry, says a
Duke University professor who studies characteristics of American
Mark Chaves, a professor of
sociology, religion and divinity and director of the National
Congregations Study, said in a blog post July 8 that research
from the ongoing survey about the basic characteristics of America’s
congregations confirms that religious groups prioritize youth ministry
Among churches that have 50
or more teenagers, Chaves said white evangelical congregations are
substantially more likely than mainline Protestant churches to employ a
full-time youth minister.
Fifty-nine percent of
evangelical churches with 50-99 teens have a full-time youth minister, compared
to only one-third of mainline churches with that many youth. In churches with
more than 100 youth, the gap increases to 87 percent for evangelicals to 55
percent of mainline churches.
Chaves said mainline and
evangelical Protestants do not differ much on overall programming for youth.
Both are equally likely to have youth groups, teen choirs, youth speaking in
worship services and to have sent teenagers to a church camp.
But those ministries “are
inexpensive compared to hiring a full-time youth minister, and having a
full-time youth minister surely enhances the quantity and quality of a church’s
teen programming,” the researcher noted.
Chaves said that both
evangelical and mainline Protestants lose many young people to “the ranks of
the religiously unaffiliated,” but evangelical churches lose fewer than liberal
He speculated that one reason might be that mainline churches
place less value on keeping their teenagers in the faith.
“It is difficult to know for
sure, but evangelicals’ deeper concern to reproduce the faith in their children
probably leads to hiring more full-time youth ministers, which probably leads
to keeping more youth in the church,” he wrote. “Evangelical churches invest
more than mainline churches in youth ministries, and it is difficult to avoid
the conclusion that this investment difference reflects a difference in the
priority placed on keeping young people in the church.”
Chaves cited a book by
University of Washington professor James Wellman, Evangelical vs. Liberal, that
observes how different church cultures view youth ministry in different ways.
“For evangelicals, if
children and youth are not enjoying church, it is the church’s fault and
evangelical parents either find a new church or try to improve their youth
ministry,” Wellman said. “For liberals, the tendency is the reverse; if youth
do not find church interesting it is their problem. Evangelicals are simply
more interested and invested in reproducing the faith in their children and
youth and their churches reflect this priority.”
emphasize religion more than mainline families do, and evangelical churches
involve young people in a denser social web of youth groups, church camps, and
church-based socializing, all of which increase the chances that a young person
will remain in the fold as an adult,” Chaves concurred. “This is one reason
that evangelical denominations have not suffered the same membership declines
in recent decades that more liberal, mainline denominations have suffered.”