Introducing the Challenge of Purpose: Is the crisis of the ‘nones’ really a crisis of purpose?

November 4th, 2017

A good way to get the attention of clergy these days is to mention the rise of ‘religious nones’ and suggest a solution to help keep young persons in the fold – here is a magic pill to keep teens, college students, young adults from leaving.  This has become a cottage industry fueled by study after study.  The early wave, you might say, began with Christian Smith’s mega National Study of Youth and Religion, probably most known as a result of Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian which brought Moralistic Therapeutic Deism into the church’s lexicon.  That early wave also includes the work of David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons building on some Barna Research that led to You Lost Me, an analysis of why young people leave church.   

These foundational studies represent just the tip of the iceberg – one that a scholar might stretch even farther back in time – that continues to hold the attention of the American church.  The popular narrative that I hear – pieces of which are validated and others challenged by the data – is that young people continue to leave at rates the church cannot sustain.  And that popular narrative suggests it is caused by something happening in the years around college (although there is evidence it is happening before college, around age 15-17 as documented in pages 3-6 here).

A Parallel Research Track on Purpose

While this cottage industry around the ‘nones’ has grown and while the popular narrative has been picked and prodded (I recently learned about ‘religious liminals’ and that college professors are not the problem, if there is really that much of a problem to begin with), there has been another trajectory of research that is not on the church’s radar.  It is the work in psychology and related disciplines studying purpose and meaning.  Is a strong sense of purpose good for us? Yes, although that is not at all surprising.  So the next question is how is it good for us?  In many ways, from emotional and physical health to indicators of human flourishing. Now, those researchers are identifying some best practices on how to cultivate a sense of purpose.

More recently, purpose research has begun to study teens and young adults.  What are they finding?

[bctt tweet=”Sadly, only 1 in 5 adolescents have identified a sense of purpose & that only rises to 1 in 3 in college.” username=””]

This is all the more unfortunate since scientists also have some pretty reliable exercises to help teens identify their purpose.  Kendall Bronk, at Claremont Graduate School, is one of the leaders in this research and she will be following this this post with a summary of relevant findings and some specific best practices for youth workers.  

Maybe not a magic pill, but…

I’m not an expert on either the ‘nones’ or on purpose, but I can’t help but wonder if there is a link between them.  Is the absence of a sense of purpose causing young people to leave churches? Are we sending teens out from their home church without clarity regarding how God might want them to best use their gifts to the benefit of the Kingdom? Rather than our views on science and human sexuality or the church’s hypocrisy, divisiveness, and lack of humility, is it really our failure to create a sense of purpose that fuels the rise of the ‘nones’? From my cursory knowledge of the research, the issues at play are complex and defy a simple narrative. And I’m not a youthworker or campus minister, on the ground interacting every day with teens and young adults. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder if more teens would see the value of church, and stick with it through their teens and early adulthood, if the church helped them create a strong sense of purpose and meaning so they can use their gifts to achieve what God would have them do in this world.

So wouldn’t it be nice if a resource existed to help ensure that by the time teens graduated from high school they have had a chance to reflect on what God is calling them to do and identify a sense of purpose that can sustain them into college and beyond?

Enter The Purpose Challenge

The Purpose Challenge is a new opportunity to help teens identify a stronger sense of purpose as they prepare for college.  The Challenge includes a toolkit to walk students through a series of empirically validated exercises – those that Dr. Bronk helped design – to help them gain clarity on their purpose and then to translate it into the college application process.  Teens who complete the toolkit exercises are also invited to submit a college essay and be entered into a drawing for scholarship funding.  This video succinctly introduces the project. (Full disclosure:  I am serving as a paid consultant to the project about its use in faith-based communities.)

The Purpose Challenge has been designed for all teens, and therefore is not distinctively Christian. However, it was designed in a manner where teens can (and should) integrate their faith in identifying their purpose. A couple YS blog authors are in the process of reviewing the toolkit and will be sharing their assessment. We hope they will also be suggesting ways this tool can help youth workers, especially in their support of college-bound HS juniors and seniors, integrate faith and meaning in the lives of those they have been called to nurture.  

Whether or not there is a causal link between the 4 in 5 teens who have not identified a sense of purpose and meaning and the rise of the ‘nones’, I think we can agree that youth, their churches, and the wider world will be a better place if we can help teens discern God’s calling on their lives. Please invite the youth you serve to join The Purpose Challenge.


Drew Rick-Miller, M.Div., is an independent consultant supporting religious, philanthropic, and educational organizations with a particular emphasis on programs for religious leaders engaging the interface between science and religion.  He spent over a decade, previously, as a grant officer with the John Templeton Foundation, most recently as the Director of Religious Engagement.  He met his wife, a PC(USA) pastor, at seminary where he found purpose and meaning through work at the interface of science and religion.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.