Review: Choosing Church: What Makes A Difference For Teens

January 11th, 2010


By Matt Cleaver In Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens Carol Lytch, a Presbyterian minister, sociologist, and theological educator, seeks to discover what factors encourage students to continue attending church through their senior year of high school.  Such a project is appropriate in a time when other research shows the steep decline in church attendance among teens as they age.

Conducting her research as she pursued her Ph.D., Letch later turned this research into a book accessible to parents and church leaders.  Lytch used qualitative research methodology immersing herself in the life of three congregations (one Catholic, one mainline, and one evangelical) with exceptional records of attendance and participation among high school seniors.  Her data is comprised primarily of observations made while participating with the various churches and interviewing teens and parents face-to-face.   As can be expected in Ph.D. research, the style and language can be dense and technical at times.

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Lytch approaches her research as a sociologist, not necessarily as a pastor or theologian.  She attempts to find correlations between teen participation in congregations and various factors in the teens themselves, their families, and their congregations. She leaves it up to those who work with teens within churches to take her findings and decide what the data may mean for their particular congregations.

One of the significant factors existing in American churches today is the rise of “personal autonomy, with its guiding motto, ‘I choose to go to church’ rather than ‘I must go to church’” (5).  Lytch finds that while this prevalence of personal autonomy might be a barrier to teen church participation, churches and families that do their best to take advantage of this personal autonomy produce teens who believe that their faith is their personal decision and not simply the passing on of religious tradition.  

Multiple conclusions are drawn from the mass of data collected, but the number one predictor of a teen’s intention to continue attending church past high school is the “maintenance of a shared family understanding: ‘In our family, we attend church’.”(200)  This is yet another study that shows that parents are still the most important factor in the Christian formation of young people.  Lytch ties to parenting has telling implications for youth ministry writing, “A church may have a vital youth program, and/or the teen may attend an effective religious school, but those involvements appear to be secondary in importance to the teen’s engagement in the church’s weekly gathering for worship.” (188)

In a well-researched and relatively comprehensive study, Carol Lytch offers youth workers, especially those willing to wade through some dense and technical language, valuable insights into disciplining young people through, and even past high school.


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