Bridging

In this season of “bridging ceremonies,” that peculiar tradition of Unitarian Universalism that tries to convince graduating high school seniors to remain affiliated with our religious tradition, comes an article by Jen Bradbury in the May 29, 2013, issue of Christian Century titled “Sticky Faith: What keeps kids connected to church?”

Bradbury, a long-time youth minister in a Lutheran church in Illinois, begins the article by admitting that in spite of her attempts to make youth ministry relevant to teens, most of the teens who went through her programs left the church. It sounds like the same outcome she would have had had she been doing youth ministry in a Unitarian Universalist church: talk about “friendships, sex, and alcohol” during youth group, then watch the kids leave religion after graduation and never come back.

But, Bradbury says, a six-year longitudinal study called the College Transition Project carried out by Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) offers an alternative; the results of this study have been published in the book Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers. According to Bradbury, the College Transition Project argues that most youth groups “offer teens a ‘Red Bull experience of the gospel’ — it was ‘potent enough to help them make the right decisions at a party in high school’ but not ‘powerful enough to foster long-term faith.’.”

Bradbury suggests ways that congregations could revise their youth ministries in order to foster life-long faith in teenagers. One suggestion is to have more adults involved in youth ministry. Citing a study by LifeWay Research which shows that teens who have strong connections to at least five adults in the congregation, Bradbury suggests that we move beyond the usual one-adult-to-five teens ratio, and try to connect every teen to at least five adults. She also suggests recruiting appropriate adults from every stage of life to spend time with teens — not just “the stereotypical youth worker — the outgoing, funny young adult in his or her twenties or thirties.”

In another pointed suggestion, Bradbury says that age-specific worship may do more harm than good:

“It’s time to reevaluate the wisdom of holding separate worship services for youth. While age-specific worship services may give teens some leadership opportunities that they might no otherwise have, these come at the expense of the community and of their own deeper involvement in church life. If teens become used to worshipping only with people their own age, they will find it hard upon graduating high school to transition into intergenerational worship services. This leaves young adults feeling homeless.”

This describes current Unitarian Universalist practices with some accuracy; our bridging ceremonies are, for most teens, farewell ceremonies; statistics show that typically a mere 15% of youth who go through a bridging ceremony will remain Unitarian Universalists.

So how do we remedy this situation? Bradbury offers several concrete suggestions:

— Don’t schedule youth group at the same time as worship
— Help youth “understand and learn to value worship” during youth group meetings
— Talk openly and honestly about what it takes to be a part of a worshipping congregational community, including conversations about theology
— Give youth opportunities to use their gifts in worship on a regular basis, as “ushers, … lectors [readers], musicians, and assisting ministers”

None of these suggestions is particularly new. Back in 1998, one of my mentors in theological school, Professor Robert PazmiƱo of Andover Newton Theological School, used to say that if you really want to change a church, get a youth serving on every committee (and not in some token role, but as a full member of the committee). And Meg Muckenhoupt and I proposed some similar ideas for Unitarian Universalists back in 2000, in our essay “How To Kill a Religion, or Help It Grow.”

For many Unitarian Universalists, following these kinds of suggestions would require radical changes. Many ministers are threatened by the thought of integrating teenagers into worship leadership, preferring that teens lead worship at cons rather than in their own congregation. Many youth advisors and youth ministers are convinced that they know what’s best for youth, that they alone can speak for youth, and they want to maintain the status quo of segregated youth groups and con culture in order to maintain their positions of power — in fact, the same can be said for many of our older youth leaders. And many adults really don’t want teenagers fully integrated into the life of the congregation; teens make a good involuntary work force when there’s scut work to be done, but dealing with teenaged exuberance and love of religion is more than some adults want to deal with on Sunday mornings.

I’m lucky to be in a congregation where we don’t segregate youth quite so much. Out of eight high school aged teenagers associated with our congregation right now, two are worship associates, one is an elected member of the board of trustees (not just a designated youth observer), one has been teaching Sunday school and another is thinking of volunteering to teach next fall. We are intentional about trying to introduce our youth to more adults than just one or two youth advisors. We have still have work to do. Many committees don’t yet understand why they might want youth on their committee and how they could treat youth as full members rather than as token members. We are not very good about having serious conversations about religion with our high-school-aged teens.

But I think we’re on the right path — I think we’re heading towards nurturing a sticky faith in our teens. Oh, and we haven’t been doing bridging ceremonies in recent years — I like to think we’ve already communicated to our teenagers that we love them and want them to stick with us.

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