Study Says Relationships Key to Youth Outreach

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted January 04, 2021

A growing tide of non-affiliation with religion is troubling many church leaders—and with good reason. If the faces in the pews are older and the hair is grayer, that doesn’t suggest a vibrant future.

A recent study suggests “trust issues” among today’s young adults is at the heart of the matter and can be resolved by strengthening relationships between religious leaders and members of the so-called Generation Z, a cohort of those born between 1997 and 2012.

“More than half of teens and young adults who say they are affiliated with an organized religion also say they have little or no trust in organized religion,” commentator Jana Riess wrote for Religion News Service. “In other words, they are involved in religious institutions on paper but are disengaged at some level because they don’t trust religious institutions—even the ones they belong to. And that’s just the roughly 6 in 10 who are still affiliated.”

Affiliated, but No Trust

Riess noted the survey was conducted by the Springtide Research Institute, based in Bloomington, Minnesota, who says its mission “is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning.” The group surveyed more than 10,000 teens and young adults for its “State of Religion and Young People” study.

“They’re checking the box that says they are Jewish or Catholic or whatever, but over half of them are saying, ‘even though I checked the box, I don’t trust organized religion,’” Riess quoted Josh Packard, who is both Springtide executive director and a sociologist of religion, as saying. “This is sort of stunning and not what you would expect from somebody who checked the box,” Packard added.

According to the research study’s report, some of the functions of community and social action that previously took place at houses of worship are now happening elsewhere. “A declining trust in institutions means the work they used to do falls to others,” the Springtide report stated, according to RNS. “If the work of meaning making or community building once fell to religious organizations, it is now the domain of groups like Nuns & Nones, The Dinner Party, boutique and garage gyms, or even the workplace. Related to this, with decreased trust in government, a renewed culture of protests, rallies, and petitions has emerged as civilians take social and political matters into their own hands.”

Caring Comes First

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” went the famous maxim of President Theodore Roosevelt—and it appears to be becoming one for this generation.

As Riess wrote, young adults “respond to ‘relational authority,’ which means an authority that is not based on hierarchy or titles so much as a genuine interest in young people as individuals. Four in 5 Gen Z members surveyed said they were likely to take guidance from adults who care about them. The report pinpoints five values that characterize this relational authority: listening, transparency, integrity, care, and expertise. (Expertise comes last on the list intentionally, because 65% of young people say an adult’s expertise doesn’t matter unless the adult cares for them. Listening comes first in establishing a genuine, non-transactional relationship.)”

Such an approach is not new; it is, in fact, as old as the Bible itself. More than a century ago, a noted Christian author wrote, “The Savior mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, ‘Follow Me.’”

Jesus introduced Himself to the Samaritan woman at the well by asking for a drink of water, sparking a conversation that spanned culture, custom, even marital status, and eventually led to her faith. It was a single dialogue that turned the social pariah into an evangelist: “The woman then left her waterpot, went her way into the city, and said to the men, ‘Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?’ Then they went out of the city and came to Him” (John 4:28–30).

Cover of Be A Witness Magazine

Such relationship-building is seen again and again throughout the Bible account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Whether consoling Mary and Martha before raising Lazarus, healing the sick, or teaching His disciples, Jesus approached each encounter motivated by personal love for each individual.

And He calls us to do the same. Fortunately, there are numerous online resources to help us do just that.

Pastor Doug Batchelor laid out the ground rules for personal evangelism in an Inside Report article titled, “Be A Witness: A Personal Passion for Evangelism.” He counseled those uncertain about witnessing to “do it anyway.” He also added, “It’s better to step out in faith and risk doing something wrong than succeeding at doing nothing. Jesus sent His followers out to witness. After a number of successful missionary tours, they came back to report that even demons were subject to them. They also healed the sick and performed all kinds of other miracles. … If we wait until we feel we are holy enough, we’ll never be ready. Instead, we need to walk in the ways of Christ as we learn and share our victories. Christ’s power is never more available than to those who are willing to be His witnesses.”

Another great resource is the online training available through the Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism (AFCOE). Here you’ll find courses that will not only ground you in sound Bible teaching and doctrine but also give you the tools for sharing that with others.

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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