Keeping Young People in the Faith: A Surprising Discovery

I was wrong. Embarrassingly so. I had been working with leaders in training at a Christian camp every summer for twenty years, and I thought I knew what made Christian young people tick. And I gave the wrong answer to the most basic question of all.

John Bowen
5 minute read

Over the years that followed my time at camp, I ran into people who had been young leaders at the camp. Some were doing well in their faith walk, others not so much. Some had given up the faith altogether, and that was distressing.

By now I was teaching at Wycliffe College in Toronto, so along with the job came that blessed thing, an occasional sabbatical in which to do some research. I decided to try and track down as many of those young leaders I had known at camp as I could and find out how they were doing in their faith.

We had worked with some 1200 over the years. With the help of our friend the internet, I tracked down 600 of those and sent them a questionnaire. Over 300 responded. The results produced a book, Growing Up Christian: Why Young People Stay in Church, Leave Church, and (Sometimes) Come Back to Church (Regent College Publishing, 2010). You can sometimes find used copies in the 'Religious books' section of Value Village.

How I embarrassed myself

But I am putting off telling you my embarrassing mistake, and it is time to confess. The first question asked people to self-identify as either (a) Christians still involved in church; or (b) Christians but not involved in church; or (c) not Christians and not involved in church. I then asked the people in the first two groups what had kept them in the faith. I offered them seventeen possibilities from which they could choose as many as they liked, including the Bible, a lively church, parents, strength with moral issues, and a Christian partner. They were also asked to prioritise their choices.

All researchers have their hunches as to what they will find, but at the same time they have to be open to having their assumptions overturned. Before I tell you what I assumed I would find, let me ask you what you would guess. What would you say causes young people to stay in the faith for the long haul? I bet you would choose the same answers that I did: good Christian friends, and older Christian mentors. And did I mention I was wrong? Ah yes, I did. And if you guessed those things, you were wrong too. Misery loves company.

So what was the main factor inspiring people to stay with the faith? Drumroll, please. Number one reason? 'My personal relationship with God.' Well, duh. I felt pretty stupid that I didn’t foresee that. Why did I think the human factors would be the most important? If it makes you feel better, friends and mentors came a close second (83%) and third (82%) choice. But God came first (89%).

What might that mean for your ministry?

One friend who read the book was a teacher of the Bible in a Christian school. She took the lesson to heart and introduced into her curriculum such items as 'looking for God in everyday life' and 'listening for the voice of Jesus.' Would you believe that some Christian parents complained, and asked for more Bible instead? One parent actually accused the teacher of teaching New Age practices and withdrew his child from the school. (Is it unkind to wonder how that child’s faith is doing now? Yes it probably is, so I won’t.)

This made me think. What had we taught the teenagers at camp? We had taught them the Bible; we had put them in small group Bible studies in leadership; we had provided one-on-one mentoring; we had taught them camp skills; we had worshipped together. It seemed like a pretty comprehensive training program. But had we taught them to listen to God? Had we helped them experience the reality of God’s presence? Maybe... but maybe not. These were sobering questions.

If I were leading a youth program now, what are some ways I might open doors for them to experience God? Here are just a few:

  • In Bible studies, I would spend less time in a quasi-academic approach, and more time teaching an Ignatian approach (where you imagine yourself as a character in a Bible story) or in lectio divina (where you simply look for a word or phrase that speaks to you).

  • I would explain to them 'the divine game of Pinzatski,' as author Murray Pura calls it.* He describes how, on a camping trip, people would challenge one another as to what something they saw said about God: a golden eagle? God’s freedom. A sunset? The peace of God. Ants? That God uses the weak and foolish things. A field of flowers? The extravagance of God. You get the idea.

  • I would want them to try the examen, the Ignatian idea that at the end of the day (and perhaps at other times), you pause and review the 'consolations' (times when God seemed near) and 'desolations' (times when God seemed absent) and ask God what he is trying to say through those things—a more advanced version of 'roses and thorns.'

  • Personally, I love to consider how God is present to me in my interactions with other people. Since God is at work in them, what am I seeing and feeling of God as I talk with them?

There are so many other things. I know, for myself, I have been helped by journaling, the eucharist, corporate worship, listening to my conscience, seeing answers to prayer, silence, and spiritual direction. And you can probably think of more.

How do young people continue as Christians? Yes, mentors are indispensable. Yes, friends are crucial. But let’s not forget the most important thing of all: learning skills for dwelling in a living relationship with God. Isn’t that why Jesus came?

For nearly 50 years, John Bowen has worked with students and young leaders—and he has loved it. His most fundamental motivation has been his desire to be a follower of Jesus—although he still feels like a very slow learner—and to help others to understand Christian faith and discipleship.

In 2021, John was awarded the Alphege Award for Evangelism and Witness by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He is Emeritus Professor of Evangelism, Wycliffe College, Toronto, and his most recent book is The Unfolding Gospel: How the Good News Makes Sense of Discipleship, Church, Mission, and Everything Else (Fortress 2021).

To find out more visit

*Murray Andrew Pura,  Mister Goodmorning: stories of flesh, blood and holy spirit (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1991), 1-7.

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