From building beach-themed centers to holding body-piercing contests, religious leaders reach out.
At 19, Anne Purcell is part of an age group that has made a national best seller of a Bible for teen girls that looks like a fashion magazine.
The Indianapolis resident also works at The House Café + Music, a coffeehouse in Glendale Mall that 11 Northside churches help operate to appeal to young people.
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She enjoys listening to hip-hop artists who use a Christian message in their music.
“If you come at a teenager with ‘Jesus loves you,’ that would turn a lot of kids away,” says Purcell, a member of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. “An adult has to find a way to relate to them that shows they’re there for them; to listen and not judge them.”
From holding a body-piercing contest to building a beach-themed, state-of-the-art teen center, religious leaders in the Indianapolis area and across the country are making special and unusual efforts to connect with teenagers.
Funded by the Lilly Endowment, the study began in August 2001 and will continue at least through August 2005. Here are some of the findings shared so far by the project, based at the University of North Carolina
Some observers wonder if they are going too far.
“It’s a creative effort to reach people, but at another level, it’s a pretty drastic accommodation,” says Christian Smith, a University of North Carolina professor who also is the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, funded by the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis.
“They mostly redefine religion in consumerist terms. ‘We want to sell you our product.’ It signals a shift from the authority of the religious tradition to the individual consumer as the authority. If you have to make the Bible look like Cosmopolitan magazine, it seems you’ve already lost.”
The efforts come at a time when teens’ interest in religion seems to be increasing at a modest rate, according to Child Trends, a national research organization.
Its survey of 25,000 youths, taken between 2001 and 2002, found that the percentage of 10th-graders who said religion played a very important role in their lives increased from 32 percent to 35 percent.
The latter was the highest percentage since 1991.
The percentage of 12th- graders who felt that religion played a very important role in their lives increased from 32 percent to 33 percent.
The survey also noted that nearly half of American high school seniors attended religious services at least once a month.
“Since the early 1990s, religious attendance among adolescents has been stable,” says Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociology professor.
For many teenagers, religion represents a defining influence.
“My faith is the first priority in my life,” says Mansoor Siddeeq, 17, a member of Nur-Allah Islamic Center in Indianapolis. “I was taught since I was little that religion comes first.”
Still, bringing teenagers to religion — and keeping them involved — requires more creativity and understanding than ever before, according to religious leaders who work with youth.
Many local places of worship have youth groups, including the Nur-Allah Islamic Center. Kingdom Builders Faith Church, a non-denominational church, offers youth programs involving dancing and gospel rap.
“Kids are trying to sort out their faith,” says Christine Vincent, the youth minister for St. Monica Catholic Church in Indianapolis. “They’re looking for something they can hold onto.”
Holding on to young people’s faith is also a concern for Muslims.
“The difficulty lies in the level of exposure given to the religion,” says Adrienne Adams, a teacher at a full-time Islamic school in Indianapolis called School of Knowledge. “If the parents aren’t very religious, the children lose interest. If the parents are heavily involved in the religion, the children see that as their example and follow that example.”
Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation youths plan their own services and contact other teens to join the synagogue. Congregation Beth-El Zedeck also has a youth group and a religious school that runs through 10th grade.
“Most of our kids are pretty firm in their Judaism,” says George Kelley, the education director at Beth-El Zedeck. “At this time in their life, they are questioning a lot of things, but they also understand who they are as Jews.”
Healing Streams Word and Worship Center, another non-denominational church, uses hip-hop music to help teens explore their religious faith.
“We try to introduce them to Christian counterparts with similar types of beats,” says Tayisha McGuire, a youth minister at Healing Streams with her husband, Nathan. “We want to spark a preference for messages that promote Jesus Christ over messages that promote sex, drugs and promiscuity.”
Some places of worship, including Orchard Park Presbyterian Church, have built recreation and media centers for youth, believing that everything from basketball to computers can lead young people to God. While prayers may be shared and faith discussed, the approach is relaxed, trying to make the church a more important part of young people’s lives.
Northview Christian Life Church in Carmel has a new, beach-themed, state-of-the-art teen center.
“We really wanted to design an area that teenagers will love to come to — not just the ones who already come to church, but the ones who don’t,” says Don Erehart, the church’s pastor of student ministries.
Northview’s center is called North Beach, designed to remind Hamilton County teenagers of one of their favorite places to go — Florida on spring break.
North Beach has palm trees and fire pits, both inside and outside. There are several Xbox video game systems and arcade games on its second floor. The first floor features a stage where Christian bands can perform.
“Words can’t describe how cool it is,” says Travis Odom, 16. “I’m sure it will draw so many more people because of the way it looks and the features it has. People will come to God through this.”
The House at Glendale Mall has been using live performances and a coffeehouse setting to connect teenagers and faith since it opened two years ago.
At The House, teens can enjoy food while relaxing in booths or at tables. There’s also a small concert venue where musicians perform a range of music, from acoustic guitar to hip-hop, often with a Christian theme.
Christian comedian Donald Martin performed there Sept. 17. The most unusual event of the fall season promises to be a body piercing contest Oct. 29.
“I’m going to catch a lot of flak from the church community on this,” says Brad Bloom, director of programming for The House. “One of my board members has already told me I’m promoting body piercing. I’m not.”
Bloom insists there is a faith connection to the event, which will feature contests for the most exotic and the prettiest body piercings — reaching out to people who normally don’t attend church.
“When they have all these piercings sticking out of their body, it’s hard for church people to believe they’re wrestling with spiritual issues like everyone else,” Bloom says. “But I guarantee you they are.”
Vincent, of St. Monica Catholic Church, tries to keep track of the creative efforts that religious groups across the country use to connect with youth.
She is aware of church leaders visiting skateboarding parks in such places as Denver; Portland, Ore.; Peoria, Ill.; Davenport, Iowa; and Redwood City, Calif.
As youths in black skateboard sneakers perform daredevil tricks on ramps, rails and stairs, youth ministers in faded jeans and old T-shirts casually circulate among them, sharing short, informal messages about God.
“A lot of it is going to where they are — taking church to them instead of expecting them to go to church,” Vincent says. “In the society we live in today, it’s not considered cool to go to church. You have to let them know they’re appreciated; they’re wanted.”
Vincent is also familiar with “Revolve,” a Bible in the format of a teenage fashion magazine, which became the top-selling Bible in 2003. The teenage guys’ version is called “Refuel.” More than 650,000 copies of these magazine-style Bibles have been sold, according to their publisher, Thomas Nelson Inc.
At 392 pages, “Revolve” offers a complete New Testament translation designed especially for teenage girls. “Revolve” also includes quizzes such as “Are You Dating A Godly Guy?”
Another feature of the magazine is “Beauty Secrets You’ve Never Heard Before!”, including this one: “Do you want to look happy, healthy and glowing? Remember that because Christ is in you, his light is to shine through you for the entire world to see. Your face should have a glow that comes from the joy of the Lord.”
“Revolve” doesn’t shy from tough questions in a teenager’s life, either. An advice column answers concerns about sex, drugs and breaking up. When a girl wrote that she’s afraid her boyfriend will dump her if she doesn’t have sex with him, she was given this advice:
“You need to tell him that you two just aren’t meant for each other because you thought you were dating a godly guy, and a godly guy wouldn’t obey his feelings over God. If a man is pressuring you to do anything immoral, is God pleased?”
“The teenagers I know really enjoy it and they’ve gotten into it,” says Laura Healy, 17, a member of Plainfield First Assembly of God. “It’s made some of them start Bible studies with their friends.”
Its appearance has even led to unexpected conversations about her faith, Healy says.
“People think you’re reading a magazine, and when they find out it’s a Bible, they say, ‘That’s intriguing,’ ” she says. “It’s a way to open up conversations about the Lord.”
Some churches also use Internet chat rooms where teenagers are invited to have online discussions about their faith — an approach that Vincent is considering for St. Monica.
All those efforts have merit only if they lead to one thing, says Smith, the director of the National Study of Youth and Religion.
“The best way to connect with teenagers is just ordinary relationships, which kids are actually quite interested in,” he says. “These creative efforts help if they create a context for relationships. To the extent it’s gimmicky or different packaging, I don’t think it’s going to be very effective.”
Faith provides meaning
Making the connection is key, because religion can make a difference in the lives of teenagers, according to national studies and social experts.
“Adolescence is a time when they’re interested in having intense, meaningful experiences,” says Wilcox, the sociology professor at the University of Virginia.
“Religion offers them a source of connecting with something more transcendent in their lives.”
At 18, Ryan McDonald knows that feeling.
“Faith gives more meaning to everything I do,” says McDonald, a member of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation.
He shares a story of the difference religion made to one friend:
“I know somebody my age who is the only person in her family who has found religion,” he says.
“She was talking to her mom, and her mom was asking her why she didn’t do the things other teenagers do — like experimenting with alcohol and drugs and sexual activity. She told her mom she was comfortable with who she already was and didn’t need to experiment to find herself.”