Keeping Faith In The Family

Faith: Children tend to drift away from religion in their teens, but if they've had the proper foundation, spiritual leaders say, they'll be back.

April 23, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

When Rev. Bernard Keels rises to address his congregation today, he will see a packed house of men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best and he will be pleased, particularly to see the children.

Keels, pastor of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in northwest Baltimore, calls these his "E-C" Christians -- they bolster attendance for Easter and Christmas, but seldom show up during the remainder of the year. Once a child hits his teen years, earning an E-C status is actually pretty good -- better, at least, than not being there at all.

"They slip away in their early teens and we may not see them again," says Keels. "Here they are, the most vulnerable people, the young people, and their spiritual lives may not wake up until they have children of their own."

For all the talk of a spiritual rebirth in America in the 21st century, of baby-boomers returning to religion and mega-churches flourishing in the suburbs, religious leaders are increasingly concerned about their congregations' middle years -- as in middle school years.

In some churches, attendance in teen youth groups has floundered. Some synagogues rarely see teens after their bar mitzvahs. And many parents have grown reluctant to require their teen-age sons or daughters to accompany them on Sundays.

"I know few parents who are going to force their kids to come to church," says the Rev. Roger J. Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Bolton Hill. "Maybe forcing them isn't the answer, but it should be strongly requested."

A recent survey of 9,000 Jewish teens in Baltimore found that 75 percent are uninvolved in Jewish activities -- meaning they haven't participated in Jewish youth groups, summer camps, or day school since their bar or bat mitzvah. The survey was conducted by the Meyerhoff Teen Initiative, a non-profit formed two years ago to to get Jewish teens more involved in their religion.

"We're in a period of real transition, a time when traditional values have been rejected, and that's a crisis," says Rabbi Joel Zaiman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation. "Kids are maturing more quickly than in the past. The challenge to faith occurs at a time of particular crisis for them."

How can religion compete in the age of the Internet? The modern teen has an after-school calendar that could fill a CEO's Palm Pilot -- booked with organized sports, school activities, part-time jobs, homework, computer games, television and trips to the mall.

Meanwhile, their mothers and grandparents are no longer available to haul them to church or temple on any given weekday afternoon: Chances are both parents are working and their grandparents live in Florida.

It doesn't help that churches no longer serve immediate neighbors: getting to a house of worship may require a 20-minute car ride around the beltway.

Yet families live in an age when Columbine High Schools happen, when children are exposed to drugs, violence and sex at an early age, and a bad influence could be just a mouse click away on a computer screen.

"Too many churches use age-old Sunday School lessons to reach a new age and they don't really connect," says Rev. Keels. "When a child can see the world online, talking about their neighborhood or citizenship may not be as easily understood."

Religious leaders say reaching teens has always been a challenge, but the problem has worsened significantly in the past decade. In response, some churches have tried to broaden youth programs. Others have looked for ways to better incorporate young people in worship services.

At St. Joseph Parish, a Catholic church in Cockeysville, a new job is about to be created -- family minister -- to reach out to parents and their children. The church has already tried to incorporate more opportunities for child participation in mass.

"If teens are called upon to do something -- serve as usher, be in the choir, or assist with collections -- it helps," says Marie Lybolt, the church's director of religious education, "as opposed to just sitting there and being bored."

Other churches have tried to rev up their youth groups -- adding trips to Ocean City, local amusement parks or ski resorts -- to their schedules. With its youth program in decline, relatively small Brown Memorial merged youth activities with a sister church in Govans three years ago to reach a "critical mass of kids," says Rev. Gench.

"We're doing better with our youth," he adds. "But it's hard."

But many clergymen believe the answer probably lies more in the home than in church or temple. When parents don't make religion a part of daily life, how can a child be expected to judge it as important?

"If parents decide that, hey, this week, we won't go, that attitude has an impact with their kids," says Lybolt.

Mike and Jan Keadle of Timonium were so concerned about the religious life of their two children that they switched churches -- moving from a nearby Episcopalian church to Timonium United Methodist.

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