Living in a community with a variety of interests and backgrounds can render the task of influencing this mosaic of an audience as a challenge. For example, even during my relatively short time as a professor, we have had more than one update on generational characteristics. Communicators are familiar with methods for reaching different people in their audience. Educators prepare to reach students with different learning styles. Likewise, those actively involved in church leadership at any level need to be familiar with how to reach different people within their churches.
As I was designing my doctoral research, I wanted to see what was most effective in producing spiritual growth. Although my focus was on female students, I gathered data from both male and female students. We often make assumptions, but I wanted to take a look at what actually seemed to be working. This study is summarized in an article I wrote in 2016 for Discernment: Theology and the Practice of Ministry.
When asked to choose from a list of activities that produced the most spiritual growth before college, male Church of Christ students chose “worship service” at a rate of 6.2 percent and “church Bible class” at a rate of 5.1 percent. Female Church of Christ students chose “worship service” at a rate of 3.7 percent and “church Bible class” at a rate of 2.9 percent. What was interesting was how these percentages compared to other activities. Both genders ranked “church camp” much higher than both of these, with 35 percent of females choosing it and 36.2 percent of males. Mission trips were also ranked highly, with 19.8 percent of females and 18.7 of males choosing it. Personal Bible study was chosen by males at 7 percent and by females at 7.7 percent. Both genders ranked youth devotionals and general church involvement as higher, and females also ranked benevolence and outreach activities as producing more spiritual growth than worship service and church Bible class.
What is somewhat surprising about these statistics is the amount of energy, focus, and resources we put into corporate worship services and Bible classes. Neither the question nor the results take away from the importance of any activity. However, it should cause us to stop and consider if we are overlooking something that warrants a greater investment. Seeing this can be somewhat discouraging, but I hope that instead it can prompt us to pause and ask questions in two areas.
First, what would cause these two items to rank lower than the others? One of the answers comes from generational changes in our thinking. As I mentioned in a previous article, “Teaching Women Effectively,” younger generations, and women in particular, lean toward a more experiential approach. Looking at the results above, those things that are more experiential in nature ranked higher. One of the strengths of the Stone-Campbell movement has been a focus on Bible study; however, this has sometimes led to a more cerebral approach to our faith and a discounting of the role of personal experience. In general, women and younger generations would benefit from more hands-on experiences with their faith. Frequently when faith is challenged in real-life settings, students report having to spend more time reflecting on what they believe to meet those challenges. Thus, experiential and intellectual pursuits do not have to be separate, but can be symbiotic in producing spiritual growth.
Second, how do we allocate our resources? Each church often has particular ministries and activities considered a central part of its mission. However, results such as these should at least start a conversation about whether enough support is allocated to activities of a more experiential nature. I know there is a big debate about this. However, if students are reporting that certain experiences are effective, then we at least need to stop and consider what can be done. Youth and student ministries could use help to try to provide opportunities for their participants to experience and grow their faith.
Having spent the majority of my teenage years in a small church in rural Oklahoma (Grove Church of Christ), I never had the opportunity to go on a mission trip until I went to college. However, I do remember the way my congregation emphasized getting their few teenagers to church camp. My time spent at Burnt Cabin was definitely a time of growth and encouragement, and the way my church family actively involved the teenagers in the ministry of the church provided opportunities for spiritual development. The answer to some of this could be as simple as identifying particular activities that would help, then getting behind those. Perhaps naming an involvement champion for the youth and college students could help get the younger generation involved.
While the results of my study may be surprising, the answers do not have to be complicated. However, there is a real opportunity here for a long-reaching, positive effect. That possibility alone warrants pausing to consider our methods, and possibility refining our approach for the good of the kingdom.
Anessa is currently serving as an Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. She is a graduate of Harding University (B.A. in Psychology), Harding School of Theology (M.A. and M.Div.), New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (certificate), and Fuller Theological Seminary (D.Min.). As a speaker and writer, her specialty is female spiritual development and textual studies. She is passionate about helping women discover their gifts. Anessa is married to Tim and they have three high school/college-age children.