In Choosing Church Carol Lytch, a Presbyterian minister, sociologist, and theological educator, seeks to discover what factors keep students attending church through their senior year of high school. In a time when other research shows the steep decline in church attendance among teens as they age such a project is all the more appropriate.
Lytch conducted her research as she pursued her Ph.D., and she later turned it into a book accessible to parents and church leaders. Lytch chose to conduct her research qualitatively, immersing herself in the life of three congregations (one Catholic, one mainline, and one evangelical) with exceptional records of high school seniors’ attendance and participation. Her data is comprised primarily of observations made while participating with the various churches and interviewing teens and parents face-to-face. As can be expected in Ph.D. research, the style and language can be dense and technical at times.
Lytch approaches her research as a sociologist, not necessarily a pastor or theologian. She attempts to find correlations between teen participation in congregations and various factors in the teens, their families, and their congregations. She leaves it up to those who work with teens within churches to take her findings and decide what the data may mean for their particular congregations.
For Lytch, one of the significant factors in congregations in America today is the rise of “personal autonomy, with its guiding motto, ‘I choose to go to church’ rather than ‘I must go to church’” (5). Lytch finds that while this prevalence of personal autonomy might be a barrier to teen church participation, churches and families that do their best to take advantage of this personal autonomy produce teens who believe that their faith is their personal decision and not simply the passing on of religious tradition.
Multiple conclusions are drawn from the mass of data collected, but the number one predictor of a teen’s intention to continue attending church past high school is the “maintenance of a shared family understanding: ‘In our family, we attend church’”(200). This is yet another study that shows that parents are still the most important factor in the Christian formation of young people. Another statement which Lytch ties to parenting has telling implications for youth ministry: “A church may have a vital youth program, and/or the teen may attend an effective religious school, but those involvements appear to be secondary in importance to the teen’s engagement in the church’s weekly gathering for worship” (188).
In a well-researched and relatively comprehensive study, Carol Lytch offers youth workers, especially those willing to wade through some dense and technical language, valuable insights into discipling young people through, and even past, high school.