An extensive study of six major Protestant denominations concludes that Christian education is far more important than denominational leaders have generally realized. The study examined virtually all aspects of congregational life and found that “an effective Christian education program has the strongest tie to a person’s growth in faith and to loyalty to one’s congregation and denomination.”

The three-and-a-half-year project was financed by the Lilly Endowment and conducted by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, which touted the study as unprecedented in size and scope. More than 11,000 people in 561 randomly chosen congregations were surveyed. In addition, teams of trained observers visited 52 congregations deemed strong in the area of promoting faith.

Mainline denominational church leaders, troubled by the state of Christian education, gathered in 1986 to discuss the possibility of such a study. Among their chief concerns was a lack of interest among adults in Christian education, and the inability to maintain involvement of youth after their junior-high-school years.

Originally five denominations were to be surveyed: the United Methodist Church; the United Church of Christ; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Presbyterian Church (USA); and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. These five invited the Southern Baptist Convention’s participation because of its visible success in Christian-education programming.

The survey determined respondents’ maturity of faith largely through questions on such topics as frequency of prayer and Bible reading, and willingness to serve others. The study reached 18 major conclusions, several of which confirmed the importance of Christian education. Among the study’s conclusions:

• Only a minority of adults “evidence the kind of integrated, vibrant, and life-encompassing faith congregations seek to develop.”

• In all age groups 30 and above, women exhibit greater faith maturity than men.

• Faith maturity increases with age, with the most mature faith found among those over 70.

• A majority of adolescents in each of the six church bodies evidence one or more of ten “at-risk indicators,” including drug abuse, involvement in sexual intercourse, and tendencies toward depression and suicidal thoughts.

• Only about three in ten Protestant high-school students and adults are actively involved in Christian education.

Over 55 percent of the respondents reported finding the “most help with religious questions,” as well as “meaning and purpose in life,” from church; under 2 percent reported having these needs met through religious television or radio. The study also found that developed, integrated faith is generally higher among racial and ethnic minorities (see graph).

The study concludes with several recommendations, including:

• That churches take Christian education more seriously.

• That the elderly “be connected in a meaningful, relational way to children, adolescents, and younger adults.”

• That more emphasis be placed on teaching parents faith-development skills, given “the power of family religiousness to influence the faith development of youth.”

• That service be made “a cornerstone of educational programming,” since “[s]ome of the best religious education occurs” in “moments of giving, of connection, of bonding to others.”

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