Judging by results of the Lutheran Youth Fellowship (LYF) poll conducted at the 2016 LCMS Youth Gathering in New Orleans, the concerns of young people in the Synod match the headlines while mostly remaining true to the Synod’s scriptural stance.
The Rev. Terry Dittmer, who recently retired as director of LCMS Youth Ministry and the Rev. Mark Kiessling, the current director, shared those insights from analyses of the poll results. They emphasize that the poll data is analyzed and used to inform the Church and help develop youth-ministry resources and events.
They noted that the LYF Youth Poll has been offered to participants at each triennial LCMS Youth Gathering since the first Gathering in 1980 —to gauge attitudes, issues and concerns. LYF is the Synod’s youth organization.
Dittmer pointed out that his insight for poll results is from a historical perspective of 37 years and 13 polls and Kiessling said his is more about how the data might be used in the future.
Challenge: helpful interpretation
“The challenge is to interpret in a way that is helpful to teenagers and [those] working with them,” Dittmer noted. “Much of the  survey is encouraging, significant majorities giving positive answers or answers in line with God’s Word and what the Church teaches. But what about those who give the ‘wrong answer’ or ‘I don’t know’? As long as there are youth, there will be a need for the Church to clearly teach what it believes and why.”
“There is much to give thanks for in the survey data,” Kiessling added. “The faithful response of young people, the work of their parents, and the service of pastors and church workers are a joy to see in statistical data, let alone the stories of LCMS young people and their congregations. The poll also gives insight into the challenges our young people and families face in our broken, sinful world and a culture of moral relativism, subjectivity and easy access to various teachings on a wide range of topics.”
Some 1,359 youth and 157 adults took the 2016 poll.
The following apply to youth who completed the poll:
- 61.6 percent were female; 37.1 percent were male.
- 93.5 percent were confirmed.
- 82.6 percent went to public school, 9.5 percent to a Lutheran high school, 2.9 percent were home schooled and 6 percent went to another private or parochial high school.
- One particularly notable statistic is the percentage of youth who reported that they live with both natural parents: 81.1 percent. In comparison, the general population of the U.S. reports that as few as 45 percent of America’s teens live with both natural parents.
- Solid families are indicated, with 77.3 percent of youth who took the poll agreeing or strongly agreeing that they discuss life issues with their parents. Kiessling said that a “Yes” answer to whether youth discuss life issues with parents was the leading indicator that a young person did not engage in some of the unhealthy or dangerous behavior surveyed (drinking alcohol, engaging in sexual activity, etc.) and responded to topics in line with what Scripture teaches.
- 75 percent said they communicate well with their parents.
- 89.9 percent said their parents are very or mostly supportive of their faith and 66.3 percent said their peers are very or mostly supportive of their faith.
- Another highlight is that 81.9 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their pastor cares for them personally.
Use of technology
“Parents and those who work with youth know the many ways young people are able to access Scripture and information on every subject on earth,” Kiessling noted. “Technology has also changed how people interact and form and foster relationships.
“Not surprisingly,” he continued, “youth spend a lot of time on social media platforms, and females at a higher rate than males.” Backing that up are the following, from responses to the poll:
- using Facebook “too often” or 5-10 times per day — 28.2 percent (females) and 18.1 percent (males).
- using Twitter “too often” or 5-10 times per day — 24.7 percent (females) and 13.8 percent (males).
- using Instagram “too often” or 5-10 times per day — 52.5 percent (females) and 32.5 percent (males).
- using Snapchat “too often” or 5-10 times per day — 67 percent (females) and 46.1 percent (males).
Only one of those categories indicated higher usage by males: using another social media site “too often” or 5-10 times per day — 12.2 percent (females, among whom Pinterest was most popular) and 12.7 percent (males, among whom YouTube was most popular).
“Technology will continue to be an important component of young peoples’ lives when considering employment, communicating with family and social groups and other important tasks,” Kiessling said. “Parents and churches can play a key role in helping young people negotiate and manage these resources. Platforms may change (Snapchat was in its infancy at the 2013 Youth Gathering), but best practices for social media usage will still be the same. “
Use of time
The 2016 poll also asked youth about their use of time on various vocational duties. The results show that LCMS youth keep active with church, studies, sports and other vocational pusuits.
“In some contexts, time management may be an important topic in connection to spending time in worship and God’s Word and with Christ’s community,” said Kiessling.
The following is from the poll, in regard to young people’s use of time:
- 42.5 percent of youth responded that they spend 10 or more hours per week on sports.
- 27.8 percent responded that they spend 10 or more hours per week on other extra-curricular activities.
- 38.1 percent responded that they spend 10 or more hours per week studying, outside of school hours.
- 80.5 percent reported that they spend at least some time weekly in church activities (worship, Bible study, etc.).
- 61.1 percent reported that they spend at least some time weekly in church youth-specific ministry activities.
- 70.2 percent reported that they spend some time volunteering weekly.
For Dittmer, one of the more surprising responses came to the second-to-last survey question, for which participants were asked to identify three top concerns from a list of 26 topics.
Particularly matching the headlines at the time of last year’s Gathering, the No. 1 response regarding issues of concern to youth was “Terrorism,” among 27.7 percent of youth taking the poll. For the seven polls prior to 2016, terrorism had never made the top five issues. For the seven polls that preceded 2016 and included terrorism, that topic averaged a 5.1 percent response rate. “Environment” was No. 3 in 2013, at 26.5 percent, but fell to 23rd in 2016. Rounding out the top responses in 2016, second was “The Future,” at 25.8 percent; third was “College,” at 25.3 percent; “Abortion” was fourth, at 17.1 percent; and “My Faith,” at 15.7 percent, was fifth.
“ ‘My Faith’ has surfaced as a concern on eight of the 10 polls that included this issue as an option,” Dittmer explained. “Over the years, our youth seem to be facing or predicting spiritual challenge. While they celebrate the faith at events like the Gathering, they know there will be temptation as they age, go to college, leave home and enlarge their circle of friends outside faith and church. A significant percentage seem to fear compromising their faith in some way.”
“Not surprisingly, the future and transitions like heading to college consistently show up in the poll as concerns for young people,” commented Kiessling. We give thanks for parents and churches which make special effort to connect young people to Jesus and the Church when discussing and going through these changes.”
Dittmer also noted the continued positive care LCMS young people have for life. “Abortion has never before reached the top five concerns but surfaced at number 4 in 2016,” he said. “LCMS teens indicate a strong proclivity to being pro-life — 76.2 percent in 2016. This strong pro-life trend agrees with trends in secular settings where young adults are less pro-choice.”
Kiessling and Dittmer both mentioned the importance of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of LCMS youth, regarding life issues.
Teaching the faith
The poll also asked young people what issues the Church should talk about more. The responses reflect top issues both among the broader youth population and general American culture, and issues that the Church should continue to respond to with truth and love. The top 10 things teens would like the church to talk and teach more about include LBGT/sexual-orientation issues, abortion, sexual concerns, current events, politics, theology, terrorism, outreach, relationships and other religions.
In connection with the topic of sexual identity and practice, Kiessling said that youth responses provided “much to digest and consider, for equipping parents and teaching in the confirmation process and high school.”
- 48.3 percent responded that pre-marital sex is always wrong, 16.1 percent that it is OK if both people love each other and 14.3 percent that it is ok if both persons consent.
- 73.1 percent of youth responded that they have never had sexual intercourse. The “never had sexual intercourse” response dropped from 84.3 percent for 14-year-olds to 57.9 percent for 18 year-olds.
Kiessling emphasized “an obvious point. The high-school years are important years to continually discuss the gift of sex in the context of marriage. Workshops at the Youth Gathering addressing biblical teaching on human sexuality and sexual identity had strong attendance and feedback, showing the desire for young people to learn more and to be equipped to discuss this issue with peers.”
- 46.6 percent of youth said that homosexual acts are always wrong, 20.3 percent responded it is OK if both people love each other and 11.2 responded that it is OK if both people consent.
Dittmer pointed out that the youth poll has tracked attitudes about homosexuality since 1986. “In 1989,” he recalled, “84.4 percent said it’s always wrong. Tracking the poll, by 2013 that stat was down to 55.7 percent. It declined to 46.6 percent on the 2016 poll. Through that same period, acceptance of gay behaviors went from 18.9 percent to 34.4 percent in 2013 and 31.5 percent in 2016.”
Regarding homosexual marriage and unions, 2016 poll results indicate that 34.3 percent favored gay marriage, 12.4 percent favored civil unions, 26.0 percent favored no unions and a large group of 26.5 percent were unsure.
Dittmer said that given the recent polling trends on the question of gay marriage, the broader acceptance of gay culture and legalization of gay marriage, “it looked likely that the majority would support homosexual marriage or unions. The number was quite close to a majority; but in addition, the ‘unsure’ response on the question about marriage went from 10 percent in 2013 to 26.5 percent in 2016. They seem to be raising questions rather than just accepting society’s decision.”
Dittmer also noted the response of 46 percent who said science and religion are often in conflict. The 2016 poll found that 64.3 percent of youth take a literal view of creation, 21 percent believe in theistic evolution, 2.5 percent accept evolution by natural selection and 12.1 percent don’t know.
“The 2016 poll was the first poll to ask about evolution,” he said. “There was a kind of assumption that LCMS youth were all creationists. And the numbers aren’t awful. But what about the 2.5 percent who believe in evolution and 12 percent who don’t know what they believe? There is work to be done.”
Kiessling addressed a trend in the data that speaks positively to the consistent teaching of the faith. “On a number of issues about doctrine or morality,” he said, “a higher percentage of older (16-18 year olds) youth answered in agreement with what the Church teaches, and fewer answered with ‘I don’t know.’ In many contexts, as young people enter high school, students encounter new issues, new peer groups and new challenges to their Christian faith. What the poll numbers might show is that younger youth are in the middle of that time of ‘dis-equilibrium’ as they think through these new issues, ideas and information. And the poll results to a number of questions show that as young people move through high-school age, they are finding answers by talking to their parents and learning from them and the Church.”
“One of my favorite tidbits is to observe the historical tracking of the pro-life questions on the poll,” Kiessling also noted. I think it speaks to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Body of Christ when [the Church] focuses and ‘finds her voice’ on a topic or teaching. Reaching back to poll data in the early 1980’s, LCMS youth were about 50 percent ‘pro-life’, specifically seen as being against abortion. Some of the life issues were pretty new to our social and church culture. As the Church learned to respond and educate to these issues, young people have become more ‘pro-life.’ The numbers range around 75 percent now being pro-life and having an understanding of what that means. It’s a joy to see and encouragement to keep teaching the faith in love.”
‘We are never done’
“Having been responsible for the first 13 polls, I can tell you we are never done,” Dittmer concluded.
“Christian young people will continue to face challenges to their Christian faith, their stance on moral issues and the truth of Christ’s Word,” said Kiessling. “We give thanks for their faith in Christ and for being in a Christian community where they can be nurtured in their life in Christ. LCMS congregations are on the front-line of forming current and future leaders of the Church as young people learn to live as ‘light and salt’ in the world. Thanks be to God for life and His forgiveness given in our baptism and through our faith.”
Posted January 24, 2017
It would be helpful if we could follow these youth into adulthood in a long term study. Has anyone surveyed today’s LCMS church leadership (perhaps Convention attendees?)to see how their beliefs line up with the young? One question could ask if they attended an NYG as a youth. PjS