Had it not been for Tom Crites, I may not have continued through the doctorate of education program at Southeastern Seminary. Tom and I were part of the first cohort. Since he worked for the Georgia Baptist Convention and I worked for the South Carolina Baptist newspaper at the time, we quickly struck up a solid friendship.
His route from his house just outside Atlanta took him up I-85 within a mile or two of my home in Greenville, S.C. So, we began carpooling to classes in his black Ford Explorer. During those four-hour rides, we talked about our families since our children are about the same age; we talked about our churches and state conventions since we both worked for Baptists; we talked about our classes since we were reading the same books; and we talked about football since he is an avid Georgia Bulldog fan and the South Carolina Gamecocks are neighboring rivals.
That was nearly seven years ago now. So, imagine my delight when I picked up a book recently and saw his name on the cover. Tom Crites, research specialist for the Georgia convention, partnered with Steve Parr, vice president of staff coordination and development, to write the book, “Why They Stay.” They surveyed almost 1,400 young adults, ages 26-39, who have remained connected to their churches, to identify key factors in keeping young adults serving faithfully today.
Knowing Tom, you can be confident the data behind this book is not only statistically reliable, but the findings are equally compelling and challenging. In fact, he and Parr found 15 factors that make a great difference in the likelihood that teens will remain in church as adults. And, they were surprised by five factors that didn’t make as much of a difference as first thought.
But the heart of their research is sharing helpful strategies which parents and church leaders can implement to increase the probability that children remain active and faithful. From our time spent together on the road and in class, I can attest that as the father of two children, Kaylynn and Brice, this is a topic about which Tom is very passionate. He and Parr share from their own experiences what they believe will help parents and youth leaders be more effective in discipling children.
While much has been said regarding why many young people who grew up in the church are leaving, not enough has been written about why some are staying, Parr explains in a press release. “We wanted to conduct a positive study to see if we could draw up a list of instructions and strategies that adults can use to keep their young people engaged, faithful to the church, and ultimately living in line with God’s word,” he said.
“We really had a burden that we were losing our young people,” Tom told me. “It was just breaking our hearts that there seems to be continual erosion.” In short, the driving question was, “What could we do to keep more young people in church?”
One surprising finding, according to Tom, was that the relationship with one’s parents was the No. 1 driver for staying in church. A good relationship with their mother and father—even if they were divorced—was a big indicator. Probably the biggest surprise, though, was if a college student got plugged into a church quickly, it made a huge difference, like 138 percent, in their likelihood of staying in church. This underscores the significant impact campus ministries can have by connecting students with local churches and small group Bible studies, where they find supportive friendships. Ultimately, the student has to make the commitment to stay in church, he stressed.
“One thing that is so important for kids to see is that their parents are ‘the real deal.’ They pick up monkey business real easily,” Tom said. “Young adults have to know their parents love God and really believe His word,” he added. “Whenever they saw their parents investing time, energy and money into the church’s ministry, and loving and serving the people, that’s when it seemed to click with them.”
“Why They Stay” may soon be more than a book, however. The authors hope to ignite a “Stay” movement by encouraging pastors and parents to commit to making a difference: “We want to see thousands and thousands of young people say, ‘I love God and I love His church, and I’m going to stay no matter what.'” That’s a movement every church should applaud.