Sometimes a scavenger hunt is just a scavenger hunt. That's all it is at many churches, where the frenzied chase to collect trinkets and complete silly tasks is a perennial activity aimed at getting teenagers into their doors. But at Calvary Baptist Church in Bellflower, Calif., a scavenger hunt is also a metaphor for the lifelong pursuit of meaning and happiness that begins in adolescence--and rich grist for a sermon targeted to teens. "A scavenger hunt is a search," youth leader Doug Jones, 20, tells the 80 teens who have just returned from a race through this working-class city 30 miles east of Los Angeles. Quoting from Romans 10: 13 ("Anyone who calls on the Lord will be saved") and Matthew 7: 7 ("Ask, and God will give to you. Search, and you will find"), he urges them to "ask God to come into your life and rescue you, and bring your personal scavenger hunt to an end."
Youth ministers have been on a long and frustrating quest of their own over the past two decades or so. Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugarcoated Christianity, popular in the 1980s and early '90s, has caused growing numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but also from practicing their faith at all. In a national survey recently released by Barna Group, a polling firm that tracks religious trends, only 33% of kids 13 to 18 responded that they attend a youth-group event regularly--a 3% drop since 1998. And while nearly 75% pray each week, that number has declined 9%.
Even more worrisome to many youth ministers was the Barna survey finding that 61% of the adults polled who are now in their 20s said they had participated in church activities as teens but no longer do. Some experts point out that young people typically drift from organized religion in early adulthood, but others say the high attrition is a sign that churches need to change the way they try to engage the next generation of the faithful. "This dip should serve as an exhortation for everyone to be about the business of discipleship, missions and a higher calling than popcorn-and-peanuts youth culture," says Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Scholars who have looked at young Christians say their spiritual drift is in part the result of a lack of knowledge about their faith. "The vast majority of teens who call themselves Christians haven't been well educated in religious doctrine and therefore don't really know what they believe," says Christian Smith, a University of Notre Dame sociologist and the author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. "With all the competing demands on their time, religion becomes a low priority, and so they practice their faith in shallow ways."