The Youth Have Spoken - Salvation Army Canada

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  • Oct13Tue

    The Youth Have Spoken

    Salvation Army young people express their desire for authentic discipleship, relevant mission and participation in leadership October 13, 2009 Interview with James Pedlar
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    youthOver the past two decades, The Salvation Army in Canada and Bermuda has experienced a significant decline in church membership and Sunday attendance. Of particular concern has been the loss of many young people. In 2007, the territory began a research project with the hope of gaining a better understanding of the rates and causes of young adult attrition. James Pedlar, a young Salvationist pursuing a doctorate in systematic theology at the University of Toronto, was tasked by The Salvation Army to oversee this project.

    After two years of conducting surveys, interviews and focus groups with hundreds of young people, including active Salvationists and those who had left the Army and/or the Church, Pedlar completed the research project. He spoke with John McAlister, senior editor, about the results of his research and his recommendations.

    What are the demographic trends?
    Most researchers agree that the North American Church will continue to see a decline in church membership and denominational loyalty. As church attendance in other evangelical and mainline denominations has declined in recent decades, it is important to note that the Army is not unique in facing these challenges.

    There are approximately 4,500-5,000 young adults (ages 16-35) associated with corps in this territory. While there were more corps reporting a decrease in young adults over the past five years, the past two years have seen a small net gain across the territory. Corps size is the most significant factor influencing attrition rates. Larger corps fare better in attracting and retaining young adults.

    When it comes to youth retention, what are the significant issues?
    It was challenging to summarize the hundreds of hours of conversations that took place over the past two years, but five themes did emerge that cover the major issues raised. These are: authentic discipleship; unity in mission and diversity of expression; distrust of Salvation Army structure; a variety of views on soldiership and membership; and the desire for changes to officership.

    What is the primary reason that most youth leave the Army?
    Each person is unique, and encounters the Army through a particular set of events, circumstances and relationships. There's no simple cause or single issue that was a major factor in influencing people to leave the Army. However, some left because of a particular issue, while others left simply due to circumstances in their life. In addition, some left amid personal conflict, while others were able to leave on good terms.

    What hope can the Army find in this report?
    While this report has given voice to many concerns and criticisms of the current state of the Army, there is reason to hope. I met with some wonderful young Salvationists who continue to believe that there is a future for them in the Army. Some are committed to staying the course, no matter what, and others are hopeful for change in the years to come.
    Territorial Young Adult Research Project
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    The strongest reason for the Army to be hopeful for the future is that the idea of The Salvation Army still has a universal appeal. I did not meet one young adult who objected to the mission of the Army. Even young people who have left the Army are still excited about the heritage of the Army, the strong emphasis on mission, and the combination of evangelicalism and a commitment to social justice.

    Youth are calling for the Army to be truer to its founding vision and roots. Their feedback is a call to reform and renewal.

    What recommendations have you offered?

    One of my tasks was to recommend possible action to address the issue of young adult attrition. I presented seven priorities to territorial leadership based on the findings from the entire research project. These were developed with input from 40 young adults from across the territory.

    These are the recommendations:

    1. Fostering authentic discipleship. Young adults are looking to be in discipling relationships that are characterized by genuine care, interest and transparency. This includes being given opportunities to serve according to their gifts and passions. They are also looking for substantial teaching and the freedom to ask questions and dialogue on important matters of faith. The Army can address these concerns by raising awareness about the importance of relational discipleship, promoting mentoring and equipping Salvationists to be effective mentors, and providing leadership opportunities for young adults.
    Youth are calling for the Army to be truer to its founding vision and roots

    2. Focus on empowering smaller corps. Most of the corps in the territory are small, and tend to have a more difficult time attracting and retaining young adults. A concerted effort needs to be made to support them in their youth ministry. As young adults are looking for relational discipleship, and leaders in small corps have the opportunity to offer them a great deal of attention, they may actually have an advantage over larger corps. The Army can help smaller corps embrace their own strengths, develop their mentoring skills, and foster opportunities for networking with other Salvation Army and Christian resources, such as divisional youth gatherings.

    3. Focus on post-secondary transition. About two-thirds of young adults who leave the Army do so before the age of 25. Often this happens during the transition to post-secondary education, when they are exposed to critical thinking and leave their supportive church family. A particular emphasis on helping young adults navigate this change in their lives would be beneficial. Some possibilities could include being intentional about making connections between the sending corps and the new community, and providing opportunities for dialogue, discussion and thinking.

    4. Build unity in mission and encourage diversity in expression. While young adults are still attracted to the Army's mission, they are divided on the traditional trappings of denominational identity. There doesn't seem to be unity when it comes to things such as worship style and mode of dress. To address this, the Army could continue to engage youth in dialogue about the essentials of mission, and the negotiables of form or method. In addition, leaders can communicate that mission takes priority over institutional identity, and work for diversity of expression at public events so that youth feel that they are a part of the broader Army culture.

    5. Increase opportunities for mission. As youth are enthusiastic about Army mission, more ways should be found to engage them in mission opportunities. Short-term mission trips, either overseas or within the territory, can help foster a sense of unity with the wider Salvation Army family. As well, encouraging an integration between corps and community and family services can provide opportunities for engagement.

    6. Remove real and perceived barriers to officership. Among some young adults, officership has developed a negative reputation. This needs to change in order for the Army to meet its future leadership needs. This will involve reminding officers of their role in influencing the perception of youth about officership, and exploring the conditions of officership, such as training models and the appointment system.

    7. Build trust with leadership. For young adults, the authority of a leader is established relationally, not positionally. Salvation Army leadership, because of its hierarchical position-based structure, is in a challenging situation with younger generations. It's important for leaders to take the time to get to know their young people. Youth tend to be skeptical of institutions of all kinds, so Army leaders at all levels should recognize that the trust of young people must be earned and re-earned in the context of relationships. It is essential that the Army be transparent about their decision-making processes, and provide ways to give youth a forum to share their views.

    How can individual Salvationists respond to the issue of youth attrition?
    My biggest hope is that this report will start conversations. Local Salvationists should take the time to connect with young people and find out what they think. Get them engaged in decision-making processes in the church, and really listen to their perspective because it's probably going to different. Give them opportunities to have a voice. They want to feel respected and a part of what's happening. Building stronger relationships with youth will help corps overcome any deficiencies they may have.


    On Friday, November 13, 2009, Clint said:


    Just wanted to say, "nice work on the research!" You did your job and now it's up to those in The Salvation Army structure to respond with a vision to move forward and to take action and implement strategies.

    It's great that you probed the Army specific context for youth leaving the "Church." As you mentioned, this isn't only an Army problem. It's a universal shift happening in our society and culture right now. It might be interesting to note that we are living in a unique time in North American history where for the VERY FIRST TIME, we have an entire younger generation who have grown up outside the walls of the church and as such, do not have a Judeo-Christian moral value system. This is not like in the past where a young person grows up in the church, gets into their teens/early adulthood and gets restless, walks away from the Church to test the waters then comes back later. Our younger generation of today (speaking of society & not Army) aren't in the Church in the first place so they aren't "coming back" at all because they were never there.

    Robert, I like your comment from Oct 15. You hit the nail on the head. You've basically pointed out that the church hasn't listened and responded to the concerns of the people and the changing of our culture.

    Are we listening? Will we listen now? If not now, when? Will we take action and adapt our methods and form (obviously without selling short the Gospel)?

    On Thursday, October 29, 2009, Judith Soeters said:

    This made very interesting reading for me as it is a question that I have been asking. Looking at your research and recommendations, I would argue that it would translate well into my Australian context.
    There are two concerns that I have: one is that, for us in Australia, 86% or 89% (can't remember which) of Christians make a decision before they are 25 and of those 86% or 89% (can't remember which) has been before they were 18. Hence, the importance of reaching children and young people.
    The other concern that I have and which I am trying to address at the Training College (I am on staff) is that Officers are called to the community with the responsibility of a corps. Our Officers need to know that and they need to be able to communicate effectively with those who are surrounding them.
    Perhaps the concerns in relation to our Officers not role-modelling well is that so many have become tired in the work and haven't been supported well while doing it. Half of my own session-mates are exhausted and looking forward to retirement; the other half (me included) keep seeing what we can do around us knowing that we ONLY have so many years left to do the work that God has called us to do. The difference between the two would be the support we have received.
    Thank you so much for your hard work, and for your honesty.

    On Monday, October 26, 2009, Rob J. said:

    I find it difficult not to take offence to the blanket characterization by some that officers are not dedicated and that they're the sheer reason alone why some youth are leaving the Army. As a new officer (someone who statistically should not have become one because I'm young myself) I believe I'm dedicated. 15-16 hour days speak something of one's commitment to their calling. When I look at my officer colleagues I see dedication and passion as well.

    Before I became an officer, my young friends who left the corps I was attending at the time, didn't leave because of the officer. In fact they loved him! Some of them left because of the non-acceptance they felt from members of the congregation - soldiers, adherents, etc. They left because senior soldiers, the supposed examples of spiritual maturity, would plug their ears everytime they heard the sound of a guitar. The officer was a person the youth solidly connected with. But having an affinity or connection with one person isn't always enough to keep youth in the corps.

    I'm not trying to stir up further debate. In fact, I see in people like Joan and D. Jefcoat, people of passion, people who want their church to grow, the sort of people I'd like behind me as local leaders one day. But let' put our passion to work for the noble purpose that Christ has called us. Let's not play the blame game. Let's work together to ensure that youth, seniors, and everyone in between can call The Army their home.

    On Monday, October 26, 2009, James said:

    Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Just a point of clarification, in response to D. Jefcoat:

    The mention of "40 young adults" in the article isn't about the whole research project, but just to the recommendations phase. The recommendations were developed after the research (surveys and interviews) was completed. The 40 people involved were given a chance to read the findings of the research and give input towards recommendations, based on the findings of the reseach (i.e., not simply based on their own opinions and experiences). These were consolidated into the seven priorities found in the report, based on issues where there was signficant consensus.

    So the recommendations are based specifically on the research findings, which included a much broader base than the 40 people who were consulted regarding recommendations. We had 372 responses to the online survey of young adults, and 159 people were interviewed face-to-face. Also, 108 corps leaders (some officer, some lay) completed the ministry unit survey, and each of them was given an opportunity to express their opinion about the issue of young adults in the Army.



    On Sunday, October 25, 2009, Joan Blanchard said:

    I would like to agree with D. Jefcoat about officers needing to know what it means to live in the real world. Officership is not just a way of making a living it needs real dedication, something that seems to be missing in many officers today. I also would agree that we need to get back to our founding visions. Today change seems to be change for the sake of change not always an improvement. Bible Study needs to be just that not studying some book or DVD. I am not a youth but an older lifelong Salvationist and I am very disappointed in some of the things happening in the Army now.

    On Monday, October 19, 2009, D Jefcoat said:

    I read this article and in the begining I thought that the army was listening to the "youth" of the army. In fact near the bottum or middle of the article they confess to speaking to only about 40 persons. I wonder when the Army will seriuosly start to listen. When will they start to consult with the wider army. As there are more then just youth in the Army. There are middle aged, seniors. There is so much that the army needs to hear from so many.

    I have stood in the foyer of many churches in my life and to the most part I have found the army to be closest in adressing the issues adressed in the bible. We have food banks, hospital, hospice houses, correction program, womens centers, disaster response programs and so much more here in our home territory and abroad.

    However the thing I have noticed in alot of cases the army is accepting things of this world. We don't preach hell fire n brimstone. We don't pray with fire of the indwelling holy spirit for healing, setting people free from bondages, that God will intervenen in situations. Calls to the Mercy seat are getting less and less. We preach nice warm comforting sermons. We need to be set on fire to save souls.

    I wonder when getting our knees dirty ministering to the sick homeless person will return. We need to visit the lonely, we need to visit the shut in, we need to set up office in the court house. We need to be hanging out downtown in our uniforms handing out hot chocolate to people. Lets go backwards to where we were along time ago. I want to see our corps full and I think we would if we had leaders that were more focussed on the needs of the community the corps is in not when they can get out to the golf course.

    I think our officer situation has gone wrong. I think the best officer is the guy that has spent 2 years in jail was a drug addict. Then the Holy Spirit got him saved him delivered him from the addiction took him out of the criminal ways and is now on fire for Jesus. Or the single mother who has experienced hardship and God intervened. Or the person that has had it all and realizes that God wants them to be servants. Trainng college can teach a person to understand theology, business management, socail activities, and what ever is needed to be a good servant and leader. For some 6 months of training is good for others 5 years is needed but I think if we dropped some of the unnessary hurdles we would have more officers that were called. I would prefer to have an officer that knows what is like to live in the real world not an officer that is quick tempered or is self righteous or snobby. I want an officer that will take time and pray for me not have me schedual an appointment in 2 weeks so they can play golf.

    On Saturday, October 17, 2009, James said:

    Hi Jo

    In answer to your question - we spent a lot of time talking to current Salvatoinist young adults about why they are still involved. This was a part of the online survey and also part of the interviews. You'll find this material in the report, but I'll also be talking about it on Sunday in St. Albert.



    On Thursday, October 15, 2009, Robert said:

    Interesting - the first four recommendations echo the findings of those of us involved in the Youth Quest weekends held in the early 1980s.

    So what's changed in 20-plus years? Looks like very little.

    On Wednesday, October 14, 2009, Graciela Pleasance said:

    It is not only the youth need to be heard. I am a new soldier, 63 years old following the teaching of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It seems that the leaders are not interested in any of 'that', what is important to them (uniforms, ranks, get more people to come to church, church activities) has nothing to do with Jesus teaching.
    I am very disappointed!


    On Wednesday, October 14, 2009, Jo Lobb said:

    Hi James
    Am really looking forward to hearing you speak this weekend in Edmonton. Hopefully Tom and I will be able to have all of your material read by then. I have one question, which may be answered in the article, but may not have time to read it all. In interviewing the young people, how much time was spent in determining why the kids that stayed in the Army did in fact stay. Do we have a list of the reasons why they also stayed? In determining where to put effort in keeping them in a Corps we also need to know the answers to these questions.

    Thanks James for all your hard work
    With blessing for today.

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