This is the paper that I was procrastinating on when I created this blog. Since it relates to agriculture, I thought I might as well put it here. Due to my procrastination and lack of sleep, the middle is rather choppy. I felt like I had some good ideas, but in my hurry to turn my barely six page rough draft into a fully developed eight page paper, some of the pieces got mixed up and the organization is less than stellar. However, I think that the ideas in it are worthy of this blog.
The prompt asked about the trend of youth leaving churches. It wanted to know when this started, why it started, and what could be done. As I searched for sources, I managed to find a study that linked increased religious involvement to rural areas. Naturally, that piqued my interest and I based most of my paper off of that article. I mainly emphasized that certain values, such as hard work and interpersonal relationships, are more prevalent in small towns just due to their nature. I then used a variety of other studies proving that these values, particularly relationships, were extremely important in keeping youth involved in churches. That’s basically the summary for anyone who does not desire to read a boring eight page paper on urbanization trends, relationships, and religion. There are also a few random phrases in there that I had to include simly to satisfy some of the requirements for the paper. Ignore those.
Urbanization and Values in America:
Why American Youth Are Leaving Churches and What We Can Do About It
There are certain words and images that come to mind when a specific noun is mentioned. Strongly stereotyped, farmer is one of these words. While some may think of green tractors and big red barns, others think more about the farmer himself. The words used to describe him are generally positive. Strong. Hard working. Dedicated. Family oriented. Desirable as these traits are, many would agree that they are hard to find these days, just like youth who attend church. While there are many factors that contribute to youth leaving the church, some of the biggest include the change in culture caused by the continued movement away from rural America and its values, a problem that could potentially be solved by reinstating these values in today’s youth.
Over the past two centuries, the percentage of Americans living in urban areas has changed drastically. Urbanization of America increased the most during the industrial revolution, when thousands of new workers were needed to fill the jobs created by large factories. As large commercial operations bought out small family farms, Americans continued to move to cities. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s further impoverished farmers, leading yet another wave of Americans towards the cities and their promises of more stable jobs. Many argue that this shift away from rural America was beneficial to the country and its development. While this may be true, it also led to a change in the values and environment of the average American (Monkkonen).
Dr. Val Farmer, a psychologist who specializes in rural health and family relationships, discussed this in one of his articles. He wrote, “The density of population and the relative isolation from other people have a distinct effect on the way people view life and the values they espouse (Farmer).” It is often assumed that since people living in urban areas have a greater population density, they interact with others more than people in rural areas. Logically, this makes sense. However, this is not actually the case. Generally, the smaller the community, the more interaction between individuals.
In rural areas, not only are individuals more likely to be related to those around them, they also tend to be surrounded by people they have grown up with. The limited number of people for them to interact with is precisely what makes them more social than people in urban areas. It is very common for people in rural areas to know their doctors, bankers, and grocery store workers. A lot of the time, they also live near each other and attend church together. Because of this, Americans in rural areas form lifelong bonds with their relatives and friends that live around them. This leads to an entirely different set of values and sense of community in rural areas than in more urban areas. Walking among thousands of strangers, city dwellers may be surrounded by more people, but they are less likely to speak with them and interact personally with the hundreds of people they encounter on a daily basis, at least not in the same way as they would if they only saw the same people day after day like in small towns.
One of the most obvious results of this is the heightened sense of community in small towns. When “everyone knows everyone,” they are more likely to participate in community activities and to support the town and each other, since they personally know those involved. Interacting with each other on a daily basis also leads to better relationships with neighbors and community members. In urban areas, people tend to have a smaller circle of friends since they are not forced to deal with the same people while completing daily tasks. They also do not have to worry about running into the people they do business with at church, or the store, or just driving through town. Thus they do not need to develop as deep of a relationship with the people around them and thus do not need to treat others with quite the same amount of courtesy and familiarity as they would if they knew local workers on a more personal basis (Farmer).
While on the surface this may not seem to relate to youth leaving the church, several studies suggest a correlation. Noticing a trend, a trio of professors decided to conduct a study to determine whether religious beliefs really differed between urban and rural populations. They chose to research even more in depth by breaking rural populations into two specific groups. The first was simply people living in small towns. The second group was made up only of farmers and their families. This subdivision actually led to very surprising results. Predictably, Americans living in rural areas were much more religious than those living in urban areas, but the real surprise came in the variation between farming families and those living in small towns (King).
The difference between the two rural groups was actually rather prominent. Farmers and their families were even more likely to be religious than people who just lived in small towns. The study then delved into some of the factors for this divide and the overall factors leading to the religious beliefs of the individuals studied. Gender played a small factor in the strength of religious beliefs with females being more likely to support religion. Higher education played a role in stronger religious beliefs as well.
In giving reasons for the increased religious belief in farmers, the article also discussed how the prime roles of a farmer are to care and nurture, values that go hand in hand with religion. The children of farmers are more likely to participate in programs such as 4-H and FFA, where they learn to care and nurture for plants and animals. They also learn how to support their fellow teammates and club members. Children often spend their entire childhood in one of these organizations. I know from personal experience that the long hours spent traveling to and prepping for livestock shows are great bonding time for family and friends, thereby strengthening relationships and bringing the community together.
Even if children in rural areas do not participate in these types of organizations, due to the small class sizes at rural high schools, it is very likely that children know all of their peers. By the time they graduate, many kids in rural areas will have spent over 12 years of their life studying, playing sports, dating, and hanging out with all of the other kids in their town. This not only leads to very strong relationships between children, their friends, and their friends’ parents, but it also adds to the sense of community.
Another value typically associated with farming and rural areas in general is the value of hard work. Raised on farms where a lot needs to get done, children spend their childhood doing chores and then eventually doing things such as moving pipe when they are teenagers. From the time they can walk, farm kids, children raised in agricultural families, learn that they need to help out in order for their family to succeed. This not only gives them a very strong work ethic, but it creates stronger bonds between them and their fellow workers, who are typically also their family and neighbors. Sweating together. Struggling together. Succeeding together. This increases the sense of community as well. A good work ethic also helps church members to better fulfill their callings and positions. They are more motivated to go out and serve and participate in and plan church events.
Another interesting aspect of the study was how the community affected youth involvement in church activities. In rural areas where church was more likely to be a part of the community, youth were more likely to participate in church activities. “As one Iowa boy (12th grade), involved in a local youth group for several years, explained. “Well, in junior high it was kind of a popular thing to be a member of your church youth group (King).”” Church activities were a community thing with certain weeknights often being reserved for such activities. They were part of the town’s culture and involvement was highly influenced by peer pressure.
Overall, the study showed that youth whose religious beliefs grew stronger over time tended to have a few traits in common; these youth were more likely to live on a farm and have parents who were both educated and religious as well as a strong identification with their parents, and not only were these youth more likely to be actively involved in church in high school, they also tended to avoid hanging out with youth who participated in reckless behavior and they also upheld values typically associated with rural youth, such as respect for their elders and increased responsibility (King). Rural values are the key. Studies have proven it, and it would only make sense that due to the relationship between activities for family, church, school and other community events, farm kids were more likely to remain involved in church activities than their counterparts. These strong ties to family and community, as well as positive home experiences were more likely to lead to youth staying religious (King).
Further studies conducted by other groups confirmed these results while emphasizing the importance of relationships in particular. Parents have a very big influence on their children’s church attendance. Children learn the most from their parents’ examples and children with religious parents are more likely to stay in the church (Hoge).
The relationship between children and their peers also plays an important part in their church attendance. Peer pressure greatly affects the opinion and attitude of youth towards church activities. If youth see that their peers enjoy the activities, they are more likely to have positive attitudes towards them. They are also more likely to attend if they know their peers will be there. Children are more likely to encourage their peers to come to activities if they view the activity favorably. Thus it is constant cycle. Luckily, in rural areas, the sense of community makes children feel more welcome at these activities. If they know everyone there, they will feel more comfortable than if they were surrounded by a bunch of strangers. Parents also typically encourage children to go to activities. If the child has a good relationship with their parents, they will be happier to attend, thereby contributing to the cycle again (Dudley).
Youth relationships with church leaders are also very important. If youth feel comfortable at church and supported by their leaders, they are more likely to cotinine to come. Church needs to be a safe place and an avenue for youth to express their concerns and receive answers to their questions. If they do not feel comfortable enough to do this, they are less likely to desire to spend time in a religious setting (Hoge).
The problem of youth leaving the church is very complex. The decreased number of personal relationships caused by the urbanization of America is not a problem that can really be solved. It’s just not possible to form these same types of relationships within the community of a big city, nor is it possible to assume that things will go back to how they used to be. America will continue to grow and expand. It is constantly changing and we must be able to adapt to survive. Obviously, we cannot move the entire country back to the countryside. That is neither realistic nor logical. Instead, we need to look back at what created such high church attendance in rural areas and figure out how to implement that into today’s society. As mentioned earlier, due to the very different lifestyles of people living in urban and rural areas, different values are developed and cultivated.
Some of the values of rural areas, such as hard work and the ability to nurture, can be taught in the city. In fact, since most of the values go along with Christian teachings, they can easily be worked into lesson plans. Emphasis on how these values will help the youth succeed and activities to foster and strengthen the values will help them to be firmly implanted in children’s minds.
Even more important than these values is the value of relationships between family, church leaders, and peers. Since family relationships are one of the biggest influences on youth church attendance, churches should spend more time focusing on the family. They should teach more about family relationships and how they can be improved and strengthened. Even if the churches themselves cannot strengthen family relationships, they can at least instill the importance of this value in future generations.
Youth should also be taught to improve their relationships with their families and each other. It is surprising how much influence they can have over their families. If they desire to change, then it is certainly possible for their family to follow suit. Where there is a will, there is a way. Loving kindness and acceptance of new people should be emphasized as well. This will help youth to incorporate their peers into more activities and to make them feel more at home at church, thereby leading to increased attendance.
Church leaders also need to be pushed to strengthen their relationships with youth. They often take their position for granted and do not realize what quite how important they actually are. Youth tend to look up to their leaders. They are older and more experienced, yet still cooler than parents. This gives puts them in a valuable position. Leaders need to fashion an environment where children feel comfortable enough to ask questions and go to their leaders for help and guidance. If the youth feel secure, then they will want to continue to attend church. Receiving answers to their questions from someone they trust can also cause their faith to be strengthened, which would increase their desire to attend church as well.
Overall, studies show that there is a strong correlation between rural areas and church attendance. This is due mainly to the values and sense of community created in small towns. While we cannot move the whole of America back to a farm, we can work on teaching and strengthening rural values in our cities. The most important of these values is relationships and that importance should be emphasized in church. If we work on implementing this research, we should see a resurgence in church attendance. Along with increasing the rates of church attendance and involvement, teaching values to our children benefits both our country and the children themselves. America may be shifting more towards urban areas, but that doesn’t mean that we have to lose the positive traits of farmers, and the religious involvement that goes along with them. Through careful teaching, we can combat the problems of lost values and decreased church attendance in one fell swoop.