Though statistics say significant numbers of young people are leaving their faith and the church, some are doing the opposite. Many United Methodist teens and young adults are finding the centuries-old means of grace helpful in guiding them toward God and embracing a deeper faith.
Mackenzie Fazenbaker, 18, of Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, sets aside time every night to practice spiritual disciplines. She says she believes meeting with God daily is important for growing in faith.
"At night," she says, "I try to do something to spend intentional time with God. I'll read my Bible or I have some devotional books. I play guitar, so sometimes I'll do worship music."
Before bed is a good time for Hailey Gilbert to pray. The high school senior at Collierville (Tennessee) United Methodist Church also enjoys spending time with God outdoors.
"I love nature," she says, "so if I ever get time to be outside, that's when I do a lot of my deep thinking and praying."
Todd Cox, a 19-year-old student at Tennessee Wesleyan College, views practicing the means of grace as an important part of "being a disciple in the world today."
"I participate in prayer daily," he says. "I participate in worship and Communion two to three times a week and ... in service and mission a few times a month.
"All actions should be done for God and through God's grace, and prayer for guidance is most important in order to achieve this life," he continues.
For Cox, receiving Holy Communion has long been an important spiritual discipline.
Participating in the Lord's Supper is "of extreme importance," he says. It is "the symbol of Christ's giving and love for us all, which is a constant reminder that is needed by all."
Hannah Foust, a young teen member at Carmel (Indiana) United Methodist Church, is finding her own rhythm of spiritual practice.
"Since I was little, we've always been praying," Foust says. "Mom would tuck me in and pray with me before I went to sleep. We'd pray before I got on the bus. We'd pray at meals. I've definitely realized that this is how you keep a good relationship with God. The same goes with reading the Bible."
Each Tuesday, Foust gathers with friends for a Bible study. She also allots private time for reading the Scriptures at least twice a week.
Engaging in spiritual formation reminds Foust of her need for God and enables her to view others in the same light. "It helps me see the world as people who need that relationship as well," she says. "It helps me know to reach out.
"God is the only one that will be with you throughout everything," Foust says. "It's important for people of all ages to develop a relationship with God because it helps them get through tough times."
Shaped through service
These teens also help others in their community and around the globe. All offer acts of mercy – service and compassion – through traveling internationally, coordinating church events or serving with community nonprofits.
A hurricane survivor, Gilbert orchestrated a youth mission trip to New Jersey to help Hurricane Sandy survivors. She says repairing the homes enabled volunteers to show affected families that "there is still hope in a dark time because God is there."
"I've always found my passion in serving," Gilbert says. "There's something about volunteering when you're not just doing deeds, but you're also sharing God's word. I'm helping God touch lives like he's already touched mine."
Kris Konsowitz, the youth director at Collierville Church, encouraged Gilbert to take a leadership role in organizing the trip.
Konsowitz aims at "trying to empower our students, for them to claim their own faith."
"To practice their own faith and to claim it as their own is really important," she says. "We can teach and preach to them all we want, but until they have that personal experience, they are not able to understand their own faith development. Providing them and encouraging them with opportunities to live out spiritual disciplines is really important."
Konsowitz does this with an annual prayer walk. Students go to different areas of the church building and pray for the people and ministries there.
An eighth-grader helps with video during church services. During the prayer walk, small groups of students visited the video booth while he explained what happens and who serves there. Then the students prayed for that aspect of ministry.
"At the end, we prayed for each of the students individually, and then they prayed for all the adults," Konsowitz says, adding that doing so creates a sense of connection between the students, leaders and the rest of the church.
Fazenbaker serves in Nashville, Tennessee, through an organization called Harvest Hands. Every Tuesday, she tutors and mentors younger students. Fazenbaker says she sees God working in her and in the relationships she develops with the kids.
She is rewarded "to see them improving in their schoolwork or learning more about God" and excited to "know that I've helped aid that process."
Growth and accountability
Whether works of mercy or works of piety, Cox says he views spiritual practices, such as the means of grace, as an important expression of a sincere faith.
"These practices help me to come closer to others in the world, and to allow me to grow in my faith and have others to hold me accountable," he says. "If we don't participate in worship, the sacraments and daily devotion with God, we aren't living into the faith we proclaim. Faith is more than words."
Cox, a religion major and an intern with the Tennessee Annual Conference, says seeing his parents and other people at his church model their faith encouraged him to claim it as his own and pursue vocational ministry.
"During my teen years, these practices were made important to me because of the huge changes they made to my life. My life was morphed and formed into what it is now, and I grew into the vocational call I felt from God in my life."
At Youth 2015 this summer, young people from across the United States will experience many of the means of grace.
Chris Wilterdink, director of program development for Young People's Ministries, is overseeing the curriculum for the quadrennial event. It will teach young people about the means of grace and equip them to "go on" in their faith by practicing works of piety and mercy in their communities.
"We really want to see a lasting impact in churches, in the lives of young people," he says. "I really want them to experience something that is so tangible and so practical that they can take it home and do it themselves." (Find ideas for introducing the means of grace to your youth group in the"Go On/Go Beyond" insert in this issue.)
As teens implement these practices, they may encounter difficulty, but Cox and Fazenbaker encourage them to persevere.
"When I first started going to church, I wasn't connected in my youth group," Fazenbaker says. "I had to teach myself how to grow in my faith. I would really encourage people to try to do something every day, even if it isn't a long period of time. Even five minutes can make a difference in someone's faith."
Cox urges other young people to "stay strong in these practices."
"It's easy to be discouraged from participating in these by others around you," he says. "Be courageous! Be the change you wish to see in the world."
Emily Snell is a young adult freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes regularly for Interpreter and other publications.