There are some questions that seem to circle around and around again in Youth Ministry and Church culture and I have heard this one enough times in my 8 years of service to convince me that there’s something going on; the question comes in a few different forms;
“How can we keep over 18’s interested in church?”
“How can we stop young people walking away from God at uni?”
“How can we retain young people once they are finished with Youth Ministry?”
Essentially what these questions are pointing at is a change in young people once they reach adulthood. These questions highlight that we feel young people are leaving, or at least becoming less committed, toward Jesus and His church once they reach this milestone
I have read reports on the statistics around this and the truth is I’m not sure what to believe; some state an 80-85% drop off after secondary/high school; and others claim it’s as low as 18% (go figure), but regardless of the exact details of the situation it is nevertheless a “felt” problem within youth ministry and the wider church.
As I think about this situation I believe there are two separate questions, frustrations and issues we within youth ministry have to ask and in this post I would love to look at the first of those
Are we helping young people to build a personal, robust, authentic, risk taking, generous faith in Jesus as teenagers?
This isn’t a new question but it is one I feel we have failed to truly look at or answer.
As I look around at my heroes of the faith; a mixture of people I have read about, people I know well and people I wish I knew better; I begin to think what it is about their following of Jesus that make them stand out to me. 3 things I realised they have:
An Uncompromising faith in a Compromising world. These people have an increasing fire and a passion for God, years and years after their decision to follow Jesus (it’s sad that this isn’t a norm). They refuse to compromise this even though they work and live in situations which dictate a different response. Even though, like all of us, they live in a world of people with varied beliefs and thoughts they hold true to what they are called to whilst exhibiting grace to all they come in contact with. They are unaffected by the big issues that hit the church and approach each with an open heart that neither mindlessly condemns nor praises those who support or oppose – they know who they are.
A Desire to Learn and Grow. They never feel like they are done. They realise that the deeper they fall into God, the more they need to fall. They are prepared to stretch their thinking and live uncomfortably to understand what God is trying to shape in them.
A Radically generous and Risk orientated life. They are always giving of themselves both in their time and financially (from what I can see). They always make room for the outsider and make them feel like Number 1. They also take immense risks; they pray and ask God for incredible things, they pray for things in public that I would be scared to ask in private and all because they want more of Him and are unfazed by the onlooking gazes of others.
You may or may not agree with these points but as I look at the young people I work with I seriously hope that in 20~30 years they will carry some of these attributes and be following Jesus with all their heart. If you agree on any level then we need to ask some serious questions in our ministries.
Are we raising captive Christians? When an animal is raised in captivity it often loses its ability to survive in the wild because it doesn’t have to face the same daily choices, needs and dangers. If the animal is to be released from captivity it goes through a process of adapting and bit by bit gets ready for the world that is out there.
Real life is not lived in bubbles. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t come in contact with a person, news headline, radio show etc. that doesn’t desire to challenge my belief or tempt me into something I don’t want to do; its the same for us all. However, so often in youth ministry we create these “safe bubbles” for young people to navigate the teenage years; presenting a comfortable faith with the same comfortable people in a comfortable place hoping that if we can keep away negative influence we will deliver them safely.
At times this feels like a smart approach but these environments rarely present the challenges, questions and tensions we often balance as adults, so our young people tend to get swept up in a mutual faith wave rather than make real, personal choices about where they stand with Jesus. This means that later in life when the bubble is gone they find real tension at university or the working world and they ask “how can a Jesus follower survive in such difficult environments? Are we equipping them for what a real, passionate, abundant Jesus life is like?
Alex and Brett Harris, founders of the Rebelution, argue that we don’t ask enough of teenagers and I tend to agree. We supply them with all the tools they need to navigate the Christian years unscathed, we often bend over backwards to keep their interest high even when it’s obvious it’s out the window and then we wonder how they didn’t catch it. We need to ask bigger things from our teens than good attendance and no swearing
We need to invite them into the Naturally Supernatural life that Jesus lived. How many of our young people are listening to the voice of Jesus for themselves and acting on it? We cant read the Bible without seeing the miraculous side of this God we serve but so often in youth ministry we put huge emphasis in Bible Study and Prayer whilst we often miss the supernatural God that we are reading about and talking to. All of these things need to be an integral of our lives and we need to help our teens see this to. To read the Bible and pray without ever seeing and experiencing the man they point to is like going to a restaurant and eating the menu without ever tasting the food it promises. I could look at pictures of food my whole life but if I don’t taste it I will soon lose my interest in it. Do we have room in our youth ministries for God?
We need a long term vision. I didn’t grow up in a church youth program and if I had I dread to think how my youth pastors would have evaluated how successful their impact was on my life. The truth of the matter is that we are not going to always produce these politically correct, spiritually perfect, well spoken God fearing teenagers in the 8 years that they are in our care, even if we had 50 years we wouldn’t get there. Life is messy, they are messy and often their best decisions wont come in their teenage years. Its vital that we live real relationship with them, a relationship that doesn’t try to mould them into something they aren’t ready to be, a relationship that stands beside and supports them. So many teenagers that gave me the run-a-round for years still have amazing relationship with me as they grow older and some of them as 20 year olds have now made the decision to give their lives to Jesus – we need to keep the door open.
If the train is leaving then we need to catch it but in doing so we need to be prepared to ask some hard questions about ourselves before we label this generation with some of the terms we bandy around. Teens in this generation, like any generation, want something that’s real, something that makes a difference in their communities and therefore in themselves.
The Jesus I know provides that and more – All aboard!