As a group of believers, we are leaving our young people woefully unprepared to face a frequently hostile world once they leave the nest.
When one looks around a church or a conference, many times there seems to be something missing. The Youth. It is a common complaint. Parents ask their pastor and friends, “What’s happened to my kids?”
They aren’t necessarily talking about drugs and alcohol; they’re talking about the fact that they just don’t see them in church. It seems as if once they leave home to go to college or start their own households, they leave their church behind. Many will go to a church near where they are going to school or their new home, but they often just drift away.
We will tend to sit back and huff, “Well, the church didn’t go anywhere; they left the church.”
That may be true, but sometimes not without a not-so-subtle push.
A Lost Generation
Barna research shows “nearly six in ten (59%) young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away from either their faith or from the institutional church at some point in their first decade of adult life.” The study also showed that the unchurched segment of Millennials has increased in the past ten years, from 44% to 52%, reflecting a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing among the nation’s population.
Millennials are rethinking most of the institutions that arbitrate life, from marriage and media to government and church. They have grown up in a culture and among peers who are often neutral or resistant to the gospel. And life feels accelerated compared with 15 years ago—the ubiquity of information makes it harder for many to find meaning in institutions that feel out of step with the times. Millennials often describe church, for instance, as “not relevant” or say that attending worship services “feels like a boring duty.”
He notes that his research showed that there are three broad ways of being separated from church:
- Nomads walk away from church engagement but still consider themselves Christians.
- Prodigals lose their faith, describing themselves as “no longer Christian.”
- Exiles are still invested in their Christian faith but feel stuck (or lost) between culture and the church.
As a group of believers, we are leaving our young people woefully unprepared to face a frequently hostile world once they leave the nest. We sequester them in Sunday School Classes where we teach them about a “Sunday School Jesus,” a cardboard character who bears no basis in reality to the vibrant, funny, emotional, loving Jew that Christ was.
We neglect the admonition that Peter had given us:
Instead, exalt the Messiah as Lord in your lives. Always be prepared to give a defense to everyone who asks you to explain the hope you have.
— 1 Peter 3:15 (ISV)
Millennials get off on their own and are asked to give a defense for their faith and for the hope they have and they find they have none. They are asked questions like:
- “How do you know the Bible is true? Isn’t it just a collection of stories?”
- “Was everything REALLY created in six days?”
- “Jesus never really SAID He was God, did he?”
- “Isn’t Revelations (sic) just a book of allegories?”
These are questions that they (and many of us) are unprepared to answer. We are not teaching our youth how to answer the “hard” questions they will face once they leave the church building.
The Modern Religious Ghetto
To make matters worse, we stick kids and adults into ghettos within the church. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., once said,
…it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.
Today more than ever, Dr. King’s observation applies not only to race, but to youth, income, and family circumstance.
We have groups for youth, singles, young marrieds, seniors, divorced persons, and the middle-aged. We find ways to divide and label people in as many ways as we can. This can leave people feeling isolated and disconnected from the Body of Christ.
Millennials are going to a church in a Balkanized environment. They are disconnected from others and left questioning their own faith due to our lack of preparing them for the hard questions. This gives them an ambivalent attitude towards church.
Missing the Mark
Many Millennials will call themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious,” and only 20% of them say that going to church is important, 30% say church isn’t important at all, with the other 50% completely ambivalent toward the idea of going to church. Many say they will go back to church when they have children, but most don’t.
Moreover, 35% of Millennials not attending church feel it is not personally relevant and 17% believe they can teach themselves what they need to know. This again points to a loss of a sense of community within the Body.
An Intergenerational Approach
Dr. Chuck Stecker has made it his mission to break down these barriers. His ministry, A Chosen Generation, deals with intergenerational issues in churches. He emphasizes gathering people of different ages into one Body, rather than separating them.
Dr. Stecker believes that you turn young people into church leaders by giving them role models rather than “buddies.” One of the tenants of his ministry is:
We value every generation. We believe the power of the church can best be realized and released through intentional intergenerational relationships.
He teaches that churches miss the mark of drawing people into church by advertising pictures of them with people their own age—peers can be found at work, the ball field, and the corner bar.
What they need are older people they can look to for advice and guidance rather than a good time. He pointed out that the more successful ads for drawing young members is to picture them with older people to whom they can go to for guidance.
Building Relationships Outside Your Age Group
Stecker also points out that if you do not have true friends and relationships beyond your age group, you should ask yourself:
- Am I actually available to others?
- Do I intentionally pursue others?
- Am I willing to invest in someone else?
One program that has been successful at his church has been going to housebound members of their church once a year and cooking steaks for them. The church makes a point of forming three-man teams, all from separate generations. Strong bonds of friendships have formed from this and other programs, which has drawn the members of the church much closer to each other.
So what does someone do to keep young people in a church family and draw new ones to it?
Providing Spiritual Armor
The first thing to do is to help young people put on the Whole Armor of God. Part of that armor is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:17, ISV) The sword is an offensive weapon. It does no good to pull it out after one has been struck. We need to teach our youth to be proactive in proclaiming the Word of God, not just to use it to defend our faith. We also need to teach our youth (as well as the rest of the members) what the Word really says. That means an in-depth Bible Study. The best forum for this is in a small group environment of mixed ages.
Think of how much we are depriving young people the benefit of wisdom that can come with age (and the wisdom of youth) when we segregate ourselves into different age groups.
We also need to incorporate the youth of our church into all the activities of the church. Dr. Stecker has been to churches where they have a “coming of age” ceremony for the youth where they are welcomed into the adult ranks of the church and treated as equals. Chuck has seen how this has paid off for the younger members of the church, as well as the “chronologically seasoned.”
Dr. Neal Weaver of Louisiana Baptist University is fond of saying “We are training the last generation of pastors (before the rapture).” If we do not find a way to keep our youth in fellowship with other believers, that last generation will be sparse indeed.
- Kinnaman, D. (2007). unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
- Kinnaman, D. (2011). You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church … and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
- Stecker, C. (2014, December 28). Retrieved from A Chosen Generation: http://achosengeneration.info/