We’re losing our kids. We can’t keep our young people. Our teenagers are leaving the church. Ever increasing numbers of our children are becoming more and more disenchanted with our faith and our faith traditions. There’s no “brand loyalty” among our offspring.
So in an effort to win those kids and hang onto our young people and keep our teenagers and encourage our children and indoctrinate our offspring we throw more programs at them. Give them more to do. More activities. More ministers. More money.
Have we ever stopped to consider that our current model of Youth Ministry, an unchallenged and undisputed and powerful force among our churches for about 40 years, is part of the problem?
I have two observations, maybe three, on the issue of our teens and the widely perceived problems of them leaving the church. This may take a while. It may take all week. I encourage you to read this and reflect on it and pray about it. Especially if you’re a parent.
There’s a member of my family who, many years ago, decided to move God and his church way down on the list of priorities. None of it is very important to this person anymore. This person, whom I love dearly and pray for every day, is not a member of a church anymore. This person’s spouse and children don’t care about any of it at all. It doesn’t matter to them. And it breaks my heart. It grieves every other member of the family. And we make a concerted effort, as a family, to never, ever, ever speak negatively about the church in any way any time this family member is around. We don’t discuss “church issues.” We don’t complain about policies or gripe about worship. We don’t argue about doctrine or in any way air the church’s laundry when this family member is around. When this person is in the room, we talk only about the good things in the church. We speak about relationships and love and support. We talk about people and families this person knows. We communicate what God is doing in and with his church and the people there.
That’s just common sense, right? You’d have to be a fool to think that speaking negatively about the church and communicating all the things that are wrong in the church would ever win this person back to our Lord.
So how in the world do we justify the way we talk about the church in front of our kids? We wouldn’t do it in front of the lost. Why do we think it’s OK in front of our children?
We’re raising entire generations of kids — two or three in a row now — who, the only time they hear their parents and their parents’ friends talk about church, hear their parents slamming the church. We complain about worship. We gripe about policies and practices and personalities. We threaten to leave if things don’t change or go our way. We talk about the church, in front of our kids, as if it were a burden or a necessary evil. We communicate to them that we don’t like very much about it at all. What young person would want to dedicate his life to it after listening to that for 12 or 13 years? Who wouldn’t be on the lookout for something else? Some of them, I don’t blame for wanting to leave.
OK. That’s observation number one.
Here’s the second: I’m afraid we’re communicating unscriptural ideas and planting ungodly seeds when we unflinchingly cater to the wants and whims of our teenagers.
We tell our teenagers that they are the single most important group in the church. They matter more than anybody. We tell them to separate from the rest of the body for worship. We tell them to separate from their families, sit together as a youth group, right down front, so we can look at them.
We laugh at the absurdity of someone thinking they have their own pew in the sanctuary. We joke about a visitor walking in and unknowingly taking someone’s pew. Yet we block off entire sections of our worship centers for our teens. Seriously.
We encourage them to do their own thing, sing their own songs, express themselves in their own ways. And if we’re not comfortable with all that, we send them away to do it by themselves. We build them elaborate youth facilities for their own use. They make up less than ten-percent of our congregations but they get all the attention, two or three full time ministers, and a huge unbalanced chunk of the budget.
How can we change worship to meet the needs of our teenagers? How can we tweak our meeting times and places to satisfy our kids? What songs can we sing that our youth group will enjoy? How can we provide our young people with more fun activities? What will the teenagers think? What do the teenagers say?
When’s the last time anybody asked the 55-year-old couple in the back, the ones who’ve been members at your church for 20 years, what they thought?
Here’s the deal: a kid in our churches feels a sense of entitlement. Our youth programs and the attention we pay them naturally foster it. If those same kids go to Christian colleges and attend big churches with successful college programs that treat them the same way, it only gets worse. And by the time that young person graduates at age 23 or 24, he gets a job (hopefully, right?) and begins searching for a church home and realizes, maybe for the first time in his life, that it’s not all about him.
Nobody’s catering to him anymore. He’s having to sacrifice and submit and consider others maybe for the first time in his life. Suddenly, he and his age group aren’t the most important people in the church. He’s just as important, or unimportant, as everyone else. And he goes into shock. Vertigo. Disorientation. And I think it’s only natural. What other result would we expect? Does it surprise us that it’s at that age, 23-25, that our kids leave the churches of Christ or drop out of church altogether?
Related to that, I think, is the fact that the parents of today’s teenagers, men and women in their 40s and 50s, are the very first generation of Church of Christ members raised in the current youth ministry model. And these parents are changing churches based on their kids’ preferences. Parents are choosing churches only after their children have signed off on the youth program. Parents are taking complaints from their teens to ministers and elders. The kids have the reigns. The kids have the power. The kids have the control. They have the final say.
And we’re the ones who gave it to them.
Last thing. And these are all related. Why are we afraid to correct our teenagers? Why are we afraid to give them direction?
I was interested last week to attend a series of roundtable discussions at the Abilene Christian University Lectureships entitled “The House Divided: Discussing Differences Within the Church.” It was part of the ACU student-led Lectureship track, described and promoted as church leaders discussing ways our members can “maintain unity despite significant differences.” The stated goal of the class was to “dream with our students of a future together in unity.”
There were over a hundred people in the room each of the three days, fairly evenly split between college students and older church leaders. The discussion each day was moderated by a three-man panel of ministers and professors. And not once was the view of a teenager challenged or corrected. Every view of every student — regardless of how misguided or misinformed or even dangerous — was validated by solemn nods and affirming winks. Several times the panelists reminded us that we were there to listen to the students. And that’s all we did. Listen to the students. When they said they needed this or they needed that or they needed to feel such-and-such, we listened. And vowed to change.
At one point, late in the third day’s session, one young lady exclaimed that she and her friends were “just saying ‘yes’ to Jesus and ‘no’ to the church.” And the panelists nodded in agreement.
And I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I asked for the microphone and gently explained (I characterized my forthcoming comment as a “loving response to my sweet sister in Christ) that saying “no” to the church was not the answer. It’s never the answer. I told her and everyone in the room that Scripture clearly and unambiguously tells us that Christ died for the church. His blood purchased the church. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap. And while many Christians are guilty of distorting the church, even in our own tradition, sometimes to the point of making it unrecognizeable as the church Jesus died for, saying “no” is not the answer. It’s impossible to say “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the church. His death on the cross makes it impossible.
And the panelists took the microphone and corrected me and defended the teenager.
They said we have to change the way we talk and the way we think about the church if we’re going to keep our kids. They said we have to use the language of the outsiders and respect the perspective of the outsiders. And when I observed that this student was not an outsider but an insider in a room full of insiders, I was politely brushed off. Dismissed.
My opinion doesn’t count. I’m 40 and I have gray hair. I don’t have an iPod and I don’t play with a Wie. What do I know?
Maybe that’s right. But I’m saddened that in a room full of elders and ministers and Christian college professors, one of our own kids can declare her response to our problems is to say “no” to the church. And it goes completely unchallenged. It’s actually affirmed as fine and even proper.
A few minutes later, to his credit, one of the panelists, a youth minister from the Houston area, attempted to encourage our young people to persevere. Challenge the church. Help teach the church. Wrestle with the church. Grow with the church. Love the church. But don’t leave the church. I couldn’t have said it better. I had been waiting for three days for somebody on the panel to actually say something to that effect.
And then the ACU professor on the panel grabbed the mic and said, “But if the Lord is calling you to leave, then you have to leave.”
That day’s session was titled “Visions for the Future: God Has No Plan B.”
God may have no Plan B. But this professor does. Just leave. Do your own thing.
Why are we so afraid of correcting our teenagers? Why are we scared to give them direction? Why are we afraid to offend them? Is it because we think they’ll leave? Is it because we want them to like us? Is it because the parents of our teens are treating them the same way we were treated as teens and we just don’t know any better? We haven’t made the connection yet?
Teenagers are not the church of the future. They are the church of right now. Just like the 91-year-old man and the four-year-old little girl and everybody in between. We all submit to each other. We all sacrifice for each other. We all love each other. We all consider others better than ourselves. How can exalting one group within the church over another, intentionally or unintentionally, ever be godly or good?