I recently had coffee with a young couple to make arrangements for premarital counseling. I've known John (not his real name) since he was in 10th grade as an active student and volunteer in our youth ministry. I've watched him grow up, move off to college, and transition from teen to young adult.
Despite the growing wave of young adults fleeing in the opposite direction, John is still connected with Christ and the local church. He and his fiancée are examples of young people who are the exception to the mass exodus of young adults from our churches. Both have a vibrant faith and are using their gifts to put that faith into practice. They are actively seeking to stay strongly connected with a church family.
Over the past 25 years I’ve participated in hundreds of conversations about the future of the church. The focus has always been on what's wrong: what happened that would cause so many youth group “kids” to bail? But my question flips those conversations around. What went “right" with John? What happened that has enabled him to stay solidly connected while so many of his peers flee?
Here are several factors that could powerfully influence how churches focus their energy and resources in the future.
The family a person grows up in—with all its celebrations and laments—is still the most powerful factor in where young people will land once they begin to make choices for themselves. Neither John nor his fiancée come from perfect homes, but having a stable family environment where loving God and loving others is part of the family equation is a huge advantage if we want "kids" to grow up and still be in relationship with Christ and his church. There are significant reasons why many families struggle so hard these days. But in the case of this young couple, having stable and intact families plays a significant role in their ongoing relationship to Christ and his church.
John and a group of his peers in our congregation were blessed to have had a married couple who stayed connected with them consistently throughout the middle and high school years. This couple committed to walk alongside this group of students every week—all the way up through high school graduation. This was an incredible commitment, made without any guarantees that relationships would always be warm and fuzzy. It was a commitment the couple faithfully carried out all the way to the finish line and beyond. In addition, this group of teens grew up during a time in our church’s history with consistency in staff and pastoral leadership. Our church wasn’t rotating through a new youth pastor every year or two.
Where we have seen adults make such selfless commitments to faithfully walk alongside individuals and groups of teens, we have also seen great fruit. Equipping and encouraging faithful adults to invest their lives into middle and high school students should be at the top of the list for encouraging young adults to remain firmly attached to the body of Christ. John and his group of peers belonged at our church during their teen years. They mattered to adults in our church enough that they were willing to commit to staying with them for the long haul. And they continue to matter today, long after they’ve graduated from what we call “youth ministry.”
Inevitably, time invested in today's young people will lead to significant conversations about faith and life and all manner of complicated subjects. Life isn’t always as simple as we might wish it were. Sunday school answers and Christian clichés don't often work for adults in an ever-changing culture, and they certainly don't work for our young people, who value authenticity above almost everything. They can smell the opposite almost instantly, and once they make up their minds that a person is not being “real,” it's all over. This generation can be incredibly tolerant about all kinds of things . . . but they are incredibly intolerant of people pretending to be something they aren’t.
So we need a generation of adult role models who will fearlessly dive into the tough stuff, who will share their life—including its struggles—with youth in appropriate ways, and who will not pass judgment when good and real conversations reveal personal struggles. Loving teens unconditionally as they occasionally reveal what is behind their masks is crucial for helping them see that faith in Christ and connection to his body is essential. Conditional love will have the opposite effect.
Another significant factor in John's church experience was the emphasis placed on servant leadership, discovering gifts, and serving the needs of others in practical ways. John and his peers participated in mission trips and camps. They went "away" to serve the Lord, and came back with amazing stories about their experiences. Once they were back we found ways for them to continue serving in the midst of ordinary everyday life. Inviting younger people into the mission of the church—the rubber-meets-the-road, “love your neighbor as yourself” parts of ministry and service—is crucial to creating a community they want to be part of later on.
John served as a camp counselor for the youngest kids coming into our ministry and as a small group leader at our weekly middle school youth group. He loved computers and technology, so we invited him to help us figure out better ways to use those tools in our ministry. Meanwhile, he consistently had a solid team of caring adults nearby—people who affirmed and gently nudged John and his peers toward areas where they could thrive and grow in their ability to help other people.
Rather than systematically creating some grand, bullet-proof scheme for leadership development, we stumbled forward step by step in that direction by highly valuing our students and their gifts and by imperfectly plugging them into areas where they could actually make a difference. It wasn't until John and his peers had moved off to college and began to come back and continue to help that we realized just how powerful serving had been in helping them stay connected to Christ and the church.
Within the best of families and the best of ministries to people young and old, we must acknowledge with gratitude that we serve a God who holds tight even when we sometimes tend to wander. Even with all the right pieces in place, life and faith are challenging. Jesus spoke often about how difficult it is to live faithfully for him. Fortunately God is incredibly gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love. Any time we celebrate stories like John’s, we must also acknowledge that it is first and foremost because God’s grace is at work among us. He often works despite our brilliant and trendy plans, rather than because of them. God remains firmly on his throne.
For now, I hope to encourage those who have been called by God to champion younger generations. There are a lot of simple things that we've probably been doing right in addition to the things we’ve probably been doing wrong. If we concentrate on engaging what is right, perhaps we'll begin to see results that look more right as well.
There’s no magic bullet that will instantly solve the problems the church faces with the next generation. What is required is the slow, hard journey of faith and faithfulness, of intentionally engaging and empowering young people into lives that matter—to God and to the world around us.