Last year our denomination launched a concerted effort to address the fact that for the past decade or so, a generation of young adults has been walking away from the church. This ecclesiastical exodus of Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) has been detailed in books with ominous titles such as Lost in Transition; You Lost Me; and unchristian. It is being chronicled and commented on in countless blogs, provoking church leaders and educators from all corners of North American Christianity to rethink how they approach ministering to emerging adults and to re-evaluate what effective lifelong discipleship programming should look like. Here in the CRC, we’ve formed a task force on Young Adult Leadership, established a Youth Collective, and held a young adult summit called re:kindle that featured a joint session with synod delegates to discuss and pray over the issue—all in the hopes of bridging the gaps and putting a plan in place to stem the tide of departure.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time studying the books and blogs, talking to those who’ve stayed and those who’ve left, as well as with denominational leaders young and old working to reverse the trend. I’m also one of the members of this generation who walked away from the church as a young adult. As a child, I remember looking forward to church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, but by high school I had some real questions about the Christian faith that no one seemed willing to answer. After I went off to college, seven years went by before I set foot in another church on a regular basis. This issue is close to my heart.
So why are so many young adults leaving the church? In You Lost Me, David Kinnaman contends that “the dropout problem is, at its core, a faith development problem; to use religious language, it’s a disciple-making problem.” For a while, this seemed like the best answer of the many I’d heard. But after spending some time with other young adults from the CRC at last summer’s re:kindle summit, hearing the stories they shared and listening to the pleas they made, I’ve come to believe the answer is deeper than just a faith development problem.
It seems to me that one of the reasons we are failing at faith development and are at risk of losing this generation is that we are struggling to establish and sustain genuine intergenerational relationships in our congregations—the type of relationships that connect our teens and young adults to the wider congregation and enable discipleship.
A few months ago I was flipping through the pages of a youth ministry resource catalog when I came across a series of resources for adults covering all sorts of ways to engage with teenagers: how to talk to them, play games with them, answer their questions, preach to them, lead groups of them, even how to text-message them. As I looked at this collection of titles, I found myself wondering how we ever got to a place where we needed books to help us communicate with the teens that have been sitting alongside us in the pews for years. After all, these are the same kids whom, when they were baptized, we promised to walk alongside of, pray for, encourage, and sustain. They’re the same kids we rocked to sleep in nursery, sang Bible songs to in Sunday school, and smiled at as they ran to the front for the children’s message. How did we allow those relationships to break down to the point where we don’t even know how to connect with our own kids anymore?
Our Reformed faith calls us to be a church of “we,” emphasizing the covenant relationship that binds us together across generations as children of God through the waters of baptism. But far too often we’ve allowed ourselves to be a church of “me,” where interpersonal relationships seldom stretch beyond peer groups or age-specific ministry programs. When we fail to pursue genuine relationships with each other, we are forgetting our identity as a covenant community called and formed by God.
Too often, by the time the kids in our congregations reach middle and high school, we’ve forgotten the baptismal promises we made to them, figuring that their Sunday school or youth group leader will take care of all that stuff anyway. We forget that those were communal promises—as covenant people we too bear the weight of helping to raise our young people in the Lord. We forget about the importance of the relationships we’re supposed to have with each other across generations.
This leaves many of our younger members feeling disconnected outside of their age-specific ministry centers—a disconnect that only widens as teens graduate from youth ministry programs and struggle to connect to the congregation of adults they have suddenly been asked to be a part of, especially when no previous relationships have been established. Young people are leaving the church because they don’t feel connected and because we’ve been doing a poor job of building relationships with them as they’ve been growing up.
I can’t help but wonder what would become of the young adult exodus if we unearthed the richness of our Reformed covenantal and sacramental theology. What would happen if, as a community, we would start to make good on the promises we make at baptism and begin to intentionally cultivate relationships with the children, teens, and young adults in our congregations that last for a lifetime?
I saw a hint of what this intentional cultivation can bring about at re:kindle when the young adult leaders and the “older” adult leaders from synod broke into intergenerational small groups and began to discuss the issues that are driving a generation away. As they listened to each other’s stories, you could feel the tension in the room fall away as the Spirit moved in. Many of the groups wrapped their arms around one another as they closed the session in prayer, asking God to help them continue to build the relationships that were started that night.
It’s built into our Reformed DNA to promote “we” over “me.” We just need to have the courage to take the first step, to engage in the messy work of building relationships with each other—and to trust God to guide our efforts.