The church today has a youth problem. Simply put, we as an organized church are failing young people. We are failing to not only reach them, but we are failing to retain them.
The Barna Group research found that nearly three out of five young people will disconnect (i.e. leave) the church, often permanently, after the age of fifteen. That’s a full 59% of our Christian youth who for one reason or another feel that the church, and organized evangelical religion, no longer meets their needs and speaks to them.
13 Then they brought children to him, asking him to touch them; and his disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14 But Jesus was indignant at seeing this; Let the children come to me, he said, do not keep them back; the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you truthfully, the man who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a child, will never enter into it. 16 And so he embraced them, laid his hands upon them, and blessed them. Mark 10:13-16 (The Knox Bible)
Over half of our Christian young people reach a point very young in life, even before they have the legal (if not full cognitive) ability to determine many of life’s absolutes, that the religion they have been raised in is not working for them. How can this happen?
Simple answer. We are wasting their youth by assuming they belong and in turn relegating them to the spiritual sidelines of our churches. We have incorrectly assumed for decades that an hour or two of semi-organized playtime and a haphazard bible study once a week will somehow spark a deep connection within them. We couldn’t be more wrong. Such a weak and empty investment by the church will never spark, let alone fan, the flames of spiritual fire for them.
So I have a radical proposal, stop treating our youth like well, children. If we want them to have an adult sized faith we need to challenge and provoke that faith early and often so it can take root and grow.
And it begins with missions.
I’m not talking about what many youth groups call missions, volunteering at the local food bank or soup kitchen, visiting the local long-term care facility to sing Christmas carols, even helping with VBS or the Sunday nursery. Those should already be hardwired into the DNA of our young people so they are part of their regular and routine service. A consistent exposure to being active in and outside the local church in the community builds a good foundation, but their must be more.
Young people need to see us as adults leading the example and inviting them to join us as full partners in specific and meaningful mission outreach work. Mission work that calls us to places we normally wouldn’t go, both geographically and socio-economically. Going on a missions trip to people who look, act and even worship just like we do every Sunday is nothing more than the spiritual equivalent of flying to France just to have a vanilla ice cream cone. We need to recast the mold for missions work.
Missions should stretch us out of our comfort zone. It should disturb us by what we see and encounter. It should move us to tears and prayer over a broken heart and a desire to see God’s grace and power be manifested in the lives of those we encounter. If you’re not uncomfortable during it you’re not doing it right.
And if you’re not including young people your failing to give them the opportunity to experience first hand the power of God working in their life and heart at a level they will never experience playing dodge-ball or having another balloon race on Tuesday nights. Seeing the need in the world for the light of Christ will do more to make their faith both real and personal and just as importantly allow for an open dialogue with the adults they share the experience with where they can work out the many questions and doubts they may develop. We as adults need to welcome and encourage those questions and feelings of conflict as they begin to balance their faith against the world around them.
Jesus scolded those who attempted to keep the children from coming to him, he wanted them to come to him. He wanted to embrace them, to have them feel his physical presence, not just some abstract knowledge of him, but a real and lasting physical memory of his compassion, love and blessing for them. He wanted to take the abstract and make it accessible, He did then and He still does today. Until we allow our young people to have faith building experiences where they can see and touch Christ for themselves we will continue to see them fall away as they grow older.
The idea of our young people growing up in an active mission culture might make you uncomfortable, but if you’re not uncomfortable you’re not doing it right.