It’s common in youth ministry to hear very depressing statistics about how many youth drop out of church after graduation. We have all seen it happen, and while the “I’m spiritual but not religious” answer may bring some comfort, not many of us actually think that’s a path to maturity.
And it is true – the statistics aren’t great. There’s a lot of variation in numbers depending on which part of the church you’re talking about, but even 40-50% of kids from strong evangelical churches tend to move away from God and church (other traditions are seeing upwards of 70% of their youth walk away). Some of those will make a boomerang trip – once they get married and have children, they start attending again. But in an age of increasing singleness and delayed marriage, the proportion of boomerang backsliders returning is likely to diminish.
I think we can all agree that we don’t want these stats to be true of the youth of Redemption Church. Therefore how can we as a church walk with our youth into both adult responsibility and Christian maturity?
This is a complex question with many answers, but I want to highlight two key points today:
1. Many of our youth do not understand the gospel: the good news of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
All too often when asked to explain what faith means to them, their answers are largely moral. Be a good person. Love others. Be kind. Help those in need. They believe God wants them to be good. Which is not wrong in itself, but it’s hardly a reason to worship.
What’s most interesting is that many of our youth are not struggling with the weight of trying to live up to God’s moral demands. No – the most common belief is something called Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In short - God wants us to be good, He wants us to be happy, and He is largely uninvolved in our lives unless we have a problem. Then we need Him to fix it so we can be happy again.
Now I’m not saying that the youth in our own church believe these things. I don’t know – we’d have to ask them. But I do know that it is very tempting for me to slide into an MTD type faith for all sorts of reasons: just living out my life day by day doing the best I can, trying to find joy in the midst of it, and asking God to smooth out the trouble spots. Much more than this seems too much to bear.
Unless we are called to bear it. By “it," of course, we mean “the cross.” In this post-Easter season we have the cross freshly imprinted on our hearts, and have heard the words of Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8, Matthew 16, Luke 9). We take Jesus up on his offer of partnership where “his yoke is easy and his burden is light” (Matthew 11), and where he is the active person in our lives day by day, the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” If I’m hoping my children don’t have a thin MTD faith that tries hard to be good, works hard to be happy, and prays hard for God to fix their problems, then I myself need to return again and again to Jesus himself: the one who is alive in me to do his Father’s will, the one who promises that joy is a gift he loves to give in any and all circumstances, and the one who daily guides me towards maturity (problems and setbacks included and necessary). Our children see us – all of us – for who we are by what we do. Our cross-shaped lives may not look that inviting by the standards of the world, but for our gospel-storied kids our lives may well testify that it just might be true if it’s still worth dying for.
2. Many of our youth are not connected to the wider church.
Youth group is a great ministry, and a necessary one. Playing games, crazy antics, bible studies, large events, lots of energy, and tons of fun. Sounds good – and it is good. But there has to be more if our youth are going to move step by step into maturity. They need mentors, guides and friends - like we all did, and like we all still do. In fact, ideally, they need five of them (see note  below). Five each. So if we have 20 kids in our youth group we need 100 adults who are significantly invested in their lives (or 50 adults who are invested in two of the twenty…and so on. The math doesn’t matter. The relationships do). Five adults who pray for them, who show up in their lives on some regular basis, and most importantly, who are there for them when they stumble and fall in their faith. Some kids have these networks quite naturally: their parents came from large families of faith, which are relatively healthy and relationally close, who all live in the vicinity. Let’s be honest – very few of our kids live with this as their reality.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that distance, divorce, family dysfunction, or nominal or non-existent faith in our extended families can reduce the relational options for our youth to a size that may not be much larger than the local church. These relationships do not involve Friday night commitments, paintball guns, or lazer tag. Well, they could, but that’s up to you. They do involve your presence, hospitality, and probably a breakfast or burger at your expense. And some honest conversation about growing up, becoming an adult, and following Jesus. Be warned: there may also be some soccer games, a dance performance, or even a fishing trip. But those are fun, because it’s enjoyable to celebrate those you love.
Often our youth leave the church for the same reason many adults do: they don’t know others (other than their peers), and they don’t feel known. Building relationships across the generations is one way the church acts as a family: for the children in the church are the church’s children. We are their brothers and sisters in Christ: a little older, a little wiser, a little (or a lot) more scarred, but with so many gifts to give: experiences of God’s faithful goodness, the sweetness of His grace and mercy, and many stories of the transforming power of his Spirit who comforts, encourages and shapes us all, day by day, into the image of Jesus himself. We’re all on the journey to maturity, and we all need some help along the way. Let’s invite the next generation into that journey, one relationship at a time.
20 years ago Kim Boldt improved his lot in life, and married up. Karen Boldt, who decided that if she could do that, she could do anything, then decided to bear four children to make a family of six. When he's not working at Regent Bookstore, he spends his time as a volunteer chauffeur for a variety of youth and little people, some of whom are related to him. In his spare time, Kim enjoys preaching at whatever church will listen.
 Why five? Research from both Princeton Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary shows that the youth who owned their faith and transitioned well into adulthood had strong intergenerational connections within their family and church communities. Young adults who could point five significant adult relationships in their adolescent/emerging adult years were much more likely to have a vital faith and church connections.