As I sit and type these words I look back on decades of youth ministry with a heavy but grateful heart.
My heart is heavy as I view the facebook statuses of students I had in youth group that are now tattooed, social hip, yoga taking/leading, young adults with their Buddhist slogans-drinking and partying and the like.
Is there still hope that they are the Christians they professed to be?…yes…Is there time to return and live for Christ? Yep, or couldn’t they even be Christians and live like that….well maybe.
I was there when they prayed around the flagpole, I was there at the conferences, I was there for the trips to camp, and all of those outreaches. I was there when they memorized verses and could name the books of the Bible. So one of my questions is- what went wrong? Are they following Christ? Did the 50-70 hours I spent with them each year matter? Maybe I should have equipped their parents better- after all the verse is for them to raise their children in the instruction and admonition of the Lord. Could youth group been more relevant or an extension to the family and overall church?
If I could go back to that young 22 year old qualified and called youth pastor here is what I would say:
There are 80 million Millennials and students in the U.S.—and approximately the same number of suggestions for how to bring them back/or be a part of to church. But most of the proposals I’ve heard fall into two camps.
The first goes something like this: The church needs to be more hip and relevant. Drop stodgy traditions. Play louder music. Hire pastors with tattoos and fauxhawks. Few come right out and advocate for this approach. But from pastoral search committees to denominational gatherings to popular conferences, a quest for relevance drives the agenda.
Others demand more fundamental change. They insist the church soften its positions on key doctrines and social issues. Our culture is secularizing. Let’s get with the times in order to attract the younger generation, they say. We must abandon supernatural beliefs and restrictive moral teachings. Christianity must “change or die.”
I think both approaches are flawed.
Chasing coolness won’t work. In my experience, churches that try to be cool end up with a pathetic facsimile of what was cool about 10 years ago. And if you’ve got a congregation of businessmen and soccer moms, donning a hip veneer will only make you laughable to the younger generation.
The second tack is worse. Not only will we end up compromising core beliefs, we will shrink our churches as well. The advocates of this approach seem to have missed what happened to mainline liberal churches over the last few decades. Adopting liberal theologies and culturally acceptable beliefs has drastically reduced their numbers while more theologically conservative churches grew.
As the culture has grown more secular, many Christians have struggled to adjust. The church once had pride of place in North American society. Now it seems we’re increasingly getting pushed to the margins. Christian morality is no longer assumed and our beliefs are suddenly considered strange.
If your student sits in church bored and playing on their phone chances are it’s not the Pastor’s fault. It is their heart before a loving all powerful God issue.
Why are so many young people leaving the church? I don’t think it’s all that complicated. God seems irrelevant to them. They see God as existing to meet their needs and make them happy. And sure, God can make them feel good, but so can a lot of other things. Making piles of money feels good. Climbing the corporate ladder feels good. Buying a motorcycle and spending days cruising around the country feels good … if God is simply one option on a buffet, why stick with God?
Millennials /students have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches, and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well.
Each day we need to live the Gospel. They need to know what the gospel is. They/we need to gather and make disciples as we live. For me that model is someone who Prays. Learns the Word, Loves, Impacts the world, Worships and Serves.
As a church what does that look like for you. Can you die to yourself and follow Christ like he asks? Can you suffer well? Please realize any attempt to keep up with a lost and dieing world is in vain. The churches message that is the same over the last 2000 years is critical. JESUS….In the peaks and valleys and ho hum of your life. It’s Jesus!
Give them Jesus- Take their hand and place it in His. Then the thjiings of this world will grow strange dim in the light of HIS glory and grace.
Sincerely in Christ,