Two years after leaving home, I became a Christian. Big changes followed. My recreational habits, my words, my sense of purpose, my social circles, my interaction with extended and close family --all these underwent a revolution. Consequently, I thought, “I should probably make something of my life,” and decided to enter college at Penn State. More big changes!
College hadn’t been a part of my plan. Now, two years out of high school, my view on life had changed radically compared to that of my freshman peers. Learning to be a Christian in academia was also an unexpected challenge. However, I found joy and strength in what my new Christian-speak told me was called “fellowship.” I joined a Christian group (“fellowship”), where I could make friends and “fellowship” with them.
What a great situation for a young Christian! Young adults make the most exciting Christians. We were full of passion, zeal, idealism, purpose. However, I met a few Christians in these college Christian circles that are the reason for this blog post: the-about-to-not-be-all-that-Christian-who-had-been-raised-in-the-church type of person.
Of course, many of the leaders in the Christian fellowships I joined had grown up in churches. However, many of the freshmen class who would visit the fellowships in the Fall of a new year, would often be gone in weeks. They seemed almost uncomfortable around passionate Christians who were their own age. Some even confessed to me that they had resentment for Christians their own age who were excited and dedicated to their faith.
This was a mystery to me. I had grown up a practicing hedonist, came to Jesus when I was 19, and loved the change. I could not understand how anyone who was a Christian could be anything but excited about being on “God’s team,” rather than the world’s. I didn’t understand what I was seeing. . . . I was so young then. Now, I am older.
Life is more complicated than I thought it was. I am still troubled by the reality that so many kids disappear from the church when they become young adults. However, being a pastor, I get the privilege of not just observing this phenomenon, but I can participate in the process! How can I be part of the solution and not the problem? I’d like to list some of the answers I have found, and that I am working on. This list is subject to change (that means, I invite the learning of others).
What can churches do to retain kids as they move into adulthood?
1.Emphasize the Gospel and Church Health. The issue of why kids leave is not complicated: they don’t have authentic faith. Before a church can worry about how to reach and disciple the young, it must first be clear that the grace that comes from the free gift of Jesus is the central theme of every ministry of the church. Likewise, the church must purposely seek to grow a healthy church, not just a large church, or an exciting church, etc.
2. Invest Great Effort Defining and Developing the Membership Process. If it is too easy to become or stay or remain a member of the church, than the parents of young people you are targeting can find room to be hypocrites or uncommitted. The quality of the parent is the number one factor in the faith of most young people. A church must find a way to define membership in the church as requiring a real faith, a real commitment to the body.
3. Insure the Quality of the Adults Who Work With the Children. Lots of people want to work with youth. Not all should. The leaders matter most. Part time or volunteer youth leaders often are there because they want to be, and no one else has stepped up. This must never be allowed. The qualities to look for first are integrity in the heart, and a passion for Jesus, and the ability to get along with all ages socially. If all three are not present, the person should not go near your youth.
4. Church Leadership Must Oversee Curriculum from the Cradle Up. No pastor or elders should take his hands off of this part of the church. Many churches use whatever the denomination sends or whatever David C Cook has on the schedule for this year or this age; no one reviews the curriculum to find the gospel in it. I recently reviewed a curriculum brought to me by a friend. It was well planned, filled with age-appropriate activities. However, each lesson was gospel free. “God wants you to tell the truth.” Sounds good right? But if the gospel isn’t included, the same curriculum could be used by Mormons, Muslims, or anyone else, changing only the name of God. The Gospel has to be in the ink of the curriculum! From the time kids can learn, every lesson must show how Jesus is the hero and grace is sufficient.
5. You Must Tackle the Tradition Thing. Creating a foreign culture and propping it up as holy will drive away young adults. I know this is a delicate dance (I am a pastor after all). I know, how we dress, the music we listen to, etc, etc, etc, is not easy to change or update in a church setting. However, it is the church's dogged devotion to old wineskins that has caused the new wine to leak out. Change, as a concept, must be embraced. There is no way around this. The gospel of Jesus fits in every culture, in every language. When we trap it in one cultural expression and force it to stay there, over time, people will not see the gospel, but only the outdated culture that surrounds it. Boredom, endless repetition, stubbornness, resistance to innovate...all these things kill the life of the church, and the young are the first to go, because they are least likely to feel nostalgic about something they do not embrace culturally. How you tackle the tradition thing can vary, but it must be tackled.
6. Get the Youth Group to Hear the Sermon Every Week. Don’t compete with adult church. Teenagers are adults. They are just young ones.
7. Do Mission Trips. If your church doesn’t do many mission trips, time to change the culture. The lead pastor must visibly participate at least yearly, if possible. Then, take the young adults (youth group). The fire of faith glows brightest in the battle. Let them see the missionaries that your church supports in the field, rather than in a Sunday evening furlough visit at the church.
8. Tell Teenagers that They are Adults. Because they are. Nothing magic happens when one turns 18 and graduates high school. Yet, our society says a person is a kid until 18. That’s not reality. They have adult bodies, adult minds, and are capable of growing in more and more work and responsibility. Tell them that, and treat them like that.
9. Preach and Teach on Manhood. Men and women are not the same. Get the men, the women will be there. Young men especially need someone to tell them what it means to be a man, to be responsible for someone besides yourself, to plan, to make commitments to people and the church. Women have a way of figuring this stuff out faster. But if the men commit, the women will be there with them. Of course, there should be no neglect of womanhood either. Aiming for young women and teaching them about feminine expressions of their faith and their responsibilities as Christian women is also important.
9.a. Take Young Men on the Men’s Retreat as Soon as Possible. Leave it up to the Dad to know when his son is ready. Also, if there are young men without fathers in the church, invite them when you think they can sit still for the sessions and have a desire to be there. Age? Some kids are ready at 11 or 12. Others at 13 or 14. All are ready by 15. Young men mixing with older men in social situations will cause them to form a Christian identity.
10. Put young adults up front. Put them on the worship team if they have the talent, even if they haven’t achieved the 18 year old thresh hold. If young adults have ideas for ministries that they want to bounce of the pastor, say “yes!” And then put them in charge of giving their idea a try. The church waits too long to make leaders of people. The apostles were, in all likelihood, in their 20’s when they walked with Jesus. Think about that. How many people in their twenties would be trusted to start a ministry or lead in your church? When college students who love Jesus show up in church, give them public opportunities to minister. This not only attracts other adults their age, but it hits our goal of influencing our own kids. They see adults a few years older than them, and it becomes natural to expect that they will be allowed to participate in like manner themselves in a few years.
11. Plan a Membership Strategy for Young Adults who have Grown up in the Church. This one, I am working on myself. It seems that kids growing up in the church assume their own membership and so does the church. The thought of taking a membership class never seems to cross their minds. We must create rites of passage like this membership class as a way of saying, “Okay, now you are grown. Jesus wants you to take your part in the circle of adults in His church.” Well, there you have it. This is mostly my own approach, but I am still practicing. So, please add to this list if you can.