Reconnecting Young People with the Disconnected Church

Imagine a young person falling out of her chair asleep during the sermon. How would those around her respond? Would they blame her for being inattentive or the pastor for being long winded? Eutychus, a young man, sunk into a deep sleep while Paul kept on talking. He then fell from the window and died. Paul raised him from the dead, broke bread and ate, and they talked until daylight (Acts 20 ). I wonder what those present thought about Eutychus. The church’s concern for this young man was evident.

Churches are generally concerned about their young people. They worry, complain and celebrate them. Church leaders are genuinely perplexed by teenagers and the transitional period labeled adolescence. Their concern and perplexity combine to create a unique set of ministry challenges.

The desire to appease young people is one response to these ministry challenges. This response involves integrating “contemporary” music and PowerPoint into worship ser vices in order to help young people connect. These might help. Yet, what is meant by “contemporar y” music? In many churches it refers to the pop-Christian music familiar to adults. PowerPoint can be a helpful tool, but it can also be a distraction. The church, in attempting to cater to young people, is perceived as disingenuous and the young people respond accordingly. This is not a genuine option.

Some churches respond to this set of ministry challenges by hiring a specialist to minister to the young people so that the rest of the congregation only has to be cordial to them. The specialist is usually young, energetic, evangelistic, and relational. Drawing on the available resources this person builds a dynamic program with lots of activities.   Young people take their spiritual cues from their parents. When we complain that young people do not know the Bible, their parents probably do not know the Bible.   Evaluation is based on the number of young people involved. This approach often keeps young people coming, though they are rarely integrated into the life of the church and generally take a prolonged holiday from church after high school.

There are any number of variations on the above scenarios. Some approaches appear to work for a while; others flounder from the start. The church’s relationship to its young people is important because they are an integral part of the body of Christ. If they are not taking an active role in the body of Christ, then the body suffers. Young people are not only the future of the church; they are an integral part of it. In light of this biblical perspective, it can be asserted: “What is good for our young people is good for our congregations.”

This assertion was driven home for me when we moved to Grand Rapids and began church hunting. As parents we were more concerned with our teenage daughter’s assessment of the churches visited than our own. Our desire was to affiliate with a congregation that she believed would spiritually challenge her. She was ignored in some congregations. She was defined as our “child” in other congregations. In two congregations she was actively engaged not as our daughter, but as a person. It was then that significance of the premise what is good for our young people is good for our congregations struck me.

Eutychus falling asleep was not a problem. Young people are not the problem. Eutychus did not willingly fall from the window. Young people do not willingly disconnect from the church; the church disconnects from them. There are three related factors which contributed to the church inadvertently disconnecting from young people, which will be sur veyed before suggesting a way for ward rooted in what is already present in our congregations.

THREE FACTORS

These three related factors are present in all congregations. Their impact is often subtle, discrete, and difficult to discern. They shape, often without us realizing it, how we read the Bible, understand the Christian faith, and pursue ministry.

Factor #1: Popular culture generally shapes the church more than the church shapes it. The church has always wrestled with what it means to follow Christ faithfully in a hostile environment. Ref lect briefly on this reality: many of the New Testament letters were written to individuals and churches seeking to discern what it meant to follow Christ faithfully in their unique context. The church at times has addressed the issues has confronted well; at other times it has not.

The church is currently striving to discern what it means to faithfully follow Christ during the transition from a modern to postmodern environment. In the midst of this transition the church is also wrestling with issues related to globalization, changing immigration patterns, etc. These cultural shifts as well as many others impact our congregations. For example, what is labeled “popular youth culture” is produced, marketed internationally, and sold by “twenty-thirty-forty-somethings,” not young people. Everyone consumes popular culture; it is in the air we breathe; it can not be avoided.

Culture impacts our congregations and institutions far more than we appreciate. Just as the waves pounding the beach continuously reshape it and exert a much greater inf luence on the sand than the sand exerts on the waves, so the cultural setting in which the church ministers is always exerting its inf luence on the church’s understanding of itself and its mission.

Factor #2: The construct of adolescence is inherently problematic. In Adolescence (1904), G. Stanley Hall hypothesized the presence of a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. During this period, the adolescent was believed to be addressing psycho-social issues. This novel understanding, which was widely adopted, emphasized the discontinuity between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence was an in-between time; an adolescent was neither a child nor an adult.

The transitional period identified as adolescence is now an assumed fact. Adolescence is not a biological state; it is a developmental stage. By adopting the construct of adolescence the church’s role in equipping young people was distorted. If we emphasize the continuity between childhood and adulthood by seeing teenagers as young adults who are to be mentored into the community of faith, then we will view them differently. Father Hugging Son We will see them as young adults who must be mentored into adult responsibilities and socialized into the community of faith. We will, as a community, assist them in identifying their gifts and using them. We will share our faith stories, and we will listen to and constructively interact with them. In adopting the construct of adolescence, the church unnecessarily undermined its understanding of young people and ministry among this age-group.

Factor #3: Young people are learning to independently navigate life. Navigating life, addressing its most perplexing questions, is a difficult task. Questions surrounding identity, meaning, and purpose must be addressed. Parents and religious communities have generally played a strategic role in helping a young person answer fundamental questions about life. The intensity of these questions is enhanced because there is no cultural consensus. In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coin the troubling phrase “We’ll get what we are.” The authors conclude that parents are the primary religious force in a young person’s spiritual development. Young people take their spiritual cues from their parents. When we complain that young people do not know the Bible, their parents probably do not know the Bible. When we complain that young people are unable to articulate their faith, their parents are most likely unable to a
rticulate their faith. When we complain that young people do not take their commitment to the church seriously, their parents probably do not take their commitment seriously.

Smith and Denton also note that many young people desire significant relationships with other adults in their congregations and yet a significant number report that they have few, if any, such relationships. Our young people are socialized into the adolescent world rather than the adult community. Young people socialized into their peer group navigate the world without the wisdom and experience that adults are able to contribute to their journey.

It is possible to understand why the church inadvertently disconnected from young people. The confusing cultural climate, the construct of adolescence, and their odd ways of viewing the world challenged accepted norms. The church responded. In many situations a semi-silent truce developed. In this confusing time, connecting and integrating young people into the community of faith is essential, which is why what is good for our young people is good for our congregations.

DISCERNING A WAY FORWARD

Discerning a way for ward is challenging because it implies change. Change is a part of life; yet it can be over whelming. Change is always a present reality. As we seek to identify a way for ward we are also seeking to identify necessary changes that will enhance congregational life. David Wells in Losing our Virtue quipped, “Today, a door of unprecedented opportunity is opening before the church. In order to walk through this door, however, the Church must come to terms with life as it really is and engage that life from an uncompromising biblical standpoint.” A unique opportunity for the church to engage young people is present. This opportunity does not require any new programs. Its only expectation is that we seek to understand, appreciate, and live as the body of Christ. Towards this end, I would like to suggest four related emphases which will move us in this direction.

Reclaim the biblical imagery of the church as the body of Christ. Congregational life, including worship, is not an adult activity; it is an activity of the whole body of Christ.   Adolescence is not a biological state; it is a developmental stage. By adopting the construct of adolescence the church’s role in equipping young people was distorted.   Children and young people are integral to the body of Christ; their gifts contribute to overall life and health of the body. Participation in the body of Christ has two functions. One is to educate; the other is to socialize. A healthy tension must be maintained between these two functions. Let me explain.

Paul writes that God gave the church a variety of leaders “to prepare God’s people for works of ser vice, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). In this passage Paul emphasizes unity in the faith–this unity is relational in nature and tied to a shared understanding of Christ. If we are “to become mature” then the congregation must grow in its knowledge and its relationships. When young people are socialized into the community of faith, they learn to responsibly relate as members of the community.

The desire is a community where members are able to fulfill their roles. This can not be programmed. It involves fashioning an ethos, an environment where young people are valued and where young people perceive that they are valued for who they are. This is not always the case, as one elder requested that “I teach a certain group of teens how to dress for worship.” The elder could not appreciate the fact that the young people were attending the worship ser vice. There are also adults who complain about the young people who spill juice on the carpet and neglect to chastise their peers who spill coffee. Young people as part of the body of Christ desire adults who care, who will walk with them in the faith, and ser ve with them. The body of Christ is the community of faith.

Reclaim the art of communicating to the body of Christ. Worship and ministry are not adult activities; they are community activities. When we see them as community activities, then we must strive to communicate in a manner accessible to the various parties. I am reminded of this point each time I obser ve a teenager doze off in worship. The parents look at the young person with displeasure, hoping the people behind them do not notice. The young person is unnoticed by the pastor.

Within the body of Christ our services and messages must be accessible. Our children and young people must be able to understand what is taking place. As leaders in the church we need to make sure that our messages connect at some point with the various age groups present. Paul spoke to the Athenians in a way they understood and was willing to adapt himself to his audience. Ref lecting on his ministry. he professed that “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (I Cor 9:22-23). Communicating with children requires the use of concrete statements, not object lessons, and repetition. Communicating to young people involves connecting the concrete statements to the realties and challenges of life, which are always real and never to be made light of.   The stories of young people who left the church often contain this thread: after I left no one contacted me. Who disconnected from whom?   Communicating with adults involves connecting the message with the realities and complexities of life. If you are unsure whether you are connecting with young people, ask them. Take them for coffee, solicit their feedback, listen, do not defend, ask how you might improve, and thank them.

Communicating within the body of Christ is shaped by one’s understanding of the body of Christ. If the body of Christ is a group of adults who gather to be educated in the faith, our gatherings will ref lect that. If the body of Christ is composed of the whole congregation gathered to build each other up and learn, then our gatherings ought to genuinely ref lect that. Reclaim the intergenerational character of the body of Christ. This involves learning to live in community. It includes sharing and learning the faith stories of the body of Christ. It involves investing in each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God. It involves learning together, praying together, and ser ving together.

Stories are important. I wonder about stories, for example, that surround our music in church. Not the stories about the composers, writers, or settings. The stories of people’s lives and how they intersect with songs. I often imagine a hymn providing comfort to a young man in a trench during W WII who feared for life and family. I wonder sometimes, when we sing a contemporary upbeat piece that causes one part of the congregation to border on an aneur ysm, if there isn’t a young person in the congregation who was sustained through a dark time by this piece. When we know their stories, our appreciation for others and patience is enhanced.

If young people are mentored into adulthood then it is the responsibility of the adults to ser ve as mentors, to take the initiative. It is the adults who ought to listen, probe, question, encourage, wrestle with, and assist young people in working out the implications of their Christ-following. A Sunday School class was interesting to obser ve as the group of adults discussed this subject matter. In the midst of the discussion one member remarked, “Remember when women wearing pants to church was a big deal?” The group laughed, told outrag
eous stories dear to their hearts, and concluded that after all it was not a big deal though it sure seemed like it at the time. Children, young people, and the other adults need to hear those types of stories; it helps the community of faith keep things in perspective.

Reclaim the hope and gratitude of the gospel within the body of Christ. The scriptures teach that this is God’s world and not ours. They teach us that in the end God will be the victor and not evil. The scriptures call us to live redemptively in light of our calling to live by faith. The scriptures teach us that the life of faith is not one of victory but of suffering, living as aliens and strangers in the world (Heb. 11; I Peter 2).

We live in a culture shaped by fear. Fear motivates and ensnares. Fear transfers the burden to the individual. Fear over whelms and corrodes relationships. This is seen in families, churches, and other organizations. Parents who parent out of fear strive to control. Churches that minister out of fear quickly become legalistic. Fear corrodes.

Churches fear for their young people. The stories of young people leaving the church and abandoning the faith are too numerous to count. Young people leave for a variety of reasons but their stories are always fascinating. Yet, if we fear young people we will let them go. We will blame them. The stories of young people who left the church often contain this thread: after I left no one contacted me. Who disconnected from whom? The young person left; the adults had disconnected long ago.

Our churches and communities are affected by sin. Brokenness is a reality. Our communities of faith ought to be places where that reality is confronted with the hope and gratitude of the gospel. Our communities of faith ought to be safe places to struggle with issues of life as communities attempt to discern what faithful Christ-following is in a particular cultural setting.

FULL-CIRCLE

What is good for our young people is good for our congregations. It is good for our congregations because we are called to a life in community characterized by mutual concern and forbearance with each other–love for one another. This is an alternative community; it is counter-cultural. This type of community does not just happen; the church must be committed to making it a reality.

This approach to working with young people also requires a new type of youth minister. The minister to youth in this context would have three primary responsibilities.

  • Equip, disciple, and provide pastoral care to young people and their families–to ser ve as their pastor.
  • Equip the congregation and facilitate the integration of the young people into the life of the congregation–worship, service, mentoring and education.
  • Equip the ministry staff and congregation to understand contemporary culture and the challenges of ministering to and integrating young people into congregational life.

What is good for our young people is good for our congregations.

Books Cited:

Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

David Wells, Losing our Virtue (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999).


Darwin K. Glassford serves as associate professor of church education at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan and book review editor of the Journal of Youth Ministry.