Sometimes, a disclaimer is needed right up front. So here it is: I am not a youth pastor or a specialist in youth ministry by any stretch of my imagination. I suspect that some who read this post will be smerking knowingly because whether through personal experience or through professional training, the thoughts and questions that follow are all too familiar. My thoughts and questions on young adults – which at 40 years old, I can no longer rightfully claim to be – and faith emerge both as a parent of teenagers and as a pastor of an “established” congregation. What follows is an extended version of questions and comments I raised in our congregation’s spring 2013 Family Ties newsletter.
Over the past month, Redeemer University College hosted two evening panel discussions on Hemorrhaging Faith, a study on the faith of young adults in Canada. I attended the first of these events along with 12 other people from our congregation, and some 350 other interested people, including a handful of high school and college/university students. The conversation on the first evening went well beyond what was captured in the #hemorrhagingfaith hashtag. Classis Hamilton (a gathering of Christian Reformed Churches from around Hamilton, ON) hosted a similar conversation last week, asking questions about the opportunties for Churches and Christian schools to participate and colaborate in discipling youth and young adults. Video of the #classishamiltontalkshow is available here.
Reasons Youth and Young Adults are Walking Away
It’s no surprise that youth and young adults are walking away from the Christian faith – that’s not a new reality or even a new recognition. Certainly in the North American context, the last several generations have seen a mass exodus – a “hemorrhaging” – of young adults from the church. The difference now seems to be the rate at which youth are leaving, primarily for the “religious none” affiliation. It struck me how the panelists at the Redeemer event highlighted hypocricy of parents and others in the church, judgmental attitudes and postures, the exclusivity of the Christian message, and a perception of their own moral failures appear to be some of the leading reasons for why young adults are walking away. Both events that I attended also spent time asking questions about the impact of parents discipling their children – a significant if not primary factor to which the Hemorrhaging Faith study also drew attention.
As I listened to the panelists and the surrounding conversations, a whole host of thoughts and questions came to mind:
- tangible integrity: In the current cultural context, truth is understood through relationships. Integrity that can be seen and touched has a way of proclaiming the gospel more than words or historic confessions can do alone. Youth and young adults are watching to see how people’s (and especially their parents’) words and lifestyles line up; and, they start by looking at the lifestyle first to decide whether the words will be worth listening to. Two questions that I find myself coming back to: (1) Are we committed to an all-of-life discipleship or are we satisfied with living a relatively good, moral life that is free of major sins? (2) How are we inviting our youth and young adults to test our lifestyles? The first question gets at the character of our discipleship; the second at the need for humility in discipling others. Both are needed if our faith is going to have integrity.
- compassion: I wonder what would happen if we led with compassion? What if the primary energy within the church was directed toward those who are suffering, regardless of why they are suffering? What if we spent more time embodying the compassion of Christ, instead of constantly naming what we think is wrong in others? It seems we are often stuck in a mode of deconstructing the world around us, rather than on being transformed by the character and work of Jesus Christ. I am reminded of something Martin Bucer (16th Century Reformer) taught: we can’t say the image of God is living in us, unless we are serving others. If we spend ourselves serving others, how much time and energy would we have left to develop the judgmental reputation that our youth and young adults perceive in us?
- One of the poignant aspects of the panel discussion was that young adults can’t picture themselves as belonging within a faith community because their moral failures seem so far out of bounds from what they think a “good Christian” should be. How can we practice confession and forgiveness as a community? What might church – and not just Sunday worship – look like if it included space for us to confess our sins to each other and to receive forgiveness from each other? I wonder if part of what we need is more cross-generational story-telling. How would our youth and young adults respond to hearing stories of our brokenness and our ongoing struggles to overcome deeply entrenched sins? Would they see that there is room for them within the body of Christ?
As I asked in closing my comments within our congregation’s newsletter: How will we disciple our youth and young adults so that they can taste and see – and not just hear about – the good news of Jesus Christ?
Need for Formation in Discipleship
As I continue to listen to ongoing conversations around these events, I also find myself drawn to an important discipleship shift that is underway. So often our youth-oriented discipleship has been bent on passing along information that the previous generation has believed to be essential to the Christian faith. We’ve structured Sunday school and catechism classes and youth group meetings to place a high value on this information transfer. What we have missed in this approach is character formation – who are we becoming in relationship with God, with others, and with the rest of creation – and the competencies (to borrow language from Mike Breen and 3DM) of how to cultivate that character formation throughout our life time. This posture does not endorse an anti-intellectual posture, but repositions the transfer of biblical and theological knowledge as a resource in the context of becoming and making disciples. The centre of discipleship shifts from Sunday school classrooms toward discipling relationships where we, our youth, our young adults – all of us – engage in a life-long process of growing in Jesus Christ as we keep in step with the Spirit. Our church-based discipleship methods and priorities need a shift from simply distributing intellectual knowledge about God toward cultivating our character and competencies in the person and way of Jesus Christ. While such a shift will certainly impact our youth and young adults, the reality is that all of us within the church would benefit from this kind of discipleship.
Two Lingering Questions
As I wrap up this longer post, I have two lingering questions on which I’d love to hear from others. What adjustments are needed in us as adults – parents and leaders in the church – so that our faith becomes accessible to youth and young adults in ways that are more tangible, more hospitable, and more encompassing of our whole lives? Anyone have examples of churches that are shifting toward a character-formation centered discipleship for youth and young adults – and if so, what’s that shift been like?