I like stats. As a kid, I clipped San Diego Padres box scores and kept them in a notebook. It was quite a mediocre collection, but I could tell you up-to-the-second stats on my hero Steve Garvey and other favorites like Tony Gwynn, Kevin McReynolds, Carmelo Martinez, Terry Kennedy, Eric Show, Ed Whitson, and on and on.
Stats are fairly prevalent in ministry, too. In fact, prevalent enough that I have grown to despise George Barna. I don’t know George personally, but I picture him living on top of a cliff somewhere, looking down upon us, tapping his fingers together and giggling sinisterly, as he prepares to unleash yet another horrifying statistic about religion.
You’ve heard them: America will not have a single living Christian in 50-or-so years! I am confronted most often with George’s numbers regarding students leaving the church after high school. His latest actuarial meddlings show that only one-fifth of twenty-somethings have maintained a level of spiritual activity consistent with their high school experiences. That’s the worst part; we are losing our kids. And guess what else? There is very little youth pastors can do about it. (But don’t stop reading.)
I am just now realizing this fact. You may have figured it out a long time ago.
I have painstakingly tried to veer away from anything that resembles legalism or fundamentalism in my teaching. I try to go deeper and disciple as many students as I can. I try to expose them to experiences that reveal their gifts and perhaps even their life purposes. All these things are good and helpful in combating the issue of our youth leaving our irrelevant churches, but they don’t solve the issue completely.
Our youth’s lifelong commitment to church and, more importantly, Jesus, is overwhelmingly initiated in the home.
I have found in my unscientific research this haunting fact: our youth’s lifelong commitment to church and, more importantly, Jesus, is overwhelmingly initiated in the home. Most of you already know this. I also realize that a good student ministry can sometimes intervene in the life of a kid from a bad home life. But the group of students I find most difficult to influence in a long-term manner are the kids who are brought up in seemingly solid Christian homes.
So what causes the mass exodus of these kids?
It’s not forced church attendance. I am convinced of this. So many parents who were dragged to church as kids vow not to do this to their kids, hoping their kids will then choose to go to church. This strategy just doesn’t work. I was always made to go to church. It wasn’t even that exciting of a church. I didn’t particularly care for opening my hymnal, singing lame songs, then hearing a preacher yell at us about how this might be our last breath, heartbeat, or chance at salvation before the trumpet sounds, before 1988 at the latest.
I don’t think this matters as much as parents think. Now, I’m glad my parents took me to church kicking and screaming. I would’ve never gone on my own. But most churches today aren’t really that painful to attend. Music has improved. Preaching has gotten less “shouty” and, well, scary. I really don’t think making your kids come to church will headline the bad, “non-Jesus” portion of their testimony later in life, starring mom or dad as the antagonists.
What matters is authenticity. Parents who chair committees at church but don’t bring Jesus home with them and make Him Lord of their homes. This is the recurring refrain I hear from young adults: a complete lack of transformation seen in people, especially at home, but also in the church. This realization renders us rather helpless, doesn’t it?
One thing I think I could do to help my students see a long-term benefit to staying in church and connecting with God’s Kingdom is to focus on whom I select to teach and disciple my students. Students need to be exposed to as many real, transformed Christians as possible. They need to see Jesus in a home, in a job or career, in a marriage, in parenting—even if they see it at home. There won’t ever be too much. They don’t need perfect leaders who never listen to secular music; they simply need people who love Jesus and will invest in their lives.
If our ministries aren’t preparing our students for life, death, suffering, success, failure, heartache, divorce, reconciliation, forgiveness, and the ministry of kindness, patience, self-control and injecting the Gospel into their community, we are failing.
Students also need to be exposed to messiness. Recently, we had a couple in our student ministry go through a separation. Ultimately, their marriage worked out, but it was great for our kids to see real people struggle with real life and observe the healing work of Jesus unfold in front of them. Our students (and yours) have been on the front-row for tragedy, failure, and success. They need to see God at work in all of that.
If our ministries aren’t preparing our students for life, death, suffering, success, failure, heartache, divorce, reconciliation, forgiveness, and the ministry of kindness, patience, self-control and injecting the Gospel into their community, we are failing. And that’s when students leave for something they think gives them meaning. Parents may be the most responsible, but we gotta fight, too. We have to help parents as much as we help their kids.
So take heart. You’re doing well. Your students are blessed to have someone like you who gets it. Press on, and don’t let George rob you of your hope!