Have you noticed the number of ministers and church leaders concerned about young people leaving the church and God? I have no doubt they are concerned. Unfortunately, as with many problems, they are hoping to find the “sound bite” solution that will solve the problem with little time, effort or money expended.
Actually, quite a few are willing to spend money. Unfortunately, it is often spent on the more shallow things some young people (or older adults) have said are the problems. While I have no doubt we would all like to hear our favorite music in service, have the minister reflect our political and social views and the church declare we no longer need to obey our least favorite of God’s rules, the actual problem is much more complex.
Others have given up entirely, cutting out Bible classes for children and teens. The rationale is usually that we can’t prove Bible classes make a positive difference. They may be close to the truth with that belief. It’s not the concept of Bible classes that is the problem though, but rather how we have traditionally conducted them. When educational best practices are ignored in favor of convenience or entertainment, it’s little wonder anything is actually learned and retained – much less practiced.
If you actually talk to young people, they often have a very astute grasp on what they need from their church family. Things they aren’t currently getting. The frustration level is palpable as they question why older adults aren’t demanding these same things from themselves and their church family.
So what are some of the things they want?
- To be taught more than a handful of Bible stories and scriptures. They know the Bible probably has a lot more information for them to learn. Unfortunately, they are usually intimidated by adults’ bad attitudes on reading scripture independently. The fear keeps many from exploring the Bible on their own. They become frustrated adults aren’t teaching them more of what is in the Bible or at least encouraging and teaching them how to read the Bible in meaningful ways.
- They want someone to help them understand how to actually apply these stories and scriptures to real life. They know God gave us the Bible to teach us what He wants us to do in our lives. They believe no one is teaching them how to take a story or scripture and figure out what God wants them to learn from it. In fact, I would say this is one of the top three complaints I hear from teens and young adults.
- They want someone to teach them how to do the things God wants them to do in their lives. Stewardship, godly conflict resolution and other commands and principles in the Bible sound great. Who is teaching young people how to actually do these things? If they don’t regularly watch someone do them, if someone doesn’t teach them the steps or tips, they will have a much more difficult time doing what God wants them to do. They desperately want us to teach them these Christian Life Skills.
- They want to know what will happen if they obey God – or disobey Him. Granted, we live in a fallen world, which means things aren’t always fair. Most of the time though, there are obvious benefits in this world to obeying God – and obvious consequences for disobeying Him. Death, Heaven and Hell are often still too abstract – too far in the future in their minds – to worry about. Most believe they have plenty of time to “get their spiritual act together” when they are “old”. Earthly, natural consequences will resonate more with them. We absolutely still need to be teaching them about Heaven and Hell (the absence of that teaching has its own negative consequences), but we also need to realize for many young people they serve as little motivation to live a Christian life. This is especially important in areas where scripture teaches the opposite of what the “enlightened” popular culture believes at the moment.
- They want to learn how to put their faith into action – serving others and sharing that faith. They are aware of all of the problems in the world. They know God can use them to make a positive difference in that world – but they aren’t quite sure how to put all of the pieces together. They struggle when they see Christians making Christianity an intellectual exercise with no service. The more spiritually mature young people also struggle when they see Christians focused on social justice without sharing the Gospel message and calling people to obedience.
- They need the community the church is supposed to provide – a healthy Christian family. Too many churches unknowingly encourage superficial relationships amongst members. Christians have no idea what the Christian sitting next to them on the pew is struggling with – much less how to encourage them or hold them accountable. Because of these shallow relationships, it is too easy for well-meaning Christians (who have no idea what is going on in someone’s life) to say something that can make things more difficult. Young people don’t want to be micro-managed or grilled, but they need desperately to feel the people at church not only love them, but are willing to go the extra mile to show them that love. They want mentoring. They want unconditional love. Believe it or not, they also want to be held accountable for their choices.
- They need to know what their place is in God’s Kingdom and in their congregation. Too many churches make kids and teens feel like they have nothing to offer to in some way serve their congregation and God. Everyone wants to feel needed and the scriptures about the Church being a body with many parts – each with an important function – means there is an important role for our young people, too. They need someone to help them discover, develop and use the gifts God has given them to serve Him – not just plugged into a “church chore” slot.
Do you see themes running through these needs young people are expressing? Most churches don’t even realize the needs, much less do anything really meaningful to address them. Secular groups, however, are more than willing to teach young people about their cause and make them feel a vital part of their mission. No wonder many young people leave the church and focus on secular non-profits! Yet, in the end, those non-profits will still leave people feeling empty.
God placed in all of us a need that can only be filled by Him. Let’s really examine what we are doing and see what we need to change to help young people truly understand God’s Plans for their lives. Let’s help them learn how to be Christians in their very core – not just attend Christian activities. It will take a lot of time and effort. If we can address these needs though, we may just find not only are our young people staying, put our churches are beginning to grow like we should have been all along.