Last week you may have noticed that I posted an article that described what kind of churches in the USA were able to keep young people engaged, that post is here: http://wp.me/p2Az40-NP, the research is from the Fuller institute in the USA, and worth reflecting on. In the last few years there has been a plethora of articles saying : why millenials leave the church? or why the church has lost a ‘generation’ – whatever a ‘generation’ is, none of them help, they just brow beat and demoralise further. Because there are some very good people in very challenging places spending time with young people. Since I posted it i have been thinking about what kind of things kept me engaged in the church I went to and stayed in as a young person between 1988 and 1996, and i thought they are worth sharing.
It might be that my experience was completely unique, and yes that is philosophically accurate, it was unique. The challenge that I think there is, is whether it is right to think that the same things that kept young people engaged 20 or more years ago, will be the same today. My hunch is not, but throwing out the baby completely with the bathwater might be a mistake.
So, Why didnt I leave my church in my teenage years?
I think there was a number of reasons:
1. It was my church.
For, although it was a church I grew up in, and therefore by default my parents and sister also went to, for a number of reasons my parents left the church when I was about 12. After that point, though i was given the opportunity to leave, I continued to go, to be part of the youth groups and what then happened is that It became a safe place, a place away from my parents, almost a place where i felt at times as if it was slightly rebellious to go, rather than rebellious not to. But it became my church. I know of other young people who felt they had to find an identity of going to church which was a different one to their parents, especially those whose parents are in leadership or important, but that neednt be so. I realise this might not be a possible scenario for many young people, but this scenario for me, enabled me to have more of my own identity in the church.
2. I was given jobs to do
From the age of 11, ie just starting High school, i asked to and was given the opportunity to help with the Sunday school, I think it was the under 6’s group. And it was great. I learned so much, and had to think about doing games or crafts or reading or stories. I was, at age 11 trusted to help and make a contribution to help the younger age groups. Im not sure I attended the ‘meetings’ to discuss the sunday school, but that didnt matter, each Sunday i was a key helper in the particular group, and at the time, I think alot of other similar 11-12yr olds were given this opportunity. I would stake a claim that most of those who took on helping roles then, are more involved in churches now. I also remember the first time i had to ‘lead’ the group because the adult leader was away, yes i was terrified, and yes it probably didnt go that well, but again it showed a level of trust, and was an important part of being an apprentice. In a way, having this role, and then a few others during my teenage years ( learning to play the guitar, junior youth group leader from 16) all helped to give me responsibility, challenges, to grow up in a church and have quality time with adults, as much as quality time with other young people.
3. I was given opportunities to work things out.
I think my youth leaders, and there is some massive credit heading their way, probably got sick of me asking things, I was curious, I asked about and was keen to learn about things like Creation, like Free will, like Suffering, at times i wasnt satisfied with simple answers, and Im not just saying that now, I remember having lengthy conversation with people in the church about these complex matters. I attended and at times enjoyed the lengthy sermons, because they caused me to think, and werent dumbed down- i was probably 15 or 16 by then. But i was able to work things out because most sunday evenings I would walk back to my youth leaders house and chat with them about the sermons, or something else ( their house was on the way back to mine), and I was given time. Sometimes the conversation would continue over a hot chocolate, or a longer walk with their dog – but time and space to be listened to and not have a stupid question belittled, or even to explore the answers together was granted to me. Deep credit to all those people who gave me time. They will remain nameless but you know who you are. Not only that, but they were there in the times of needing to chat, the life choice moments, and struggles.
4. I didn’t need the spiritual ‘special event’ because I felt I had a Spiritual home.
Dont get me wrong, as a church and youth group we went to some interesting special events. Nothing has changed that much. Some were dreadful. I remember once driving my car ( so I must have been 17) with a few others to a random hall in deepest darkest Leicestershire, to an event that had been ‘well promoted’ and told of a great band etc etc, only to find that out group of 8 who travelled 20 miles formed over 1/2 the ‘audience’ ( for me these experiences started to pose questions in my head even then of ‘event based’ youth ministry) , however, back to the point. And I think at least 5 times i went to Spring Harvest, which was the ‘grandaddy’ of all the events, all that Spring harvest did is put other events in the shadow. Because, looking back, the place that felt like a Spiritual home was my local church, thats where I was given opportunities to grow, be listened to and from 11 be gradually formed in a number of ways with adults, with time and with opportunities. What the events did was categorise me back into being ‘a youth’ and just with other young people – great for connecting a meeting others, but i could have been anyone in a sea of 500, or anyone in a small group of 20 and being just a receiver of what was being said.
5. I didnt leave because I didnt want to.
I dont think that at any point between the ages of 13-18 I felt as though I wanted to leave the church. I had no need to because actually many needs and interests i had were being met by its community, and more than that, I was given responsibility and encouraged to think about developing being a leader, being helpful and contributing in a number of ways. Was there a youth group that i attended – yes. But I’m not sure a youth group alone would have kept me, though there was some fun and embarrassing moments, when someone thought that ‘four weddings and a funeral’ would be a good movie to show on a friday evening at the pastors house. Hmm, those 5 first words… In a way the group itself was a parallel to all the rest of the activity, people and support that was involved in the faith community and how i maintained involvement in it. I wonder whether actually there are some young people who dont leave the church.
I realise the situation I grew up in was unique to me, I was probably very fortunate. Yet it is unique to everyone. In that place, in that time, I look back and think about what were the things that kept me in the local church. The question is – Can churches rely on the same things that kept young people as they did 20 years ago?
Its kind of yes and no. It depends what it thinks those things are.
What the church needs to do is work with the young people it has today, right now, and give them responsibility from an early age, that will be different to each young person, the kind of support that gives them a culture of being able to talk, work things out, be heard and listened to and valued, deep. Provide opportunities for young people to become connected with many adults, doing adult things – ie music, or sports groups, so not just being kept with people of the same age. They also need to be challenged, or be given opportunities to find that challenge and thinking is good for them – i think this is different now – i think young people do want something easy, and easy is what they are given. Its that MTD thing (see http://wp.me/p2Az40-KS ).
The research pointed to two things: Young people appreciated a healthy place, and also a challenge. That hasnt changed. Most young people leave because it isnt a healthy place – they are judged, they are given high expectations, they feel inauthentic, it is not a place for them, it is emotionally unhealthy – they have to connect with more leaders than they do school teachers, unhealthy ‘when its all about building relationships..’ Equally young people leave if they are under-challenged – in responsibility, in being able to ask questions, theological and practical, in tasks of mission, of leadership and learning.
In what way might those who have responsibility of local churches enable young people to feel that the church is their church?