By Sarah Parham –
We have all read the reports, the gloomy news that young people are leaving the church in masses. A Fuller Youth Institute study shows that roughly 50 percent of young people who grow up in the church leave the church behind, along with the piles of caps and gowns and high school sports trophies. No one needs a news feed to tell us this. It’s visible in the pews we sit in. It can cause us to lose hope.
But after more than a decade in college ministry, I can say with confidence that many Christian young people I know who are exiting the church are actually in pursuit of the kingdom. They are looking for a church that isn’t contained in four walls. They are looking for something more expansive, more missional. They are seeking a church to go to on Sunday that would be with them Monday through Saturday as well—touching the things they touch, loving the people they love. And this gives me hope!
But how might these young people stay connected to church? How can we, as church members, be an ally in helping them discern how God might use them in His mission in the world?
Don’t have the answers. Young people’s experience of the world is different than any other generation. They cannot stay uninformed of issues and tragedies in faraway places. The problems of other nations are being tweeted and broadcast in their pockets every day. Terrorism isn’t something that happens on foreign soil, but in New York City. Young people want to know what Jesus says about these things.
It can be rather intimidating. Their questions can be hard ones: “Is Jesus serious about taking care of the poor? He talked about that a lot. What is the church doing to help?” We might be tempted to squelch such questions because we don’t have the answers.
But that’s just it. We often don’t have the answers. And that’s not even the point. In my experience working with college-age youth, I noticed that when they asked hard questions, so often they weren’t trying to figure me out or to pin me or the church to the wall. They were trying to figure themselves out. They were trying to understand where their place was in this big, beautiful, and very messy world.
So how can we respond to their questions in a way that satisfies the questions beneath the questions?
Listen to the heart. The transition young people go through is so subtle, adults can miss it. Of course, young children ask why about everything. At some point, though, the why starts to be asked for a new reason. The question goes from “Mommy, why is that man asking for money?” to, years later, “Why is he sleeping outside when I go home to a nice bed?” In other words, as a person grows into adulthood, the question shifts from “Why is the world this way?” to “Why am I in the world this way?” When we miss the twist in the question, we miss the opportunity to speak into the lives of young people about that most precious thing: calling.
So at this junction, keep engaging. Listen to what Jesus is doing in this person. What breaks her heart? What inspires him to do more? What are his talents? What are the things that make her come alive — or the things that keep her up at night? What are the things that make him question?
It gets tricky when we hear hard questions over and over again. But be encouraged. So often, when God is moving in people to do something — like calling them to missions, for example — His call may be experienced as a holy unrest. In other words, there begins a stirring in the spirit that things aren’t the way they should be.
So when young people come to us with their questions, what if we return the questions back to them by asking, “What do you think God is saying in these questions? What if the answer lies in you?” By our questions, we might help them see that the things they notice that are not right could be the very things God is calling them towards. As we do this, we might actually help them discover their place in the mission of Jesus.
And, says the Fuller Youth Institute, we might also help them stay connected to the church. The Institute released a study on the phenomenon of young people leaving the church post high school. They found that there is one X-factor for keeping young people engaged in the church. Listening. When young people have a non-related adult who knows them well and is actively engaged in their lives, the chances of their keeping the faith and staying engaged in a church/campus group throughout college and beyond increases dramatically.
Set them free. If church people ask me what they can do to attract young people, the first thing I ask is what their missions program is like. I often get quizzical stares. Some proceed to tell me about their church’s youth program, or how much money they give to missions. But that’s not the heart of my question.
The reason I ask about a church’s missions program is because young people don’t want to sit on the sidelines and observe. They want to get involved with something meaningful. They want to be involved in missions and outreach. And their doing this might actually mean that they will leave our churches to go elsewhere, even to some other part of the world.
So instead of losing our young people, let’s launch them. Let’s listen to their questions. Let’s help them discern how God desires to use them in the world. Let’s resource them, and then let’s set them free to join Jesus in His mission. This, after all, is the ultimate goal of a missional church.
Sarah Parham is TMS Global’s director of mobilization and candidacy. She holds a Masters of Divinity degree from Asbury Theological Seminary. This article was reprinted from the Fall 2017 issue of Unfinished, the publication of TMS Global. Used by permission.