I’ve heard it a thousand times. I’ve said it myself. “The youth are the future of the church.” This notion makes a case for youth ministry rooted in institutional survival. If we don’t raise up young people to be faithful, then the church won’t exist – tomorrow. While I understand the thought process that makes us say this, I have come to the conclusion that it is a fallacy.
The first fallacy in this line of thinking is that it makes the future of the Body of Christ something subject to human action. The truth is that the future of the Church is in Christ’s capable hands. Second, there is an insidious deferral of responsibility for the life of the church to young disciples who have little power or voice in most congregations. Shaping the future is a present reality. The people of God today are setting the course for the future of the church of tomorrow.
Placing the responsibility for the future of the church on youth and youth ministry is mostly a program to make sure that we preserve membership instead of tending discipleship. Instead of building the faith of disciples, we “sell” the idea of church membership.
The biggest fallacy in the “youth are the future” mindset is that it has not led to any positive result. With each successive generation of the 20th and now, 21st century, affiliation and connection with the church has eroded. Each generation leaves the church in larger numbers. The trend is accelerating. Whatever we have been doing has not created a future for the church. Instead, it has threatened the future.
So, what do we do? First, we have to acknowledge some very established truths about faith formation for young people (instead of ministry that does something to the youth). First, it is about Jesus. All we have to offer is Jesus – and that is more than enough. Second, the lion’s share of faith formation for kids is done by parents and adults who are significant in their lives. If parents live with faith as the core of daily life, their children are likely to learn that faith is important. If parents don’t model faith, talk about faith, know something of the faith, kids will learn it is unimportant. The church is a partner in helping parents fulfill baptismal promises.
The church cannot compete with the “busyness” of the world. The activity-driven life of young people offers rewards when effort is made. The church can’t do that – we’re a grace-based people. The activities of life offer a path to individual achievement. The church is communal in nature. Baseball season ends and awards are given. Faith is a life-long journey that gives away all the rewards upfront. No one is going to choose faith formation over band practice, dance class, or a tournament game. They are completely different animals.
The world wants kids to be happy – to live avoiding the pain, struggle, suffering of life. Faith is about joy – the peace and mercy of living through our pain and suffering. It is cross-shaped. Ministry with and for young disciples is not offering competing activities, but caring for and walking with young people as they learn faith from older disciples. Ministry with and for youth is not peer-driven, it is intergenerational.
All this means that the future of the church is resting on the example we set for, and the relationships we build with young people. It rests on parents who can talk about and teach the faith to their children. Since each generation has done a poorer job of teaching, this means that adults in the church have remedial work to do.
We are working to renew, reframe, and refocus the faith formation we do among the young disciples of this congregation. There are some voices that wonder why we are not doing “anything” for the youth. We are. It will be slow. We ask for patience. It will be different than what passed for “youth ministry” in the past. It will be focused on relationships instead of activities; joy instead of happiness, rest instead of busyness, inclusion instead of popularity, service instead of entertainment.
What can you do to help? Grow in your own faith. Set an example. Talk to the young people and let them know you care. Tell your story of faith. These are all steps in the journey to the future.
Tim Olson, Lead Pastor