Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates.
- Deuteronomy 6:4-9
David Kinnaman is president of the Barna Group, a California-based market research firm that specializes in the religious beliefs and behaviors of Americans. Kinnaman’s new book, titled You Lost Me, focuses on a problem that the church has always known it’s had, but hasn’t always had the ability to address or even to articulate - namely, the loss of its young adults.
Barna research suggests that more than 60 percent of young people in the U.S. who went to church as teens drop out after high school. This is across the board: Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics. In the book, Kinnaman identifies three groups of young Christians aged 16-29 who leave the church — nomads, prodigals and exiles. Nomads leave the church, but still think of themselves as Christians. Prodigals no longer have faith nor connection with the church. Exiles still are connected but are torn between contemporary culture and the church.
In response to the problem that Kinnaman points out, the church has effectively cordoned off children and teens in Sunday school classes and youth groups. We tend to rate our effectiveness at ministering to younger people by how many attend Bible classes and youth activities regularly. But Kinnaman’s book suggests that a young person’s involvement in church activities as a child or teenager doesn’t guarantee that she’ll stay involved. Now, I believe Sunday schools and teen events can also help a kid grow in the faith. But it may be that our main strategy for keeping young people in the church, and the metric we’ve largely used to measure its effectiveness, might not mean all we think they mean.
Kids probably don’t need a whole lot more activities crammed into their schedules: they’re already probably busier than any generation before them. Kinnaman suggests that what they need more is “help sorting through the noise of culture and the noise of busyness so they can become more connected to what the Lord is asking them to do.” The answer, surprisingly, perhaps, is not more and better youth activities. It’s not cloistering them in youth programs, away from the rest of the church.
In fact, the rest of the church might be the church’s best resource in keeping our kids in the faith.
The Barna group’s research suggests that the best way for the church to keep our teens and young adults is for the whole church to become youth ministers. Kinnaman writes:
“Be there for young people as a friend. We’re too interested in being a mentor, and they may not want a mentor. They may just want a friend. All of us as older leaders are probably more connected with the young than we realize. They may be our children, grandchildren, students or other young people who are in our church. We need to have more genuine interest in them and recognize the role that we play in their lives.
“Sometimes we’re hesitant as older leaders because we feel like we’re not as cool or as relevant or interesting to young people. Yet we need greater trust in the fact that they’re listening, the fact that they want to be heard and that they don’t always just want to be talked at.”
God has always intended that his people create an intergenerational community. The Israelites were to talk about the Law with their children, while they worked or travelled or started to wind down for the evening. In that way, kids learned that the Law of their God wasn’t just about what they did at a certain time or place every week. They learned that it was about how they were to live every day of their lives, and watching and listening to their parents and other adults as they went about their day helped them to see how to put the Law into practice in their own lives as well.
Like all families, the church should be an intergenerational community. Why do we think kids should only have relationships in the church with other kids? We don’t make that assumption about any other of the demographic groups of our congregations. As it stands, in the church most kids only hear adults other than their parents talking about their faith. They need to see us living it out in front of them as well. And not just our biological kids: other kids too, with their parents’ permission and awareness, and within their boundaries, of course.
So volunteer to serve in a food pantry or at a nursing home, and ask a couple of teenagers from church to join you. Offer to give a single parent at your church a break by taking her kids to a movie or out to lunch. Attend some of the games or plays that kids at your church are involved in. Send a card to remember their birthdays. What you do with these kids doesn’t matter nearly as much as the relationships you create with them.
And when you’re with these kids, don’t feel pressured to have all the answers. Kids have plenty of people talking at them, telling them what to do, instructing them. What they’re probably in short supply of are adults to whom they can talk, and most importantly who’ll listen to them, and care, and pray. Once they see that you care about them, and that you hear what they’re saying, and that they can trust you, then you’ll be able to witness to them of the love and faithfulness of God in their own lives and help them see what God is doing in theirs.
I know, in our culture that can be a little strange. You might have to go out of your way to demonstrate your trustworthiness. You’ll probably want to be with groups of kids, not one-on-one, and you’ll definitely want to make sure to avoid any hint of anything questionable. But the effort you make will pay dividends.
While there’s a place for Bible classes and events and activities aimed right at kids, some of the church’s best work in helping its kids to grow in faith has always been done in these kinds of relationships. In prayer, why don’t you see what place you have in that kind of ministry in your church? While our kids are still here. Before we lose them.