If we want the next generation to stay in the church, we need open the table of faith to them.
As a local church youth pastor, one of my priorities is to facilitate the process of helping students move from owning their parents’ faith to owning it themselves. Most of my students enter our ministry having attended church for as long as they have lived. They know all the Sunday School answers and can recite all the basic Bible stories they learned on the flannelgraph countless times while growing up in church. Ask them how those stories affect their lives though, and you’ll see a lot of blank stares.
The connection between knowing their faith and living their faith has not yet been established, mostly because the process of cognitive development in children and adolescents delays the understanding of abstract concepts until well into the teenage years and beyond.
What happens then when students leave high school and youth ministry and go out into the world without having gone through the process of understanding what they believe? A barrage of statistics and studies answers that question.
By and large, young people leave the church and, if they do come back, it is not until they have families of their own. We have come to the realization that the radical life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ has become extremely watered down for our young people. They leave their homes believing Christianity to be a simple morality play and nothing more. They learn that the job of a Christian is to be nice to others and feel good about themselves.
Researchers call this muted version of Christianity “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD, and we are discovering that most of our young people leave the church because they confuse MTD for Christianity. MTD comes from a muddled conglomeration of several religious sources with the following basic tenets:
God created the world, watches over us, and wants people to be nice to each other.
The goal of life is to be happy and feel good about you.
God is not necessary except when we need Him to resolve a problem.
The people on this earth who do good things will go to heaven when they die.
When young people grow up believing MTD and not Christianity, it is no wonder that they have no need for the church when they leave home. Kara Powell and Brad Griffin have done extensive research on this subject and have founded the “Sticky Faith” movement (stickyfaith.org) in response.
Three Key Shifts
They have identified three key shifts that must take place in youth ministry to develop a faith that “sticks:”
- Shift from a behavior-based gospel to a grace-based gospel.
- Shift from a two-table church to welcoming young people around one table.
- Shift from “dry-cleaner” parenting to ministry partnership.
Too many students equate Christianity with a list of good behaviors. They believe that following God requires following a strict list of what to do and what not to do.
So what happens when they face temptation in high school or college to do something on God’s “don’t-do list?” A faith built on behavior will crumble when put under this type of pressure. We must do better at teaching our students just how amazing the grace of Jesus Christ is and that it is much greater than any mistake they could possibly make.
In their research, Powell and Griffin found that for those churches that did develop “sticky faith” in their students, there was one key similarity: they focused on developing intergenerational relationships in the church. Too many young people equate church in high school with “youth group.” They graduate and leave our churches not knowing the true beauty of the body of Christ. This doesn’t mean we need to get rid of youth ministry, as some have proposed.
Young people still need pastors and youth workers who will invest in their lives. What this does mean is that our youth ministries need to find new approaches that welcome young people into the vibrant life of the church, and not just their youth groups.
The authors describe “dry-cleaner parents” as those who drop their kids off at church and expect to pick them up all clean and pressed, like their clothes from the dry-cleaner.
It is not the church’s sole responsibility to care for the spiritual development of young people. In fact, the number one spiritual model for our young people is their parents. The church and the parents must do better at partnering together if we are to develop a faith that sticks in our young people.
In our ministry, we are seeking to integrate these three key shifts in a way that also clearly communicates the call to holiness. Unfortunately, many young people leave the church after high school not having wrestled with the tough questions of faith. Culture will most assuredly fill the gaps where the church has been silent. Silence, not doubt, is the enemy of faith.
So in addition to these three key shifts, we are also seeking to implement a safe environment in which students can ask the honest questions of faith without the fear of judgment. It can be a real temptation to seek to have a nice and tidy answer for every difficult question of faith, but we must be okay with the answer “I don’t know.”
If we are to invite students into the greater body of Christ, then we need to view them as people capable of reasoning through difficult issues. If we do not provide that for them while under our care, they will seek other avenues to ask those questions.
Bottom line? Young people matter to God and they should matter to us. I pray that we may endeavor together to stem the exodus of young people leaving the church by loving them as they are and inviting them to participate in the rich and beautiful life of the church.
Jeremy Bixler is youth pastor at Nashua, New Hampshire, Community Chapel Church of the Nazarene. He also serves as the New Hampshire state co-coordinator of National Network of Youth Ministries and vice president of New England District Nazarene Youth International.