Relationship matters in the church
The Fuller Youth Institute reports that about 50 percent of church-attending youth leave the Church upon graduating from high school. These are young people who attended regularly and whose names and lives were known. To say it another way, one of every two of the students who were celebrated at your church’s graduation service will not be involved in any church in the coming year.
A 2011 book by David Kinnaman entitled, “You Lost Me. Why Young Christians are Leaving Church. . . and Rethinking Faith,” lays out six issues these twenty-somethings have with the American Church. These issues are that the church is 1) overprotective—unwilling to engage the culture, 2) shallow—filled with proof-texting and platitudes, 3) anti-science—kind of speaks for itself, 4) repressive—particularly with respect to its teaching on sexuality, 5) exclusive—not truly open to others’ ideas and version of the meaning of life, and 6) doubtless—not a safe place to express doubts. These are the essential problems the millennial generation has with the Church.
In an article titled, “Why Younger Evangelicals are Leaving the Church” (canonandculture.com), Rob Schwarzwalder seeks to debunk some of the conventional wisdom for the exodus of young adults. He argues that, in the Church’s quest to be relevant to the culture, we have become an “entertainment-driven” enterprise that is, ironically, completely irrelevant. Instead of preaching that “faithfully, accurately and clearly” lifts up the Word of God, we’ve become over-wrought with legalism, no longer focusing on the truth of sin, death, redemption and resurrection.
... in the church’s quest to be relevant to the culture, we have become an “entertainment-driven” enterprise that is, ironically, completely irrelevant.
Fuller Youth Institute offers some guidance as to how to move forward. And guess what? It’s the same old answer that will always work—relationships. The Fuller folk call them “sticky relationships,” meaning they become sticking points for young people to remain a part of the Church long after they are involved in the youth group. I call them intentional intergenerational connections. Whatever they are called, these relationships serve as the relational Velcro that helps a young person navigate the transition from the youth group into the wider body of Christ. How does this occur? Simply through ongoing relationships and contact.
At the same time a young person graduates from the youth group, there is another group of 7th (or 6th) graders entering. The youth director or pastor likely has her or his hands full orienting the new students and their families to the ministry. Graduates can get lost in this transition, and about half do. It seems to me a simple but profoundly significant solution is to connect young people to older people in the congregation so that the job of following up with youth as they enter their twenties is on the shoulders of the many rather than on those of the one youth leader. It’s even better if these intentional intergenerational connections begin at the earliest time possible—think nursery—and that the culture of a church is really to do what we say we will when babies are baptized or dedicated—help to nurture and form them as followers of Jesus.
How are intentional intergenerational connections formed? By creating a new vision and model of youth and children’s ministry. I teach my students that the purpose of youth, children and family ministry is to integrate young people into the Body of Christ and the Mission of Christ. In this paradigm, instead of running programs, these folks become facilitators of relationship. The job of the youth and children’s directors and pastors is to connect younger folks intentionally with older folks in meaningful situations of conversation and relationship building.
Because of Northwest Nazarene University’s commitment to this concept, we are taking concrete steps to educate in this direction. This fall our current online Master of Arts and Master of Divinity programs in youth, church & culture, along with our Christian education programs, will be combined into a new Youth, Children & Family Ministry Program. (See nnu.edu/ministry.) The goal here is to broaden our focus in order to better address the current realities of the local church. Together—churches, pastors and university—we can reverse the trend and retain young Christians as they mature into adulthood.
Dr. Mike Kipp is associate professor of youth and family ministry. He holds a D.Min. in this field from Fuller Theological Seminary and has a forthcoming publication from Nazarene Publishing House entitled “Youth Ministry and the Body of Christ.”