If all the recent articles, books, blogs, and statistical studies are right, around two-thirds of the teens in our congregations are going to disconnect with the life of the church, and maybe even their Christian faith, as they make their way through their teens and into their twenties. A majority of them will do so after leaving the comforts of youth ministry behind and stepping out into the real world. With each new study of this young adult exodus comes the same verdict—the faith we are trying to form and the ties to the church we are trying to establish in our children and teens aren’t surviving the transition from our Sunday school classrooms and youth group programs to the realities of everyday life.
In response to these alarming statistics, many churches have turned their attention to developing programs and strategies aimed at supporting teens as they make the transition from high school to college. Congregations are mobilizing prayer partners, goodie-basket makers, and college/career groups in an attempt to welcome their youth ministry grads into the life of the church. But as we gather volunteers, adjust budgets, and build new programs to try to reverse the trend, we should ask ourselves an important question: Why haven’t our youth been a part of the life of the church all along?
Don’t get me wrong, we need to be far more deliberate about first celebrating and then supporting our teenagers as they move through this particular transition. However, as we look for ways to keep our teens and young adults plugged into the church, we need to be careful we aren’t putting all of our energy into rushing to embrace our teens as they are on the way out when we should be spending that energy embracing them while they are still with us.
For many teens, it’s not just the support they get during the big transitions of life that shapes who they are and what becomes of their faith, but rather it’s the support they experience in the day-to-day transitions of adolescent life. Are our congregations ready to be there when friendships break down, relationships come to an end, grades slip, and mistakes are made? What about when long-held beliefs turn to doubt? Are we involved enough to see that maybe it’s the daily transitions from who they are at home to who they are at school or when they go out with friends that are really forming who our teenagers are becoming? Are we involved enough to notice the ones longing for the next transition—the next chance to be noticed, accepted, loved, or to maybe just start over? It’s these small transitions that so often go unnoticed by our congregations.
Churches can be far too quick to hand off the hard work of building relationships with our younger generations to the experts—the energetic Sunday School volunteers, the hip new youth pastor, the cool youth group leaders, the veteran catechism teacher, or the local para-church organization. When we choose to take this route and then ignore the crucial role that the congregation plays in faith formation, we are failing to take seriously the promises we made to our children (and their families) at baptism. For it is at baptism that we join our voices in communal promises to guide and nurture, uphold and support, and love and encourage each child as he or she grows. These are everyday promises. These are lifelong promises. Promises that hold true through all the transitions of life–whether they are large or small, celebrated or mourned, public or private, expected or unexpected. Promises we can hold by taking the time to form real relationships with the children in our congregations as they grow and continuing to build those relationships through the many transitions of life. Those relationships are the building blocks that make our programs come alive. It’s within the context of those relationships that real community is formed, programs and age-specific ministries may thrive, and, as Kara Powell at Fuller Youth Institute calls it, “sticky faith” is formed.
Helping our congregations build these lasting relationships with our younger generations early and often is no small task. It entails a congregational willingness to share meals, experiences, and stories across families and generations. It means showing up for events at schools, soccer fields, concert halls, and local theatres to cheer on children and teens that aren’t our own. It means eating and shopping where the teens on our congregations work. It means taking a few extra minutes to lean over the pew in front of you and talk with that teenager who has been sitting there since he was a little boy. It entails a collective readiness to wade into the messiness of teenage life, right alongside the “experts.” It’s not easy work, but it’s what we are called to do. It’s what we promise to do. And it’s what the Holy Spirit empowers us to do.
This should be our first priority—to keep the promises we make at baptism and build lasting and loving relationships that nurture the faith and support the growth of every child and young person in our congregations. The more we are involved in the lives of the children and teenagers in our churches from the first cry to the first car and beyond, the less likely we will be to lose them in transition.
Derek Atkins is an associate curriculum editor at Faith Alive Christian Resources. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with his wife Keri and two daughters, Alida and Cassidy.