This week, Josh Weiger (Youth Pastor at Park Place Church of God) and I are leading 3W Seminars on "Developing a Youth Program" in Liverpool, England (Birkenhead) and Paris, France. My guess is that of all the seminars we offer at 3W, this one will probably be the most requested. Attracting youth to church is never easy. By it's very nature, church is a place of absorbing norms, keeping traditions, and practicing spiritual self-control. That pretty much describes the opposite of what we all want to do as teenagers. Being a teenager is about experimentation, breaking rules, and living in the moment. Not such a great match eh?
At the same time, churches need youth and young families to survive. They cannot allow themselves to age and ignore the younger generations. They must continually attract and integrate them--absorbing some changes and resisting others. It's a tough balance.
When a church decides to focus on young people (and I'm glad that so many are in the European/Middle East region because that is what 3W is all about), it is embarking on an uncertain adventure. There are no guarantees that many young people will join the church. Even if they do, there are no guarantees that they will stay with the church or keep their lives straight and narrow. It is a risk. But we shouldn't do it to build up our churches or just for our own survival. But rather we should do it because young people need God and need an opportunity to find him.
Jesus said "let the children come to me," which always makes us say 'awww.' Had Jesus said, "let the modern teenagers come to me," we might not have been so charmed. Teenagers can be irreverent, self-absorbed, and very inconsistent. They sound a lot like the Disciples, actually, who were all of those things plus young to boot (possibly teenagers during Jesus' ministry).
Of course the concept of "teenagers" is a new post-World War II phenomenon. Through most of human history, by the age of 12 or 13, you were expected to work and contribute to the family and clan. The delaying of adulthood made possible by the modern world creates people that on some levels are mature enough to think like adults and even procreate like adults, but yet keeps their lives unstructured enough that the age becomes one of experimentation and constant identity-seeking.
As I shared at the seminar in Liverpool, when I was a teenager going to church, was I a good kid? Or was I a bad kid? I was both and neither. I loved church but my spiritual maturity was virtually zero. Trying to be the same person in church as I was outside seemed near impossible. I loved participating in church, but sometimes it was with motivations to please God, other times it was for my own ego boost. That's what we are dealing with when we work with young people. Things are not so neat and simple. That's why the pay-offs are often not immediate.
Nevertheless, a positive church experience in our youth can have a dramatic impact on us for the rest of our lives. Church was the one place as a teenager that I felt truly safe. I would not have been able to articulate that. I certainly could not have affirmed my pastor and youth pastor to say something like: "Gee, I'm experiencing a lot of discomfort and insecurity in 8th grade, but by golly, I feel like a valued human being when I attend Wednesday Night youth group." Yet the words of affirmation and encouragement I received in church had a lifelong impact on me.
In the church, we often pretend that so much is measurable. It should be obvious if our church is healthy, or growing, or if we are producing good disciples. But the reality seems to me to be much more complicated. I've been in large mission-fields with lots of churches that are utterly dysfunctional. I've been in small churches that have more unity than churches 100 times their size. One would think that by the time Jesus arrived in the Garden of Gethsemene,the Disciples should have been at a pretty good point--well trained, consistent, on the road to greatness. But when Jesus needed them most, they fall asleep and run. Total failures? Was the whole discipleship project a complete failure? No. The road had a lot more twists and turns to come, but Christ's investment in them was worth the while for all of us.
The Economist reports that the situation for youth employment in Europe is a disaster and getting worse:
For the periphery, it is frightening to think that conditions may actually grow worse. Jobless rates in Greece and Spain are already at eye-watering levels. Among young people, those under 25, rates of joblessness across the whole of southern Europe are startling. In Greece, 45% of young people were unemployed as of August, which is the last month for which data are available. In Spain, the rate is 49%, up sharply from a year ago. In Italy, youth unemployment is 29%; in Portugal, it is 30%. Even in France, 24% of young people are without employment. Within a few months, southern Europe may be home to more young people without jobs than with them.
For a lot of the youth of today in Europe, life is not turning out as they thought it would. The things that they thought would be there--affordable education, work, and a higher standard of living--are turning out to not be dependable. As much as young people often come off as jaded to the world and indifferent to spiritual things, the fact is that their spirit is being broken on many levels.
*Many come from broken-families and have had multiple step families.
*Many are living with a large amount of debt.
*Many have image and self-esteem issues.
*Many come from abusive homes.
*Virtually all of them live in societies where authentic community is completely absent.
After the Pope's recent visit to Spain, 8,000 youth committed their lives to the priesthood and to becoming nuns. This, in one of the least religious societies in the world, where the Catholic church is in extreme decline, and amidst terrible sexual scandals plaguing the Catholic church. So what did the Pope do? He challenged them. He gave them an opportunity to go down a different path.
We don't know how big the pay-off will be?
There are no guarantees.
But all of our churches must ask ourselves the question: "Are we challenging our youth and offering them a different path?'