Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Life Span of a Christian

I had a conversation the other day with a friend from church. "Jeff" is in his late-40s and has been an active member of the church for a very long time. I could tell something was troubling Jeff, so I asked him to share.

"Where are all the young people?"

I asked him to say more.

"It makes me sad that there aren't more youth and young adults in worship. I look around and all I see are people my age or parents with small children. Where are the kids in their teens and 20's?"

As we continued to talk, my friend shared the story of his faith journey. It was not unlike most others I had heard. He was reluctantly taken to church as a child, drifted away after confirmation, worshiped on Christmas Eve as a young adult to make his mom happy, got married, had a kid, and got reconnected after his child's baptism. It was a that moment that the light bulb went off.

Jeff came to the astonishing conclusion that he was no different than the very people he was chastising for being MIA.

We continued talking about how important it is for the church to continue reaching out to youth and young adults. We covered the main buzz words like "creativity", "innovation", "renewal" and "emerging". We knew that, just because many young Lutherans drift away after confirmation and (hopefully) return in adulthood doesn't mean that's a good thing. We just didn't have any ideas of what that kind of ministry looks like.

* * *

Later that night, I couldn't sleep. I thought about my conversation with Jeff...contemplated my own journey...and considered the stories of two Biblical big shots.

Moses -- he lived the life of an Egyptian prince, fled to the desert, farmed for a while, got married, and eventually came back to lead God's people to freedom. Moses was well into adulthood when he claimed his identity as a child of God, after having nothing to do with Yahweh up until then.

Jesus -- we know a lot about his birth and a "Home Alone"-style fiasco in the temple when he was 12...and then...nothing until he's about 30-years old. He grew in "wisdom and understanding", but what does that mean? He made nice shelving units in his dad's carpentry shop? He did miracles and signs and wonders around the neighborhood? What happened in his formative years? When Jesus finally appeared on the scene as an adult, had 3 good years of ministry, and then died.

There are many other examples of faithful God-followers that started young and continued throughout their lives (Jeremiah, Samuel, David, etc.). However, in light of the inverse bell curve of Christian involvement in many churches, I began to wonder:

What is the life-span of a Christian?

Are we wired to be people that are constantly growing in faith until the day we die?

Is it acceptable to ride the waves of doubt and certainty throughout our lives?

Does everyone have their time in the desert, a la Moses?

Does a person who remains active in a church during their young adult years become disconnected in their 40s & 50s, when other people their age become reinvested in their faith community?

Are churches needlessly banging their heads against a wall while trying to figure out what to do with the 13 - 30 crowd?

Should we invest our denominational efforts in creating para-church entities that take the place of a congregational focus? (A.k.a. create a theologically-sound alternative to Young Life or Campus Crusade for Christ.)

* * *

My tendency is to say that the church, which is the body of Christ, must remain central in the ministry that it does with people of all ages and stages in the journey. I'd like to think that we can be all things to all people. I subscribe to the theory that most churches have become (for lack of a better word) LAZY when it comes to engaging youth and young adults in meaningful ways...and there are lots of people / organizations that will gladly fill the void.

The big question, of course, is "how do we do this?" How does an established, mainline, intergenerational congregation go about nurturing faith among those in their teens and 20s?

Please provide the correct answer below. Thanks...


  1. One of the questions Call Committees always ask pastors - "How are you going to keep the youth from leaving after confirmation?" My answer is to use the time I have them to forge a relationship and try to make the church a place where they experience grace. And they probably will still leave but maybe some day they will remember the church as a place where they were cared about and accepted no matter what and it's there for them when they are ready to experience that again.

    Of course the challenge is to make sure the church IS that place.

  2. What make Campus Crusade and Young Life and effective is their focus. As you articulatly put it in your last post, our focus in the ELCA often on other less important issues. But Young Life and Campus Crusade have the same problem when youth drop off in college and in their 20's. Pastor Joelle is right the church is the right place. But we give out pizza, talk about hot button topics, go to gatherings, but rarely keep our focus on a spiritual life long relationship with Jesus that is transformational and lived out in relationships.

    Your big how question is huge. I humbly suggest we start by looking at our reformation history which was really a refocus on what is central to our identity as the church and let that effect our vocation.

  3. I love both of these reflections! I agree that we need to figure out what our non-negotiables are (both at the denominational & congregational levels) and throw away all the rest of the B.S. that has lingered for too long. The process of RENEWAL is always more difficult than the process of DEVELOPMENT...but, more often than not, that's what we're called to do!

  4. The "Holy Grail" of young people ministry.....how to attract those post-college folks.

    I have a theory; Many folks need that time away from church to find out for themselves the importance of Christ/spiritual life/God in their lives. They need to make the choice themselves so they own it.

    We, the church, whatever... need to show grace before and after they wander. Kind of like the father in the prodigal son parable.

  5. I like the way you're thinking, Steven! Perhaps allowing some time & space for people to claim their faith isn't a form of "giving up" on that demographic. Can the church do more to walk along side young adults as they wrestle with the big questions? How do "we, the church" make connections during these wandering years without being over-bearing and suffocating?


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