Travis Johnson’s piece on reaching people 18-35 is great but perhaps it would be interesting to look at the problem from another angle: how did we get into this mess of having to reclaim this age group to start with?
If we think about how young people are raised in this country, we’re looking at a situation where 9 out of 10 of them are basically incarcerated in the artificial environment of the public school, micromanaged as only a Boomer run system can, and subject to a wide variety of restrictions which grow every day. All the while they are put into all kinds of performance-based scenarios which may or may not relate to reality. Their eighteenth birthday comes, and poof! they turn into adults. So what is their response? They chuck all restraints and try to make up for the lost time of their delayed adulthood, which wastes another decade and forces them to learn yet another set of freedoms and restrictions in the process.
The church’s response is to go along with this trend. They direct those who are born to parents in church through a series of ministries separate from the main life of the church–nursery, children’s church, middle school and high school youth ministries. The magic number of 18 comes up again, and the church expects them to become adults in the church, to worship and take their part like the adults do. But it means nothing to many young people because the church has been too busy trying to meet what the church thinks is their present need rather than prepare them for their certain future. So they disappear from church, many never to return.
This is a classic example of the culture leading the church rather than the other way around, and the results are all too predictable. In spite of their outward rebellion, young people instinctively are drawn towards maturity. It’s true that Christianity is, in a sense, an attempt to preserve childhood. Christianity’s enemies such as Philip Pullman know this. But Jesus Christ never intended that the gospel be lived in a vacuum. God’s coming to earth–which we celebrate at this time of year–is a sign that God intended his way to be lived in the reality we have, not simply under ideal conditions. The goal in raising people in church is not to put them either a temporary or permanent childhood but to make the road to adulthood easier and more fruitful, fruitful both in a secular sense and certainly in the ministry sense.
And that leads to the best solution. The church is the best place where young people become adults, and the best way to accomplish that is to involve them in the main life of the church–all of its ministries–at the earliest possible moment. There are certainly risks to that. But a church that does this for its young people–to say nothing for its adults–will have its young people stick around a lot longer than otherwise. And it will attract other young people from the outside to join in, because they will see something in the church they’re not finding elsewhere in the society–real maturity and purpose.
Many years ago, I found myself drawn into one Catholic parish in part because it–out of desperation, not vision–literally called me out of the pews as a senior in prep school to do the work of God. It’s time to bring Christian young people out of the ghetto of youth ministry and into the mainstream of the church, for their sakes and ours too.