It is no secret for many churches that the millennial generation, particularly ages 18-24, are leaving organized religion. A lot has been written in the past several years about why they have left. But let’s turn this around and think about what makes those who do not stray stay in the institutional church. My own anecdotal evidence of why this age group either stays or leaves leads to three reasons: the involvement, or lack thereof, in church ministry beyond the youth group; the impact of the family; and, whether there are basic spiritual disciplines practiced, or not.
I have noticed over the years of serving in the church that when teenagers have a significant involvement in a ministry that reaches across the span of the church community (i.e. worship services, small groups), then they are much more likely to understand that they are needed in the Body of Christ. I have also observed that when kids are raised in a spiritual environment that places emphasis and importance on church ministry engagement, they are exposed to it being modeled and are likely to follow the example. Finally, there is simply no substitute for basic practices in the Christian life getting started as early as possible. Teens which learn to read their Bibles and pray tend to keep up those disciplines into adulthood.
Ministry experience is one thing, but there is evidence to back up some of these observations. Sociologist Christian Smith in his book, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, says that his extensive research demonstrates that highly religious teenagers are not very likely to become very un-religious five years later. Smith points to six factors that lead to the strength of religious practice among emerging adults: strong parental religion; frequent personal prayer; high importance of religious faith; frequent reading of Scripture; many supportive religious adults; and, doubts about religious beliefs.
Each one of these factors can be unpacked and examined in much more detail. But for our purposes here in simply broaching the subject, it should become increasingly clear that we can exude a good deal of influence toward the younger generations within the church. Whether a young adult is devoted, regular, sporadic, or disengaged in church might be their personal decision, but it is within our corporate sphere of control as to whether we will leave an impactful impression upon him/her for positive good.
Indeed, from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures we get the admonition to leave such a persuasive influence upon our kids. “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).
If Christianity is a commitment that centers round all of life, then we can reasonably expect that this will leave an enduring and endearing legacy. But if Christianity is something that exists to be present only when needed, then we ought not to be surprised when Christian faith is jettisoned by young adults who find something else that addresses their wants.
Inter-generational ministry, then, is not really something that is a nice notion, but is vital to the ongoing faith development of teens into adulthood and beyond. It is the sage leadership team that thinks through these realities in their own context and develops some concrete ministry. After all, the Christian life is not just for a season; it is to move and mature over a lifetime.