Young Adults and Faith

 
 
            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.

Keeping My Options Open

One of the great problems of today’s church, in my humble opinion, is that decades of generational ministry has led to people in the Body of Christ only relating to the parts of the body just like themselves.  Even within family units, parents have difficulty understanding teenagers and grandparents have a hard time relating to twenty-somethings.  We only exacerbate the problem by giving such a potpourri of offerings in the church (i.e. dare I say it?  a traditional service and a contemporary service) that the ages are segregated with no meaningful interaction.  In short, we just don’t know each other.  I have heard older generations bemoan the lack of commitment among younger people, and younger people complain of older folks as stuck in a rut.  I believe the onus is always on the older to reach the younger (the New Testament letter of Titus chapter 2, for example).  So, let’s reconsider the perspective that young people lack commitment.

There is a mantra that I have heard many students, twenty-somethings, and young families repeat over and over when considering what they will be doing this summer, how the next academic year will shake out, whether they will stick with a certain relationship or activity, how and when they may commit to any involvement, and if they might show up at a certain event or even church: “I’m keeping my options open.”

At first thought this sounds pretty wishy-washy.  But the thought in a young person’s head is typically one of not wanting to close doors that might be open to them, or to not burn bridges with anyone. They want to entertain as many promising options as they can, because they do not want to miss an opportunity, lose control of a situation, or get locked into something they aren’t sure of. Thus, many in the younger generations are typically loathe to settling down on any one thing.

This is why it is commonplace for people under 35 to try a wide variety of religious and spiritual organizations, and may never settle on just one. They move effortlessly between a large group meeting in one place and a bible study in another, and between a small traditional church and a big contemporary worship service. Spiritual experiences for them often take the form of freedom, exploration, spontaneity, and renewal.

Although it is important for all people to learn the value of loyalty and developing consistent routines centered in spiritual disciplines, in a younger person’s modus operandi they typically will not succumb to a dry faith that is done out of sheer duty or habit. So, instead of pressing or expecting them to be in our mold of devotion and faithfulness through closing doors and making consequential decisions, perhaps we ought to walk alongside them and join them in the journey they are on. The New Testament refers to Christianity as a road or a way, and the Christian life as a walk that we take with Jesus and the Spirit. It is in this walking together with another that we can help them consider the options that are before them, and provide counsel, wisdom, and warning concerning the forks in the road and the exits off the path. Younger generations can learn to forego certain options and commit to something particular when we take the time to journey with them.

So, rather than lament this generation’s lack of focus and ever-present flakiness, may we understand their desire to have genuine relationships with God and others that does not miss out on a vibrant life.

-How can we be a help, and not a hindrance to others in their journey?
-What can God do for and with individuals who keep their options open?
-Where is the Spirit taking a young person in his/her walk?
-What are your options in relating to particular persons, and generations of people?

Distracted by Grace

 

          With summer, church ministries typically take a hiatus from their normal schedules.  Along with that reality, our own spirituality may suffer as we turn to other things like vacations or being around the kids all the time.  Summer distractions may overwhelm our good intentions toward walking with God, as if we have a condition of spiritual A.D.D.  We seem to… “squirrel!”… be easily distracted by the next thing that comes running along, and have a hard time focusing on what is important in life.

But before we get too perturbed with ourselves, think about the nature of our lives. Teenagers and twenty-somethings are learning to flex their independent muscles and are developing a whole new skill set of handling a budget, paying bills on their own, creating new social networks, adjusting to new schedules, and finding and holding a job.  Young families are constantly adjusting to the next crazy thing their pre-school kids are doing, trying to coordinate both parents working, all while attempting to keep both sets of grandparents happy.  Parents of teens probably aren’t even reading this article because they are driving kids from one end of the planet to the other (it seems), and wonder if they will ever catch up on the sleep they need.  And grandparents in our culture today are just as busy, but with the added irritation of constantly dealing with the next ache and pain.  It is easy in the daily demands of life to have Jesus squeezed to the margins.

Let me suggest that rather than feeling guilty for our spiritual lives because of all the distractions and seeming lack of discipline, that we shift our distractions by being distracted by grace.  When we sense our schedules are awry, our financial budgets won’t budge, and our work never seems to get done, that we use these situations to be distracted by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  When we are forever chasing the next shiny thing that comes along, and/or complain about our own schedules as if there are not enough minutes in the day to accomplish God’s will, let us be distracted with the forgiveness that is available to us through the cross.  After all, the Christian life is about having a realization of our sin, and of a renewal to our relationship with God.  Allow our distraction to point us to grace.

Most of life, frankly, is lived in the mundane. How we live for God day in and day out, through all the details and tedium, speaks volumes to those for whom we seek to minister to, whether it is our own children, fellow believers in the Church, or others who do not know God.   Establishing solid spiritual patterns of life can be hard.  But maybe a key for us is in allowing grace to distract us enough to connect us with accepting God’s forgiveness, instead of just running around like a chicken with its head cut off.  Allow grace to distract us toward thinking on these questions:

–Am I living in a consistent rhythm of life that reflects my most precious values?
–Have I learned to practice the presence of Christ in the mundane activities of life?
–Do I have healthy patterns of work, rest, and play that others can emulate?

In being distracted by grace, we may find that we have actually become engaged with God.