Dear Senior -
For four years, you've graced our ministry with your presence. Now as your graduation approaches, I've found my thoughts drifting to you more and more frequently. I've used each thought I've had of you as a call to prayer.
As I've prayed for you, I've found myself thanking God for the blessing you've been to our ministry. I still remember the first time you walked into our youth room, a bit insecure, slightly out of place, and obviously trying a little too hard to impress the seniors. My, how much you've grown since then – in confidence, faith, and your willingness to lead! You are now the person the freshmen try to impress. They do so because they look up to you, admire you, and want to have a faith like yours. I suspect you know this and yet, rather than allow it to go to your head, you simply embrace them as you do the others in our ministry, as friends and brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recently, I've also found myself praying for your future. To be honest, as your youth pastor and someone who cares deeply about you, there are some statistics that make me really scared for you. Take, for example, this one: “40-50% of kids who are connected to a youth group when they graduate high school will fail to stick with their faith in college” (Sticky Faith). “Only 20% of college students who leave the church planned to do so during high school. The remaining 80% intended to stick with their faith – but didn't.” (Sticky Faith).
These statistics scare me because I don't want you to become part of them. You see, the church is important. You need it and quite honestly, it needs you. The church needs your gifts and your optimism. Since you see God differently than many of us do, the church also needs your perception of God. Simply by sharing your faith with us, you challenge us – in the best possible way. We need you to remind us about what is and isn't important, to challenge us to learn from people who are different than us, and to show us how to serve others.
Just as the church needs you, you also need the church. Let me warn you: In a few short months, it'll be easy to forget this. So many other things – like sleep – will seem far more important than going to church.
But they're not.
You need the church because it's there you'll find deep community - the kind of community that shows up and won't go away.
You also need the church to worship. As you and I have discussed before, it's entirely possible to worship outside the church. Even so, there's something special about corporate worship with the church body. Senior, this may be hard for you to see now, when you're so hopeful and excited about your future, but there will come a time in college when you will feel beaten down, alone, and unworthy. Without the body of Christ surrounding you in those times, you will no longer want to worship. Instead, life will seem impossibly hard and God will feel distant. It's in those moments, senior, when you will most need the church. You'll need the church to say the words you can no longer utter yourself. You'll need the collective faith of the body of Christ to carry you until your own faith is restored. You'll need the church to remind you of who God is, who Jesus is, and perhaps most important, who you are.
Now, since you and the church will always need each other, senior, I pray that when you get to college, you'll make finding a community of faith your top priority. Just so we're clear, you'll never find a church that's exactly like ours. You also won't likely find one that “just feels right”, nor will you ever find a perfect church. (In fact, let me tell you a little secret: Even our church isn't perfect.)
Since your new church won't be perfect and it probably won't feel right, that means you need to decide now what you're going to look for in your new church.
How important is denomination to you?
What worship style do you prefer: Contemporary? Traditional? Something different?
What sort of worship space enables you to best connect with God? A traditional sanctuary? A converted building? A gym?
Do you want to worship with other college students or worship in an intergenerational setting?
How will you get to church? Does it need to be close enough to walk to or will you be able to drive / get a ride?
What about service times and days? When do you want to worship?
Once you've decided what's important to you, give yourself a timeframe to find a church and stick to it. Otherwise, your tendency will be to just keep “trying out” new churches without ever actually committing to one. I know because this was certainly my tendency.
If your allotted timeframe ends and you still haven't found a church, then choose a church close to you. I promise you, God will meet you there – even if the church is not at all what you thought you were looking for. Once you've selected your church, get involved. Join a small group or serve. Oftentimes, serving will connect you with likeminded people and let you become part of a community faster than anything else.
As you get involved in your new church, know that you are not, in anyway, cheating on your old one. No matter where life takes you, in college and beyond, you will always have a home in our congregation. You will always be welcome here. You may need us less, but you will always be part of our community of faith.
In the same way, I will always be your youth pastor. Our relationship will change, but I will be here for you – even if you never find a church in college. So text, Facebook, or find me on twitter. Know that even during those times when we aren't in direct contact, I will be cheering you on from afar and praying that no matter where life takes you, you will encounter the God who is Lord over all; That your faith will continue to grow and shape who you are and what you do; And that above all, you will always, always know that regardless of what you do or don't do, you are – and will always be - a beloved child of God.
Much love in Christ -
Your Youth Pastor