On a Sunday morning not all that long ago, I stood behind a young mom and her toddler-aged daughter as they exited church. When they reached the doors in the back of our church, the mom said to her daughter, “Say good-bye to the church.”
The little girl lifted her hand obediently, waved, and said, “Bye bye church.”
Now I'm sure – or at least hopeful – this was nothing more than a typical exchange between a mother and her young daughter.
Even so, as I heard the little girl say good-bye to the church, I wondered if this seemingly ordinary gesture of good-bye was something more than that.
Like so many other families, will this one disappear from our church community at some point in the not too distant future?
Will this family return to church when their daughter reaches 7th grade in order for her to confirm her faith?
If so, will this family view confirmation as an important rite of passage in their daughter's faith formation or as a graduation from both church and faith?
As a youth worker, these questions weigh deeply on my heart. This is especially true this time of year, as my congregation's confirmation service rapidly approaches.
For me, this service is a juxtaposition of emotions. Certainly, it's a celebration. Yet, every year, I also experience sadness as I listen to students promise to “live among God's faithful people” knowing full well that for some of them, this worship service will be the last one they ever attend.
For some, this probably comes as no surprise. Mainline churches have long struggled with this phenomenon and for years, various people have been suggesting denominations are dying. If recent research from the Barna Group, College Transition Project, and others is to be believed, though, this phenomenon is not limited to mainline churches, but increasingly prevalent in evangelical ones as well. There, millennials appear to be leaving the church at a rapid rate. In a recent essay on the CNN belief blog, Rachel Held Evans lent her increasingly powerful voice to this conversation, offering her opinion why millennials are leaving the church.
Since my faith is deeply important to me and I wholeheartedly believe that for better or worse, you cannot be a Christian without being part of a Christian community, these types of articles always pain me. As a youth worker, they are also deeply personal to me. After all, part of my job is helping teens (and their families) connect with the church – not in the interest of self-propagation but because the church matters, to our lives, our faith, and our world. During those times when life seems impossibly hard and God feels distant, we need the church to say the words we can no longer utter ourselves. In those moments and times, we need the collective faith of the body of Christ to carry us until our own faith is restored. We need the church to remind us of who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are.
Knowing this, I recently asked my student leaders why they thought some of their peers chose to leave the church. Here's what they said:
- The church is trying too hard.
- They don't want to be a Christian.
- There's not enough tradition.
- There's too much tradition.
- It's too contemporary.
- Church is optional. You don't need it to have a relationship with God.
- Jesus isn't in most churches.
- Other priorities – including school, work, & extracurriculars - are more important.
- Life is too busy for church.
- They're overwhelmed and church doesn't help with that.
- Their families never made church a habit so how can they?
- They're not connected to other people in church / They don't have friends at church.
- The church has a negative reputation.
- Rebellion: They don't want to be part of church because it's important to their parents.
- The church is hypocritical. Just look at it how it treats gay people.
Make no mistake. It's important for us to move beyond the research and actually hear teens in our individual contexts share why they think their peers are walking away from the church.
Yet, in the midst of all the hoopla about the demise of the church, sometimes I think we forget that most of us have teens – at least a few – in our congregations. Perhaps, then, the key to reaching more teens is to first focus on those who are already within our walls.
To this end, as my student leaders and I strategized how to connect to our incoming freshmen as well as those 10th - 12th graders on the margins of our ministry, I asked them why they chose to stay engaged in our congregation. Here's what they said:
- We promised to at our confirmation.
- Jesus is our friend.
- We experience forgiveness at church.
- The church lets us try new things and figure out what we're good at.
- We experience healing in the church.
- Our role models are from church.
- Our community is here and so are our friends.
- We can talk openly about our doubts here.
One of things that emerged from my student leaders during this conversation was that several of them were surprised by their own involvement in both our youth ministry and our church post-confirmation. They pointed to the aforementioned reasons as being key to staying connected to our congregation and their faith.
To me, this is telling.
It seems like maybe, just maybe, if we want teens and millennials to stay connected to church we need to stop talking exclusively about why they aren't and instead, start telling the stories of those who are connected. There's lots we can learn from those stories about how to do and be church.
And maybe, just maybe, if we take seriously those lessons, the little girl who waved bye bye to the church won't ever do that for real.