Drew Dyck writes the following in his article “The Red Bull Gospel:
Over the past year I’ve conducted dozens of interviews with 20-somethings who have walked away from their Christian faith. Among the most surprising findings was this: nearly all of these “leavers” reported having positive experiences in youth group. I recall my conversation with one young man who described his journey from evangelical to atheist. He had nothing but vitriol for the Christian beliefs of his childhood, but when I asked him about youth group, his voice lifted. “Oh, youth group was a blast! My youth pastor was a great guy.”
I was confused. I asked Josh Riebock, a former youth pastor and author of mY Generation, to solve the riddle: if these young people had such a good time in youth group, why did they ditch their faith shortly after heading to college?
His response was simple. “Let’s face it,” he said. “There are a lot more fun things to do at college than eat pizza.”
Dyck’s article reminded me of chapter seven of Almost Christian titled “Going Viral for Jesus: The Art of Testimony.” In this chapter, Kenda Creasy Dean says that studies like the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) often “exasperate” church leaders as they confirm what many feel: that teenagers have trouble talking about their faith. Or as she puts it these studies lead to “the discovery of a pervasive religious inarticulacy among teenagers” (133).
The question I would ask is, why is this so? After all, they learn the faith from adults in churches, so some fault must lay with a failure of these churches and adults to teach children well. Then we are back where we started – if the church tries to win people by offering better entertainment then the world, we are going to lose.
One thing that this chapter demonstrated to me was how individualism and emotionalism have become the default way to talk about spirituality in America. Dean say that American Christians of all kinds use terminology borrowed from Protestant conservative evangelicalism to describe their faith, terms such as “personal relationship with Jesus.” If sincere, this is not necessarily a problem. But I suspect the “Jesus” here is often no more than a buddy who is there for me to help me when I need (Jesus is my homeboy!). Dean notes that such language is more like a “glass slipper into which all faith experience must fit“. In other words, if you are talking about God, that is how you talk in the American religious landscape. Thus she notes one teen interviewed in the NSYR who is Muslim and spoke enthusiastically about her “personal relationship with God”. That is nowhere near Muslim language, but it fits well in America.
Another exasperating thing about studies finding youth to be inarticulate about their faith is that, contrary to what some may believe, youth are quite articulate about many other subjects. When it came to things they had studied in school or were passionate about, they were eager to share opinions. Dean diagnoses why this is so: “the absence of robust theological conversation in the worlds teenagers inhabit – certainly the worlds of media and public education, but also the worlds of families and congregations. Since youth do not hear a language of faith, they do not speak one” (138).
Dean spends the rest of the chapter sharing ideas on how to remedy this. First she affirms that Christianity requires Jesus-talk, not just God-talk (139). Of course, “personal relationship with Jesus” is Jesus-talk. But the question is the same – which Jesus?
I have had discussions with Christian students at Penn State Berks on various issues where they throw out ideas and suggestions with terms like, “maybe this” or “how about this idea“. As Christians, I have asked, why don’t they wrestle with what the Scripture says on such things? It seems like even Christian students pull maxims out of the air (“torture is wrong“, “all religions can lead to God” etc) without providing any good reason why anyone else should agree. This points to the individualism (well, I believe it) and emotionalism (because it feels right to me) of the whole thing (which just means they are Moral Therapeutic Deists)
So for Jesus-talk to happen that means anything, we need to get back to the real Jesus Christ of the Bible, for He is the true authority for us who claim to be his followers.
The challenge for churches is that this might draw less a crowd of youth than “fun” stuff like pizza and games. I don’t think it is an either/or question, you can have both, as Dyck says:
Of course there’s nothing wrong with pizza and video games. The real problem is when they displace spiritual formation and teaching the Bible. And ultimately that’s the greatest danger of being overly reliant on an entertainment model. It’s not just that we can’t compete with the world’s amusements. It’s not only that we get locked into a cycle of serving up ever-increasing measures of fun. Rather it’s that we’re distracted from doing the real work of youth ministry—fostering robust faith.
But I also think that there is something about the Christian faith that may at times push people away. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had, the man walked away from Jesus. Jesus did not chase after him and sweeten the deal. So perhaps a deeper, more robust focus on the Jesus of scripture will cause some young people to leave youth group (or older people to leave church). Yet I am optimistic that those who remain (dare we use the term, the remnant, as Scripture does) will be formed into more Christ-like people and sent into the world invigorated to do mission.
Jesus started with twelve disciples and a few others. A more entertaining message may have given him more success, by our standards. Maybe our standards are wrong and getting smaller will make us stronger.
Finally, Dean encourages churches to allow youth to participate in Christian community. She laments that the activities often assigned to young people do not prepare them for full participation in the life of the church; youth ministry fails to contribute to the church’s purpose (145):
We invite teenagers to set up chairs for the ice cream social and call it ‘mission’. We assign teenagers on Youth Sunday a year and call it ‘worship’. We play games in youth group and call it ‘Christian fellowship.” None of those activities are inherently misguided, of course. But they do not necessarily offer teenagers real participation in the Body of Christ…the fact that outreach, worship, and Christian fellowship in most churches can carry on very well without youth at all is a tell-tale sign that their participation in the community is not legitimate peripheral participation. It is indeed just peripheral, and it does nothing to usher teenagers into full membership in the Body of Christ. Legitimate peripheral participation means that adolescents make real contributions to our shared life in God, even while they are still figuring out how to be a part of the community of faith (145-6)