From the Desk of Pastor Olsen
As most of you know, I recently spent three days in July attending the annual Ekklesia Project Gathering in Chicago. The Ekklesia Project is "a network of Christians from across the Christian tradition who rejoice in a peculiar kind of friendship rooted in our common love of God and the Church." You can find out more by visiting our website at ekklesiaproject.org. This year we focused on formation of faith among children and young people in our congregations. There were some excellent presenters steeped in both experience and understanding of the latest data and trends among young people. Several things stand out in my memory.
First, young people in their teens are not, as we frequently hear, turning away from religion. According to several recent studies, approximately 85% believe in God. The greater part of the balance is agnostic with relatively few hard core atheists. The biggest mistake a church can make in seeking to minister to youth is to assume that religion will "turn them off." To the contrary, teens are deeply interested in questions of meaning, morals and the divine. They are frequently open to engaging in discussion about religious issues. That does not translate into church membership and involvement, however. And that leads to the second point.
Teens outside the church are largely skeptical about "organized religion." A large percentage of teens view the church as a boring, judgmental, controlling and fearful of discussing the questions that matter to them. Many view the church as anti-science, anti-change, hostile to gay and lesbian people and out of touch with the modern world. That might strike you as a little unfair and it probably is. An increasing number of teens have grown up outside of the church altogether and probably have no actual experience of what goes on there. Sloppy journalism equating the remarks of folks like Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, none of whom represent the church or any significant part of it, with all Christians or all Evangelical Christians no doubt contributes to this bias. That said, there is no denying that these criticisms also reflect the lived experience of teens who have struggled with issues of depression, bullying and sexual identity only to receive judgment and rejection from the church instead of mercy and compassion. It is critical that we make our churches places where the voice of Jesus is heard.
Third, churches most successful in retaining and engaging their young people are not necessarily the ones with the best programs. Indeed, programs often get in the way of young people's faith formation by segregating them into activities separate from the church as a whole. From infancy to the teen years, the place for children on Sunday morning is "big church," not a parallel Sunday School program or the nursery. Congregations that find creative ways to engage their young people in the liturgy, in preaching and in music are far less likely to lose them after confirmation. Understand that I don't have anything against youth programs and activities. They are just fine and, to the extent that they draw kids from the neighborhood, that's even better. But don't expect these activities to do the work of making disciples or drawing people into membership and participation in the congregation. That rarely happens.
Finally, family matters-not merely the so called "nuclear family"-but the family of faith that is church. We heard faithful testimony from many wonderful young people at the Gathering reminding us that there remain many faithful, enthusiastic and devout young people within the church of Jesus Christ. They came to us from Roman Catholic, Reformed, Baptist and Anabaptist traditions, but for all of them there was one common denominator: they were the children of parents who were also formed by the church into the way of discipleship. Sunday School, Confirmation class and youth group cannot take the place of a home in which faith is modelled on a day to day basis and publicly expressed through participation in the Body of Christ. It takes the discipline, love and support of the whole church to make a disciple.
These are just a few observations I came away with from the Gathering. I believe they are well worth pondering as we proceed in the call process for a pastor to families, youth and children.