I was enjoying brunch at a local café with my wife after church. It was before we had kids, so it was just the two of us. Across the room I spotted one of the students in my youth ministry, sitting with his parents. I couldn't help but notice something else, though. His parents were also enjoying time together—just the two of them. I'm not sure I've ever seen a set of parents so thoroughly ignore their child through an entire meal. Seeing the relationship this only child lacked with his parents explained a lot about his behavior. I left the café wondering what sort of parent he might grow up to become if this is how family and parenting was modeled to him. Would he even bother to have a family of his own?
We know younger generations learn as much from what they observe as from what we actually tell them. Many voices insist actions speak louder than words. What, then, are we communicating to our youth about the church when every time we gather, they go to their own room for a separate program? What message do they receive when we give them one Sunday per year to participate in leading the service? For our "Youth Sunday," the high school group led everything except the sermon. Were we expecting them to look forward to the day when they'd be grown up enough to participate in "big church"? Did we consider that, when that day arrived, they might not understand anything about it and just walk away? Or would they search for a church that most resembled their youth group experience because it would feel less foreign to them?
I spent 10 years serving in a church where the youth ministry was segregated from the congregation. The constant challenge before us was to somehow teach and give them a taste of what the church is meant to be, even though they weren't experiencing it themselves. Most of the youth didn't worship with the rest of the congregation, nor did they experience aspects of gathered church life beyond "Youth Sunday."
The next church I served in was vastly different. There I learned how to effectively model and shape a biblical view of the church for the youth. What was so different? To start, students were part of the church. Rather than a token "Youth Sunday," we regularly had students serving as ushers, greeters, choristers, music volunteers, and Scripture readers. Some of our older teens were teaching Sunday school, and when the church gathered for various functions, teens joined in the mix. This was an intergenerational church family where relationships spanned decades and all ages served side by side. Sure, we had youth Bible study groups and other activities specifically for students, but that never precluded their involvement in the gathered church.
Together as the diverse, multi-generational body of Christ, we worshiped God, sat under the preaching of his Word, prayed, shared communion, and enjoyed fellowship. As a result, students weren't left wondering about the church's purpose; they were experiencing it according to Acts 2:42-47. They learned the church exists chiefly to glorify God, not to please them. They experienced what it means for elders to "equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).
Other Diversity, Too
Everything was set in an intergenerational context amid other forms of diversity, too. Imagine, for a student, the effect of standing next to an older gentleman with Down syndrome who's singing his heart out in worship. Imagine a man whose faith carried him through D-Day praying daily for the youth of our church—youth he actually knows and loves. Imagine they knew people in every stage of life who were living out their faith against all kinds of challenges: the widowers and divorcees; the childless and the tired parents; the recovering addict and the recent college grad, still resolute in his faith.
Simply put, we do teens a disservice when we segregate them from the life of the church. When we build youth ministries that don't fold students into the life of the congregation, the unintended consequence is a future of empty pews. Pew Research reports that 20- to 30-year-olds attend church at half the rate of their parents and one-fourth the rate of their grandparents. These young adults were teens a decade or two ago, and many of them were active in youth ministries. As result, many today ask what we can do to reverse this regrettable trend, wondering how to get formerly churchgoing youth "back" into church. In my view, we must engage students in the life of entire congregations. Then and only then can we model and shape a biblical view of the church as we entrust the faith from one generation to the next.
In other words, maybe young adults aren't actually leaving the church. Maybe they were never there to begin with.
Editors' note: Dave Wright will lead a workshop on "Simplifying Youth Ministry" at the next Rooted Conference, October 10 to 12, 2013 in Atlanta.