How can the church stand in the gap?
In a society where a massive number of youths and young adults are leaving the church, we are left asking, “What are we doing wrong?” While not compromising our beliefs, we must face the challenge of how to connect with our younger generations in such a way that the Christian faith they’ve been taught in Sunday school becomes their own.
Growing up in the church in the midst of urban secular culture, I wrestled with my identity. My peers told me I should join a gang, and become sexually active. I was encouraged to steal, lie, and bully others. I eventually did stray from church, but not in the way one might expect. Every Sunday I was there, taking up offering as a youth usher—and yet my heart was far from the Lord.
No, going to church every Sunday isn’t always equal to living a holy life. Of course we want our young people to be a part of the church. But we can help them understand that being in a satisfying relationship with God far surpasses empty religious routine and ritual—the kind of falseness that consumed me at a young age.
Jesus calls us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I thank God for providing me with the realization of what life with Him is really about.
How does all of this inform the church’s interaction with young people? We want to raise young people who are serious about living lives led by the Holy Spirit in holiness and experiencing the deeper work of entire sanctification. We want to see them “on fire” for God. The enemy, on the other hand, sees the plethora of gifts and power that God has deposited within them and wants to keep them from realizing their true identity and power through God. He wants to destroy their lives.
How can the church stand in the gap? As the youth pastor at Bronx Bethany, I have seen firsthand that ministry to young people is not effective unless it is multigenerational. Character formation and identity formation is at the very forefront for teens in middle school and high school journeying towards young adulthood. Our goal as local congregations must be to nurture their identity and character formation through the lens of Christ and the Word of God.
Local church youth ministries should not be cut off from the larger church life and activity. The youth ministry should be embraced and supported by the entire congregation. Young people are looking for people who believe in them and will invest in them. Older generations often have levels of discernment and wisdom where they can help to identify particular gifting within our youth and nurture those gifts into fruition and effectiveness. They can also help the younger generations to learn from their mistakes. A vital power exists in intergenerational ministry and its impact on youth.
Often, young people feel as if they have no place within the local church setting. This can be addressed if we become more intentional about mentorship and leadership development. When we help them to understand their identity in Christ, the significant roles they hold, and the ideas they bring, the illusion that they can wait until they are older will diminish.
As the Apostle Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12, all Christians have specific roles in the body of Christ, regardless of age.
We can help our youth to understand this. In Christ, they are powerful beyond measure—the local church must understand them as being a vital part of its ministry. This must be the case if our churches desire to thrive because without intentionally investing in our youth, local churches are simply preparing to die.
Let’s be intentional as we work with young people to never view them as afterthoughts or second best. We can commit to always protect them and provide a safe place for them as young leaders within the life of the congregation. As long as I am in ministry I will always believe that it takes an entire congregation to effectively raise Christian youth.
Shane Burt-Miller is youth pastor at Bronx Bethany Church of the Nazarene in New York
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2017