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Our youth work is killing our churches…

This summer I had a great time at a number of conferences, both heavily populated by teenagers and young adults.

They were lively, vibrant, asking serious questions about life, and faith, getting them to think through their attitudes and values. They were real, and they were honest. They were led by leaders (young and getting older!) who have a heart for seeing this generation come to know Jesus and live radically for Him. Leaders who gave their time, energy, heart, soul, learning, and failings before a hungry and willingaudience. Both events, Summer Madness and New Horizon, are almost a quarter of a century old, and they have been doing this for all that time. They fill you with great hope for what the future of the church might look like, but they also beg a question. If they have been going strong for all this time, why do we talk about the future of the church? Why not the present? Why is the impact of these events, and indeed of the generation of heart, soul, mind and passion invested in young people for the last 25 years, not causing a tidal wave to surge across our churches today. Here. Now. In the present. What are we waiting for? Has all the work been in vain. Is the fact that revival has not completely broken out across our land simply not evidence that such events are big on momentary experience but short on depth? And more so, why is it that in a wide variety of circles I get asked again and again, ‘what are we doing for our young adults?’ For the 20s and 30s. Is this just symptomatic of a generation that just won’t grow up, and begin to live and lead, rather than seeking to be looked after and entertained? There are times when I’m tempted to say yes. There are times when the cultural extension of adolescence into our early 30s, putting off anything as grown up as starting a family, buying a house, having a default smart-casual dress code, permeates its way into our churches. The fruits are not that enticing.

But there are only times when I think like this. I do want to cry out to young adults, ‘stop waiting around for someone to organise yet another thing to meet your needs’. But I see far too many of them who are genuinely hungry and passionate and who desperately want to see their faith connect with and be life changing for their worlds. One half of the problem is that we have used words like purpose, and fulfilment, and enabling, and inspiring so often that we have trained a generation to think that the Christian life is about finding ourselves, the presumption being that this will be a dynamic and true expression of the people we think we are meant to be. We’ve forgotten the story of Jesus who denied everything to find us, and then begs us follow after Him. That is one part, one big part, of the problem. But the other is equally as damaging. Our youth work is killing our churches. Not our youth workers. Not those who give everything, and more, week in and week out, and year in and year out at our youth groups and conferences. It’s our attitude to what they do. In the mainline denominations we treat youth work as a side show. Parents of teenagers who are of an age to be voted on to boards of elders, councils and vestries, reflect their fears of losing their kids and no longer being able to engage with them by voting for ‘the youth worker’. This messiah like surrogate parent will keep them safe, looking after them on the fringes. Youth work happens after church, away on weekends, at events, and in these places this work really challenges, really provokes, really inspires, and really changes lives. Meanwhile, back at HQ, church as we know it can rumble along, ready and waiting for that time when young people are ready, not to become young adults, but rather ready to become retiring adults. You graduate from the youth group and feel ready for the bus pass. The dichotomy is too great. The chasm too wide. We’ve fired them up too much. They think that when Christians meet it is always that dynamic, and then they discover that really, they don’t fit in. You see, they’ve actually come to expect so much more from their faith. So they stay for a while and wonder where the fringe activities are for the young adults. Then they see the independent churches, the fellowship churches, that look rather like all the sideshow events their old church used to organise for them, except that here it is all mainstream. Here their culture and their faith continue to challenge the other. And so they leave. And they grow. And so do their new churches.

Meanwhile, we put on new events, we let them meet on the fringes, we employ new surrogate parents, and reassure ourselves… isn’t this the hope for the future…

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