A few years ago, I had the chance to hang out with my friend and fellow tent-making Christian case maker, Jacob Allee of Nail Mark Ministries and Community Christian Church. We were sharing our experiences as church leaders and youth pastors (I first met Jacob on one of our Utah Missions trips), and the crisis many young Christians face in their college years. Both of us have witnessed the problem firsthand: young Christians often leave the Church in their college years. Both of us have done our best to shape our ministries to respond to the dilemma and have shifted from teaching to training. Jacob made an important observation consistent with my own experience as a lead pastor. He noted part of the problem may lie in the way the contemporary Church continues to separate (and isolate) junior high and high school students from the adult congregation. Maybe young Christians leave us because they were never with us to begin with.
In many larger churches here in Southern California, students spend their entire young Church life outside the presence of their parents. We escort our kids to the Children’s Ministry when they are very young, and drop them off at the Youth Room when they get older. Aside from Christmas and Easter, our families are seldom “together”, even when attending church “together”. The church our Christian students eventually leave isn’t our church at all; it’s the youth and children’s ministry we’ve created alongside our church.
My family in the rural south experiences a slightly different form of church. There, families are separated for the Sunday School portion of the morning, then reunited for the worship service. To be honest, the Sunday School classes vary dramatically in focus and purpose, depending on which volunteer might be willing to lead on a particular Sunday. As a result, a large percentage of the church experience for young people is still very different from what is being experienced by their parents.
I spent a season of 6 years leading a home church of 50 members. It changed forever the way I’ve come to understand and experience a Church family. Don’t get me wrong, the house church is not a panacea. Like every other congregation of fallen but redeemed Christian brothers and sisters, house churches represent the best and worst of community life. But one of the things I appreciated most about my time in this community was being in the presence of my kids at every turn. There were no affinity groups or age-specific ministries in this small family of believers. We met together for two hours every week and studied the scripture, examined theology, discussed philosophy and investigated the case for Christianity. We did this through the lens and perspective of our young people in an effort to prepare them to be good Christian Case Makers. This effort to live together as a family united us in purpose. It required our older members to embrace the mission, accept their roles as mentors to the next generation, and realign their goals to meet the needs of our youngest members. I also required our young people to raise the bar and engage the ideas and concepts we were studying at a level close to that of their parents.
It wasn’t always easy. In the beginning, a few of our older members struggled with the energy and noise level in the large room, given that more than half of us were under the age of 18. Some simply couldn’t adapt to this form of unity after so many years in segregated congregations. There were also times when we had to rethink our approach to some topics to make them accessible to young people. Our success was often uneven. But in the end, our experience in this setting was unified. Every minute of it. Each moment we studied, sang, prayed or served was shared and experienced as a family.
Maybe it’s time we reunite parents and kids in our congregations as we retool our approach to better equip young people for the challenges they will certainly face. If we rethink our common responsibilities related to the students in our Church families, we’ll have a better opportunity to shape the church our young people will experience. If they still choose to leave, at least we’ll be familiar with what it is they are leaving.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.