What we have heard little about is on actions not taken — the overall lack of emphasis on reaching, connecting, and keeping our own Presbyterian youth. At a time when our denomination is experiencing great hand wringing over our annual loss of membership, this ambivalence toward youth ministry is striking and unfortunate.
The median age of members in Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) churches is 60. On the one hand that is a call for aggressive ministry with the aging population; on the other hand, it is a sign that we have been falling behind in youth ministry for years. The symptoms and signs of distress in Presbyterian youth ministry were no more abundantly clear than in our most recent General Assembly. While there were nearly 300 items of “PC-biz” and more than 100 separate overtures to the Assembly, the GA Youth Committee had no official business.
Arguably they made the most of their idle time. They found it important to get a study on the current religious landscape of teenagers into the hands of each presbytery in the form of the Soul Searching DVD. They short shifted a group of teenagers who traveled across the country to propose a larger role for young people at GA. In following the advice of lawyers and risk-averse-minded commissioners, they communicated to these teens that the denomination has failed to learn one of the fundamental lessons of youth ministry — youth given prominent roles in the church and taken seriously are youth who stay with the church and take their faith seriously in turn.
General Assembly has been described as a biennial family reunion. Apparently, our reunion has jettisoned the kids’ table for an “adults only” approach to gathering. The message to our teenagers was clear: come back when you are older.
Today, teenagers are better educated and better informed than ever before. They are encouraged regularly by our public schools to be involved with volunteer organizations. Advertisers bombard them with enticements to part with some of the $50 billion in disposable income their parents provide them with annually. Our political parties use young adults to get out the vote in college towns nationwide. They are Olympic champions, congressional pages, and many have a full year of college credit by the time they graduate from high school. Still, the commitment level of our churches to youth ministry lags behind these realities and in the process we give them over to a host of idols: sport, fame, media, etc. Because the church fails to take them as seriously as their parents and schools do, our teens often find the church something easily jettisoned for sports tournaments and other activities in high school. In college, often the church’s import fades altogether.
Some readers, who come from either presbyteries working hard at youth ministry or from congregations benefiting from an enduring commitment to youth, may quibble with the idea that there is a problem. Their situation is less prevalent in our denomination. Presbyteries and churches fighting the good fight are to be commended, There are, however, so many more failing the teenagers in our denomination and our communities at a time when more than ever the church must give its unique voice to the world around us.
We are remarkably thin in new endeavors. Our denomination has few national events for youth ministry workers. The catalogues of our publishing houses are remarkably thin in titles geared toward Presbyterian youth ministry. The PC(USA) Web site reveals that local congregations can order the same resources available from ten years ago. While many of our churches and presbyteries pay lip service to youth ministry they do not provide any budgeted funds. Far too many of our clergy still see youth ministry more as the call of necessity rather than a necessary calling.
To be fair, there are positive efforts happening throughout our denomination. By and large our camps and conference ministries are strong, faithful, and vital. At Princeton and Columbia, there are concerted efforts to study youth ministry. Triennium is a unique and tremendous opportunity for young people. But these are long-term, well established endeavors.
We know Louisville has limited financial resources, but even with full resources would there be serious efforts at promoting youth ministry? Finances aside, the failure to emphasize youth ministry at the highest levels of our church (GA, publishing, periodicals, etc) communicates to the rest of the church that youth ministry is not important enough for investment. At a time when more and more of our denomination is talking of “missional focus,” we must begin to see the teenagers in our community as a mission field.
Allow me to suggest a rationale for improved youth ministry for those who are unconvinced by the mere existence of teenagers in our midst. Our denomination is frayed at the edges and many are contemplating divorce or at least a separation. Perhaps, if we found a place to direct our energies and attentions we might find less time to argue and fight. In short, perhaps we should endeavor to stay together for the kids by providing for them in earnest.
Many who are actively laboring in youth ministry may be tempted upon reading this to write in defensively with “what about this or that?” Instead, my hope is that they will write letters that echo with amen choruses. The future health of the PC(USA) depends on so much, but we will only benefit from an increased awareness and investment in the church of today. That is who our teenagers are — the church of today, not the church of tomorrow.
The Lord has entrusted them to us, the time has come to quit burying this talent in the ground.
Michael Brundeen is pastor of Jackson Woods Church in Corpus Christi, Texas.