The lack of youth in churches is a common lament. Many in our congregations complain that today’s families don’t emphasize church attendance, and they point to the 1960s as the beginning of the age of youth disinterest in church life. Clergy struggle to explain why the youth population has fled, pointing to parental laxness and competing cultural events. How many of you have heard — or even expressed — the following sentiment voiced by F. E. Clark, Pastor of the Williston Congregational Church in Portland, Maine:
We in this generation are just beginning to feel the evil effects of this loose family government and home training in regard to church-going. The generation immediately preceding ours slackened the reins, and the empty pews in many churches show that the young colts have run away. What shall we expect in the generation which is to follow ours, when, as in many cases, the reins have been thrown entirely away and the colts allowed to roam at their own sweet will? This, I say, … is the great cause of the lack of attendance at our churches; and this cause, unless the evil is checked, will decimate our churches in the future.
What may come as a surprise is that Pastor Clark expressed this position in 1882 in an article designed to promote a new youth ministry called The Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor. This early youth group sought to do what many of us today do: nurture the faith of adolescents and young adults and encourage their participation in church life. In fact, Clark suggested seven principles that are still relevant to contemporary thinking about the theology and practice of youth ministry. Let me share with you those principles, translated into modern terminology.
1. We need to understand the lives of youth today, both in terms of their cultural context and in relation to their psychosocial development. Christian Smith’s phenomenal research in the National Study of Youth and Religion project (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers), the Search Institute’s ongoing attention to asset building, Sarah Feinbloom’s groundbreaking documentary on American teenagers and spirituality (What do you believe? American teenagers, spirituality and freedom of religion), the PBS Frontline exposé Merchants of Cool on the marketing of social identity to high school students — the study of these resources alongside the conventional literatures of human development theorists and real-life conversations with young people in our own communities are essential to our ministry with 21st century teens.
2. We need to identify adults who are not afraid to model Christian living and lead youth in making commitments to that same kind of life. In Carol Lytch’s case studies of congregations that attract and keep youth (Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens), she found that three things are key to youth involvement in church: “a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence” (p.9). She also discovered these things are more likely to develop when adults who work with youth model a connected, meaningful engagement with the life of faith themselves, and youth experience an invitation to learn alongside their leaders what it means to be faithful. Her findings reinforce Kenda Dean’s and Ron Foster’s call for youth ministers to be “Godbearers” in the lives of teenagers.
3. We need to proclaim the gospel in language familiar to youth and also true to our faith tradition. Dean suggests that we look to the language and experience of “passion” to make this connection (Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church), exploring the intersections of youthful passions for truth, deep relationships, acceptance, and a calling in life with the passion of Christ. Teens with whom I have ministered remind me of the burning questions they have: “When people commit suicide, do they go to hell?” “Why are young people in the Middle East blowing themselves up?” “What does the church have to say about the war in Iraq?” and that classic question: “Why do bad things happen to ‘good’ people?”
4. We must encourage a strong connection between church and home, and insist that participation in the church community is as important as participation in school. All of the researchers I’ve cited offer new evidence that parents are much more influential in the religious beliefs and practices of their teenagers than we’ve believed. One of my seminary students did a class project in which she taught the parents of middle school youth how to practice lectio divina alongside their young teens, who had come to love this ancient Christian practice of prayerful reading of Scripture. This approach not only reinforces a church-home connection; it also helps youth and their parents see the value of participating in a communal life of faith that extends across generations and centuries in valuable ways.
5. We must adopt educational methods that emphasize ongoing Christian nurture for lifelong learning. The association of confirmation with graduation from church school obligations is widespread and dangerous. The life of faith isn’t figured out once and for all when a young person is somewhere between the ages of 12 and 18. We need to teach in ways that awaken a hunger and thirst for learning that can only be quenched by continuing to dine regularly at the Lord’s Table.
6. We must reform the Sunday School so that it is no longer a place where youth are (to quote Clark) “tickled by jingling songs, petted with prizes and picnics, fed upon books nauseating to a healthful mind, guided by those whose whole aim was to play upon the feelings of those for whom no thorough intellectual training or forceful character getting was ever dreamed.” We must create church school classes and youth groups that take seriously the youthful quest for deep spiritual meaning and purpose in life. Dean and Foster observed that youth come to church seeking a relationship with God and the church more often than not gives them pizza instead. We need to feed the body and the soul every time we meet with youth.
7. We must cultivate youth-loving pastors and welcome youth into public worship. This is a HUGE issue! Adults who work with youth don’t have to be young, guitar-playing, laid-back single adults barely out of the teen years themselves to relate and work well with youth — Lytch and Mark Yaconelli have both proven that stereotype false — but we do have to be willing to love youth for who they are and appreciate the gifts and callings God has given them as youth. They are not tomorrow’s church; they are an important part of the church today.
There is much more to say about youth ministry, but I think, with Pastor Clark’s help, I’ve highlighted the most significant issues we need to address if we are to effectively nurture the spiritual lives of our youth. Check out the authors I’ve cited if you want to explore these ideas further. I recommend starting with The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soultending for Youth Ministry, by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster.
After 120 years, it’s time to make F. E. Clark’s principles a reality of church life.
Karen-Marie Yust is associate professor of Christian Education at Union Theological Seminary/Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va.