A Lost Generation, pt. 2: a shallow experience of God

Reason #2- teens’ and twentysomethings’ experiences of God are often shallow.

I feel that I can say with some certainty that this is one of our biggest struggles here when it comes to our youth and young adults (and I am sure it is a big one for other churches as well). As a youth pastor, one of the biggest challenges I face is moving youth beyond a “pizza and games” youth ministry. Engaging youth who have become so acclimated to a culture of entertainment in a church that is still worshiping and behaving in many of the same ways it was 20-30 years ago is incredibly difficult. Engaging youth who have become accustomed to youth ministry being nothing more than a time of game, food, and maybe a brief devotion is tough! So what do we do? First, let’s take a moment to look at some of the statistics that the Barna Group supplies:

Nearly 1-in-3 youth and young adults interviewed said that church was boring (31%). Nearly 1-in-4 said that faith is not relevant to their careers or interests (24%). Almost the same percentage said that the Bible is not taught clearly enough or often enough (23%). Finally, 1-in-5 said that they felt God was missing from their experiences in the church (20%).

If we were to conduct the Barna Group research at our church, I think we would come up with similar, if not even greater percentages of youth and young adults who feel these things. That is a scathing indictment upon us. That is a scathing indictment upon me. Lack of youth presence in Sunday morning worship is evidence of their boredom. For those who are there, I often see them up in the balcony either texting or looking half-awake. Almost never do I see them engaged in the worship service. This is part of the reason we are working to build the ministry and worship service of The Well. How we currently express worship to God as a community on Sunday mornings feels irrelevant, unnatural, or boring to many of our youth and young adults. While worship is certainly not about our entertainment, there is still a sense in which it needs to feel authentic, alive, natural, and relevant to the one worshiping. And here is a confession for you: our style of worship on Sunday mornings often feels unnatural or boring to me, your associate pastor! Give me smells, bells, making signs of the cross, genuflecting, and Holy Communion every week and I feel much more engaged!

On Wednesday evenings, we gather for our regular youth group. It usually involves games, movies, snacks, and maybe a brief devotional. This time truly reflects the lowest common spiritual denominator. We can rarely get into any spiritual depth there because most of the kids don’t really want any spiritual depth. They just want to hang out and have fun. The temptation is to always aim at this lowest common spiritual denominator so we don’t run off any kids! Therefore, the few who do want spiritual depth are not being fed well at our regular youth gathering. While I have recognized this as a problem since the time I first came to Dunbar, it has been a continual challenge to help the ones who are at least willing to grow be able to do so. Naturally, we need more than just Wednesday evening fun time with a little lip-service to Jesus! But we also need more than spiced up Bible stories. We need more than a creative, activity-packed Sunday school curriculum that teaches them that Jesus died for their sin. We need to create a faithful, authentic path of discipleship that teaches them, shows them, and lets them experience what it means to be a FOLLOWER of Jesus! (But isn’t this also true for the church today as a whole?)

Many of my youth have expressed to me that they feel like they have no idea how to pray. They have expressed to me that they find the Bible incredibly confusing. Many of my youth have expressed to me that faith doesn’t really feel like it has a place in their day-to-day lives. Sure, many of them have heard prayers in church, or Bible stories in VBS and children’s church from a young age, but have they really and truly encountered GOD in a deep and meaningful way on a regular basis? Have we failed to communicate to them in a deep and meaningful way?

In my mind, I envision our youth ministry today a bit like a ship trying to set sail in too little water. Without enough depth, the ship will never move out of port, and eventually it will be abandoned because it will begin to seem like a pointless venture.

Not only are we trying to sail a ship in too little water, but we are also trying to sail without a full crew! Faithful, Christian adults are, in large part, missing from the lives of our youth. Youth ministry is so often seen as its own, separate program, run by the youth pastor and one or two other adults, but for everyone else in the church, it is something that is someone else’s responsibility.

I see this shallowness of our youth’s experience with God in the church. I am not making a general statement here about the universal church, though it may be true regarding the church in general. I am talking about Dunbar United Methodist Church and the youth and young adults that I see every week. I have great excitement when I do see a few youth wanting to learn more about the Bible, wanting to learn to pray. I am working in different ways with those individuals to help them grow in those ways. But I fear, that like a diet largely based on sugar and highly processed foods, the spiritual diet of both us and our youth in our house has been one deprived of proper nutrients. I fear, that like a ship trying to leave a shallow harbor, they will get stuck and eventually abandon the ship altogether. This question is a question of authentic discipleship, of a faith that demands obedience and commitment. Like yesterday’s post, some of this responsibility rests upon the adults of the church to be faithful witnesses. We must walk the path of deep and radical discipleship if we want our youth and young adults to do the same! This means our priorities indicate that God  and his call on our life is first: in our finances, in our time, in our speech, in our actions. It means it is actually evident to other people that Christ makes a difference in our lives, and that his grace actually does transform us. If our youth can’t even see that in us, why should they feel compelled to grow in faith in the first place?

What do you, the adults of the church, need to do to deepen your own spiritual life? What priorities do you need to shift to make this happen? For parents of youth, what changes do you need to make to help your children receive a nutritional spiritual diet? For every single member of the congregation, what are you going to do to help our young people leave the shallow pools to move to deeper water? For the youth of the church, my challenge to you is to give following Jesus a chance. The rest of us might have messed it up a lot and made it hard to see that it makes a true difference, but don’t let that keep you from looking for greater depth. I promise that it is there, and if you are willing and committed, we will work on getting there together.