Youth in the church

Youth ministry has always been a high priority for me. I have a plaque that used to hang on the wall in my office, before I decided that my office was the wrong place to display my diplomas and plaques. It was given to me for work that I did on the planning and leadership committee of the 1996 National Youth Event which was held in Columbia, South Carolina. It was one of the largest youth events the United Church of Christ has ever had. At the time of that event, I had a collection of t-shirts from every National Youth Event that the United Church of Christ had held to that date. I also had served on planning teams for regional and conference youth events, been the leader of youth camps and led many youth trips. I started and led a waterspouts camp in Idaho for which we chartered busses to bring in youth from out of state.

These days, I don’t attend many youth events. It isn’t that I have lost my passion for youth ministries, though my job responsibilities have shifted significantly over the last couple of decades. There is something different going on.

I noticed the phenomena in the very early 2000s. First it was just one family, then others followed. As the family’s children entered their teenage years, the entire family became less involved in the church. When the youth stopped attending church activities, I made a follow-up visit with the parents. What I learned surprised me at the time. Basically the parents said that they were following the lead of their teens. Their teens wanted to do non church activities on the weekends and the parents decided that keeping the family together was an important value.

I didn’t understand that style of parenting. We had teenage children at the time and our children were not given a choice about participation in the church. It was what our family did and they were expected to be a part of the family. We didn’t ask our children what they wanted to do on Sunday, we assumed that they would be a part of our family. It isn’t that we didn’t listen to what our children wanted. It isn’t that we didn’t believe in giving our children choices. We simply didn’t feel that our teens should control all family decisions. We consulted our children on all kinds of family decisions. We took their opinions seriously. But we didn’t fail to express our opinions and expectations as well.

That family was the first of many that I have known over the years where they allowed their teenage children to lead the family away from the church.

Not long ago I was in a conversation with caring church members who are concerned that our church doesn’t have very many teenage members. Although the person with whom I was speaking was misinformed about the number of teens who are affiliated with our church, the sentiment is shared by the majority of our church. We want to be a church where people of all ages are involved. We want to have vibrant and engaging youth ministries. The member thought that youth and families with teenagers were leaving the church because the church didn’t have programs to engage them. From my point of view, it is the other way around. We offer fewer programs for youth because families have left the church. For the most part they have not left the church for other churches. There are congregations which are larger and which have more youth involved in their programs. But the families with youth who don’t participate in church programs are primarily spending their weekends with soccer, hockey or volleyball. We have fewer youth participating in our programs and so we scale our programs to fit the youth that we do have.

I have enough friends who are pastors to know that our congregation isn’t the only one experiencing these problems. This week I exchanged emails with a friend in another part of the country over his grief that his conference had decided to sell a church camp. The outdoor ministry site was in need of a major investment of funds that had not been raised, it represents a significant asset, and church leaders decided that the value of the camp would be better invested in other programs.

Across the nation churches are experiencing decline not only in the numbers of teenagers participating in church programs but also in the number of families with teens who participate in the congregation. Churches are having to compete in a wide range of youth activities that involve entire families. Families are told that if they don’t volunteer in youth sports programs, their youth will not be able to participate.

I have witnessed divorces where the fees for teenage sports programs are spelled out in the financial settlement. And I have been shocked to find teenage sports participation fees that are ten times what a typical family pledges to support a church. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

From the call of Abraham and Sarah to the time of the Exodus to the disciples who followed Jesus and throughout modern history, God has proven again and again that human freedom is a part of God’s plan. We are meant to be free. As such we have choices. And we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who participate in our church make choices.

It is a bit painful for me to say that the reason there are few youth involved in the church is because of choices that families have made. Even more than the choices that the institutional church has made, the choices of families are shaping the church. The passion, energy and enthusiasm of youth is being diverted to other programs and other institutions.

Over the next two years, our church will make an investment in a fire suppression system to protect the health and safety of those who come to our building for programs. It is a major expense for our congregation. It costs nearly one third of the cost of installing lights on a soccer field. The electricity bill for those lights will be about the same as the electricity bill for our facility. People make choices. They don’t always make the choices we want.

Our history has taught us that when we make poor choices, God will forgive and welcome us back. The future of the church may depend in part on our ability to welcome back those who have drifted away when their children were teenagers.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!