We have a plethora of ways at our disposal to connect with people than we could have dreamed of having in the past. But I wonder about the quality and authenticity of our connections. I wonder about the number of face-to-face interactions and deeply-connected relationships we regularly experience. I wonder about the rising rates of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and suicide. And I wonder how we, the church, have helped or hindered this process especially among our youth.
People of all ages yearn for authentic connections and acceptance, but, with the growing use of technology, today’s young people may feel this need more acutely. Churches have made copious, creative efforts to keep the youth involved, yet they are leaving the church in unprecedented numbers.
Didn’t we do it right? Offer enough relevant programs? Make the music hip enough? David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock’s book, Faith for Exiles, documents that as far as church involvement is concerned, 59-64% percent of young people with a Christian background have stopped attending church. That’s a sobering dropout rate. So, what went wrong?
A lot went right, and we should keep trying, but there’s work to be done. All that technology, as helpful as it is, comes at a price, sometimes to the detriment of meaningful connections and interactions. As connected as technology woos us into feeling, it can also foster alienation, loneliness, and depression. These, if carried through the church doors on youth night or Sunday morning absent of essential connection, may point to one of the reasons for the loss of interest or dwindling attendance of young people.
So, what can we do? In 2 Timothy 1:5 we read, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” Timothy’s mother and grandmother must have demonstrated and passed on their faith to their son, and we too can actively and authentically live out our faith alongside our young people, encourage them in their faith journey, and be uplifted by theirs.
Instead of abdicating spiritual responsibility and leaving spiritual formation exclusively in the hands of the church, we can live out our faith—all the messes and mistakes, and the mountaintops and miracles— alongside our children and youth. In doing so, we offer them a front row seat from which to view our faith-lives, enabling them to discover that a life lived in Christ is real, sometimes raw, but always reachable.
To make room for faith-finding among our youth, the older generation may need to set aside personal preferences, traditions, and judgments, and instead choose to actively love and serve our young people in the midst of their passion and purpose, and seeking and growing, trusting God to do what he does best—heal and transform hearts. Relinquishing our personal comfort may require walking into the uneven ground or unknown places where youth gather. Once there, instead of tossing our opinions or biases on top of their fledgling or forming faith, we heap our interactions with massive doses of grace. We recognize that their journey is not ours and refuse to get in the way of God’s plan for their lives and their personal journey to find and know Jesus.
Instead we pray, disallowing our self-imposed ideas about the way in which our youth should behave to form barricades to intergenerational connection. We seek to love first and leave God to the transforming work. Knowing our youth have much to teach us, we hold our criticisms and humble ourselves to listen, flinging out encouragements like candy at a circus and encircling them with acceptance. We get in the game even though we feel unsure of the rules.
That may mean mentoring a young person, becoming a spiritual mom or dad to a youth, volunteering as a youth worker, or hosting an all ages Bible study in our homes. Whatever practical measures we take to foster these authentic connections with our youth, in doing so we vicariously and intentionally display the form of faith while leaving no one behind. By demonstrating how a life lived with God is worked out in the day-to-day, and observing God’s work in theirs, together we nurture faith and proffer the Gospel to generations to come.
In the process of collectively serving, listening, and learning, we find greater meaning in our faith journeys. As we live out our Christ-lives alongside the younger generation, they may find hope and encouragement to use their gifts and talents for kingdom purposes, work out the Gospel unhindered in their own unique ways, and understand how their faith in Christ is personally relevant and meaningful both to them and to the world around them.
In the spaciousness of God’s love, and through our arms-wide-open welcome, our youth may discover for themselves a place to grow and mature in their faith—as have we—in rich relationship with God and others. And maybe, if we’re fortunate, we’ll have the sacred honour of hearing from their hearts, the privilege of sharing our God-stories with them, and in doing so have the opportunity to help each other see how God was—and still is—faithful and active in individual lives and in the world.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)