Thoughtful content from Dr Gary Shogren

Why Didn’t I Drop Out of Church?

Post after post announces that young people are leaving the church.

I’ve read some good insights on the problems and the solutions. It makes me ponder: Why didn’t I drop out?

Dr Gary ShogrenFull disclosure: I first went to church because my parents said so; later I came to believe that it was part of my new life and necessary for my growth; then a place where I could minister – the church became my calling and from age 22 and onward I have been in part or full-time ministry. [1]

All to say that, my church didn’t have to try very hard to get my interest. And while in college, church attendance was mandatory anyway.

But why not put all that to one side, because beyond these points, there were “centripetal” forces that pulled me into the church. And I’m going to add in some insights from Facebook friends, who helped me work through this topic.

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I was challenged to have a first-hand faith.

This factor is frequently mentioned these days, and I have to agree, it’s #1 in importance. Sure, my parents would have given me a hassle if I had tried to stop going to church. Nevertheless, a point came (when I turned 14), when I crossed a line to where I was saying: This is my church; this is my faith; this is my life I’m living, and this is the spiritual nutrition I need. Cliché alert: I began to ride my bike four hilly miles each way to go to midweek prayer meeting. [2]

Our first Facebook friend adds this: We happen to live in a society that encourages its teens not to take life seriously or act grown up. We should be open to the possibility that young ones in our day are especially ill-equipped for devotional life. If that’s the case, then plenty of blame also lies in the hands of parents and schools, too. Thus it is part of the Church’s work to take a prophetic stance against aspects of the surrounding society that undermine young people’s ability to maintain a lasting commitment to God and the Church.

They taught us to cultivate spiritual discernment.

Somewhere I picked up that there is truth and error, and that we shouldn’t just take some adult’s word for a thing. Today young people are taught in school that there is no absolute truth, and in church they are told that there is. The result is that they tend to buck when the preacher says “I am the pastor, and what I am telling you is the absolute truth, so just believe it.” I don’t accept that kind of dogmatism from anyone, and younger people shouldn’t have to either.

Our central narrative was the Bible, not Twilight or Game of Thrones.

To which central narrative we related the events of our lives, our thoughts, our loyalties. Enough said?

There was leadership that asked questions and listened.

Not always, but at times my leaders showed themselves capable of taking our opinions into account. One year we petitioned the pastor to dismiss our youth group leaders – I have always felt a little badly about it, but truly they did not belong in that important post. So, that week, out they went, and shortly another couple took over, who were great. No big deal, no long lectures on why couldn’t we be more submissive.

A Facebook friend says that she counsels people who were hurt emotionally, sexually, physically by people who claimed to be Christians. So many churches prefer to maintain the status quo, rather than accept that they might be doing harm to their members. Young people need to be free to speak up when someone is hurting them.

She goes on to say that in her counseling ministry, she helps those who were harmed in churches that emphasized program without personal relationships.

I was part of a tribe.

Many of my parents’ friends were also among my friends, and they made me feel like part of the circle. We camped out together, shot pool in various basements. When I was home on college vacation I dropped in on them as I would friends of my own age.

A Facebook friend says this (note the importance of having adult friends in the church): My friends brought me to church and kept me in! They were my spiritual family. Along with their loving parents! If it were not for them I probably would have never gone to church the first time.

Another says: When some friends began to drive, my parents wisely let us go to church with them at night – as many as 15-20 of us went to church together, on our own volition! Of course, they came a few times to be sure it was legit, but having that freedom to choose was important.

My church did not promote itself as the only game in town.

I didn’t realize what that meant until we visited other churches, and it was made clear from the pulpit that this was the place where God was at work. My church presented itself as aplace where one could meet God. Your young people are going to figure this out for themselves, so it’s best concede the point upfront.

Politics did not divide us.

Or if it divided the adults, they must have kept it to themselves. If I remember correctly, in my younger days, some church members were for the war in Vietnam, some against. Some thought Nixon was a crook, others no. What I am pretty sure of is that political dissenters were not informed from the pulpit that they were being disloyal to God and country – at least not in the way we have experienced in the evangelical church in the past 25 or so years. Focus on the Family, perhaps ironically when we consider their cultural agenda, has observed that, “Millennials are increasingly disassociating with churches and individuals who practice what they see as strident conservative political rhetoric.” [3]

I was given space.

When I started a Bible study for teenagers, someone must have okayed it, although I don’t remember who or how. My sense today is that the general attitude was, “Sure, why not?” Are we positive, “yes let’s!” leaders in the eyes of the young ones?

Great youth leaders.

Our youth group leaders were by no means alike, but with the one exception (see above) they all were exemplary Christians, good listeners, and obviously enjoyed spending time with us. Our youth group was always smallish – 8-12 people.

Christian Service Brigade.

I participated in Stockade and Brigade as a kid, served as a Stockade ranger in high school, and later helped lead AWANA for a few years as an adult while our kids were members. All great stuff.

Not everything was handed to us.

It would be a truly lame generalization to say that Kids today! They just want everything handed to them; I won’t go down that road. So let’s phrase it positively: there is value in asking that young adults, teens, and even smaller kids share the work load. Any parent knows that children need to participate in chores in order to feel truly part of the family; the same goes for the church.

For me that began early: we would have Saturday night church suppers, and afterward, when we boys (9, 10 years old) would start tearing around the church property, there was always some man to step up to say, “Okay, boys, let’s put some of that energy to good use! Let’s break down these tables and chairs and put them back in the Sunday School rooms!” Which we were happy to do; he just had to mention it! It meant that we were part of the church – the ladies had cooked us a nice dinner, and now it was our turn to do our part. (Later, perhaps, one of those same boys would take charge before an adult had to ask, and we would team up and just do it). Today, I seem to hear more and more pastors complaining that no-one wants to work in the church. Well, let’s ask them. Or in addition, let’s ask what they think needs doing in the church.

A Facebook friend says: the church provided me with structure and stability that I had never experienced at home. The influence of godly men in my life at that time taught me more about being a man than anything or anyone. I really enjoyed working with the men of the church on various projects, cleaning the church after services – anything at all. I never wanted to leave the place. The people there accepted me and made me feel valued.

I was invited to join in.

I’m not a joiner by nature, and so sometimes the “invitation” was more like “persuasion”. I cannot tell you all the small and medium tasks I was asked to do in the church. Past a certain point I started volunteering to do things and didn’t wait to be invited.

A Facebook friend adds: Give the kids a place to serve in some way. Ushering, helping in the nursery, teach the younger kids in junior church, etc. It helps them to feel like they are part of the church, which they are.

I was challenged to act like an adult.

A wise mother was once asked, what was her secret to raising boys – I wish I could trace the source of the quote. Anyway, she responded: “I am not raisingboys; I am raising men!” When I think of young people leaving church today, my impression is not that they are deciding to leave, but that they are failing to decide to stay. We need to show children and young people that a mature level of firmness and resoluteness are part of our walk with Christ.

Ed Stetzer sums it up this way: We cannot posture our student ministries to think like and act like a four-year holding tank with pizza. Instead, we need to prepare young adults for the spiritual challenges that will come and the faith questions they will face. [4]

A Facebook friend comments: We should expect the young ladies and young men to act like adults and treat them like adults. We tend to let them live in the “teen” world. Give them good Bible and theological training. Parents, show them the joy in serving Christ. Do things outside the church for the poor, orphans, widows. Ask the kids to help. Encourage them to “act like men”.

There were other, more mundane, factors. One was – if you didn’t go to church on Sunday in small-town New England, well, there wasn’t a whole lot else to do. Nothing on the 2 1/2 channels of TV that we were able to receive, no video games, etc.

To close: Let us pray for young persons one by one; this is where the battle takes place. And in addition, as we have suggested, let’s make sure that we express our group love for the little ones, teens, and young adults, expressing agape to them in a way that they will properly be able to decipher.

NOTES:

[1] The reader might be interested in reading a part of my testimony, “My Four Decades in the Bible,” starting athttp://openoureyeslord.com/2012/10/30/my-four-decades-in-the-bible-part-i/

[2]http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/december/real-reasons-young-adults-drop-out-of-church.html?paging=off – “The young adults who do drop out of church often lack a first-hand faith – a faith of their own – and a relationship with Christ that matters deeply in their own personal life apart from their parent’s pressure.”

[3] http://www.focusonthefamily.com/about_us/focus-findings/religion-and-culture/~/media/images/about-us/focus-findings/FF%20-%20Millenial%20Faith%20Retention%20FINAL.ashx. See alsohttp://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/10/30/5-possible-reasons-young-americans-are-leaving-church-and-christianity-behind/

[4]http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2014/december/real-reasons-young-adults-drop-out-of-church.html?paging=off

You are encouraged to comment on this post at Dr Shogren’s blog.

 

Copyright Gary Shogren.

Gary has a PhD in New Testament Exegesis. He serves as Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San Jose, Costa Rica

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