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"Why Are There So Few Young People in Church?" (Summer Sermon Series) - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on July 14, 2019 by Kathy Miller

Why Are There So Few Young People in Church?

(Summer Sermon Series)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.

Deuteronomy 11:1-5, 7, 18-21

You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep God’s charge, decrees, ordinances, and commandments always. Remember today that it was not your children (who have not known or seen the discipline of the Lord your God), but it is you who must acknowledge God’s greatness, God’s mighty hand and God’s outstretched arm, the signs and deeds that God did in Egypt to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and to all his land; what God did to the Egyptian army, to their horses and chariots, how God made the water of the Red Sea flow over them as they pursued you, so that the Lord has destroyed them to this day; what God did for you in the wilderness, until you came to this place … it is your own eyes that have seen every great deed that the Lord did.

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.


The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Why Are There So Few Young People in Church?

In Seminary, I interned at a church for a year that had an interim head of staff, who was, shall we say, an odd duck. Every sermon he preached began with a joke, most of which had to do with animals and few of which were actually funny.

I learned a lot that year. Perhaps first and foremost to never begin a sermon with a joke.



Want to hear a joke?

One morning a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Protestant pastor were having coffee and talking about their individual ministries. Before long, they realized that they shared a common problem: bats in their bell towers. The Catholic priest sheepishly admitted that he had been known to climb up into the bell tower with a shot gun to try and shoot the bats, but he admitted that this had only resulted in holes to the roof that were expensive to repair and difficult to explain. The Jewish rabbi said that they had set a number of different traps, and while they had all worked for a time, inevitably the bats came back. The Protestant pastor said that they had found the perfect solution: they baptized the bats and then confirmed them, and they haven’t seen them since.

That many youth disappear from church after they are confirmed is well-established. That even more stop attending when they leave for college and never return, or return only when they have children of their own, has been the source of much concern, conjecture and consternation. Unfortunately, the question of why there are so few young people in church has proven to be one with many answers and no clear consensus. Some of it clearly has to do with the culture in which we live. (The times they are a changin'.) We no longer live in a culture where church attendance is the norm, and Sunday mornings are inherently sacred. Sports games and practices are now scheduled for Sunday mornings, and academic and extra-curricular responsibilities regularly infringe on Sunday mornings in a way that wasn’t true fifty years ago. But before we reminisce about the “good old days.” let's remind ourselves that our neighbors who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc. have never worshiped on Sunday mornings and part of our changing culture is a growing recognition that not everyone we live among is like us. And that's a good thing.

It's good not only for our neighbors who do not share our beliefs, but for us as well. The Wednesday morning Bible Study just finished a LONG study by Rob Bell on the Old Testament book of Leviticus. If you're not familiar with Leviticus, it isn’t the Bible book I’d recommend you start with, nor even really pick up for some devotional literature. Written as a manual for priests, it is chock-full of rules and regulations. And while we are able to understand the reasoning behind some of them, many of them are head scratchers. Yet one of the things we learned in our study is that a number of rules and regulations seem to have been written simply for the purpose of helping the Israelite people distinguish themselves from their neighbors.

Part of who God called the Israelite people to be, who God continues to calls us to be, is a people set apart—we are called to live life differently, to live not just for its pleasures and joys life has to offer but in such a way that all might enjoy life and be able to flourish. Living life differently, going against the culture, whether it’s to get out of bed on Sunday mornings or give a tenth of our income back to God, requires more work and intentionality than simply going with the flow, but it helps us remember who God calls us to be and what God calls us to be about.

So, a changing culture is part of the answer. Age-appropriate development is another. We know now that the adolescence, which is extending later and later as life expectancies continue to extend, is a period in which one of the primary goals is for youth and young adults to separate and distinguish themselves from their parents. It's how we get them—eventually, usually—out of our house, which rumor has it I will want some day.  So, for youth and young adults who were raised in the church, there is often a healthy resistance to attending worship or being involved in activities and groups their parents have chosen. Add to that the lack of cultural pressure and it's no wonder parents have to fight to get youth out of bed on Sunday mornings.

There are more answers, more reasons young people give for not being a part of a church—the top one, according to a relatively recent Barna poll, is the inability to believe in a God who is good but still allows bad things to happen (a perennially thorny question which, helpfully enough, Pastor Jenny is going to clear up for us next week in her sermon on why bad things happen to good people: she tells me the answer is not that those people weren't as good as they thought they were, so there goes my answer), but I want to return to the question of why youth and young adults who were raised in the church no longer darken the church door, because that is where I see room for the church to grow.

Given the reasons I've outlined, it can be tempting to simply say that it's developmentally appropriate for young people to be absent and that there’s nothing we can do about it except hope we’ve raised them well and that they’ll come back when they have children of their own, which we know a number of them will.

Or, we can lay the responsibility at the feet of their parents. After all, who else could forcibly make them get out of bed, say ‘no’ to sports and other obligations that require a Sunday morning commitment, and get them to worship on Sunday mornings? We know it’s possible since plenty of us were made to do just that by our parents or have made our own children do it. It's just that “parents these days …”. Except, we tend to forget that when we were forced to do it or when we forced our children to do it we were supported by a culture that didn't allow anything to happen on Sunday mornings, a culture that virtually ensured other young people would be present as well—because where else would they be?

And while both of these answers contain an element of truth, they conveniently let those of us sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings off the hook a little too easily. While it is true that parents do have the greatest impact on the faith lives of their children, research is increasingly showing that the difference between the youth and young adults who stay involved in the life of the church and those who fall away (either after confirmation or when they leave for college) is the number of connections they have with adults in their church who are not family members or paid staff. “According to one study, teens who had five or more adults invested in them [during their high school years] were less likely to leave the church [and their faith] after high school.”

Five adults (who are not related to them) for every one young person. 

In order to achieve this five to one ratio for the kids in our congregation, every single person sitting here this morning would need to be actively involved, and we would still need more. Take a minute and look at the person sitting on your left, and now at the person sitting on your right. Of the three of you, two of you will need to be actively involved in the life of one of our incoming confirmands. And not just for the year that they’re in confirmation, but from now on. And that’s just our upcoming class of confirmands. According to Kathy, who knows all things and keeps all records, there are fifty-four additional children and youth from nursery through college whose families are actively involved in the church—that’s 270 additional adults—so those of you who just looked at your neighbors and figured you’d be the involved third party, no such luck. According to the research, when we baptize a child or welcome a new child in to the congregation, we should be giving them not only a beautiful quilt, but five adults who are committed to being involved and invested in their life. If we want to be church for our children in a way that sticks, it’s going to require all of us together and each one of us individually.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is the fifth book in the Old Testament and is considered a “boundary book” because it takes place on the boundary of the promised land just before the people are allowed to enter it and because it recaps much of what has already transpired in the earlier books of Exodus and Numbers and points forward to the next chapter in Israel’s history.

In the passage for this morning, Moses is preaching to the adults. As they stand together with their children on the boundary of all that has come before and all that is yet to be, Moses insists that they tell their story.

It is you, Moses reminds them, who saw how God parted the Red Sea and drowned the Egyptians when they were pursuing you. You who saw how God provided manna in the wilderness when it seemed like all was lost and you were going to starve. You adults, who were alive when we were enslaved in Egypt, and have seen all that God has done to get us to this place. Moses’ command to the adults in the congregation is to testify, to tell the story of their lives (and where they have seen God at work) to the children in their midst. It is a reminder that it’s our job, as adults who have lived longer and have seen the ways in which God acts in the world and in our lives, to share that experience with the next generation, so that they too might have eyes to see God’s presence and activity in their lives.

Investing in youth can take many forms—it can look like being a Sunday School teacher or a confirmation mentor, it can look like showing up for intergenerational potlucks like the one after VBS last night, or simply being a friendly face on Sunday mornings who talks to kids and knows their names. Regardless of its form, investing in youth, at its core, is about developing relationships in which we can practice telling youth our story and listen as they practice telling us theirs. It doesn’t require knowing every Bible story or having the answers to hard theological questions; all that is required is a willingness to care, to listen and to share. Ask them what they like about Sunday School or Covenant and share with them your history in this place. Share with them why you get out of bed on Sunday morning and come sit in wooden pews instead of going out to breakfast or sleeping in and ask them why they do the same. Tell them what your faith has meant to you at various points in your life and ask them about theirs. Be honest about the questions and doubts that you have and listen compassionately if they share theirs. Learn their names and their birthdays, where they go to school, and what they love to do in their free time. Look for them on Sunday mornings and let them know that you miss them when they aren’t here.

In baptism, we promise every child (not just the ones related to us) that we will guide and nurture them, by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of the church. If we want to ask why there are so few young people in the church, we must also be willing to ask, how am I living out that promise to each of the children and youth in this church?

And one final note …

I know the concern about the lack of young people in the church is often actually a concern about the future of the church. There is a natural and understandable desire to ensure the future and longevity of the institutions and communities that mean the most to us, and that is a generous impulse. And while I also would like to see the church continue, having experienced the gifts of the church in my own life, I think the most faithful response might be Christ’s teaching to leave the troubles of tomorrow until tomorrow. It may well be that the church in its current form cannot provide for future generations the gifts that it has given to those of us who frequent its pews, and that’s okay. If that’s the case, then the church will die and be reborn in a new fashion, in a way that is able to reach those who come after us. God, after all, is not confined by the buildings we build in God’s name, nor to the traditions and worship we offer, or even the words we use to describe God. We believe in a God who is the source of all life, nothing we do will change that.

If our concern about the lack of young people in the church is because we’re concerned our legacy won’t live on, that this institution won’t live on, then we’ve focused on the wrong part. Regardless of whether or not they ever frequent the door of the church, our question should be: am I living out the promises made to the children of this church? And if not, how can I do better? The rest is in God’s very good and very capable hands.

Thanks be to God.

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