My small group full of mamas at our church is reading “For the Love” by Jen Hatmaker. We’ve laughed. We’ve cried. We’ve lamented. And we’re barely half-way through. There’s  a chapter I had just too much to say on, at least too much for the weekly discussion questions I send out to my group members. So thus, this post.

Where have all the children gone?

The chapter in question is entitled “Jesus Kids.” In it the author, Jen (I’ll just call her Jen because half way through one book I’ve decided she’s my people and I shall keep her forever in my heart), talks about her own “youth group kid” background and the staggering statistics on where these kids end up post-high-school. 80% of them will become “disengaged” with church culture by age twenty-nine. 80% is a lot. With numbers like these you can easily say the “average” kid who grows up in church will more than likely be running full speed in the opposite direction by their late twenties. The reason I am so taken by this fact is that I am, was, the 80%. Only it was long before twenty-nine. By twenty-one I was so outta there. Gone. See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.

Why? What is it that’s pushing these kids away from the church? Well I can tell you what I was made to feel when I was in that place.

They’re just rebellious. They question too much. They don’t have enough self-control. There’s just too much temptation in the world. They chose a secular college. The chose an unbelieving partner. They’re angry. They’re self-centered. They’re stubborn.

Ouch. It’s a pretty safe bet that there’s someone out there, probably lots of someones, between the ages of 18 and 29 or older who walked away from the church and felt these judgements or actually had them spoken to them or about them at some point. The sad part is, the church is often passing judgment where it should be accepting blame.

Outgrowing the church

Let’s look at this from a ministry perspective. For years and years (we’re talking generations) we’ve structured churches around age demographics with families at the center. There’s typically a Sr Pastor, a music pastor, a children’s pastor, a youth pastor, and usually someone in charge of community or small groups. And the buck stops there. Do you see an age demographic missing from this picture? “Well the young singles can just fall under the small group banner.” Really? So kids and teens and EVERYONE else gets their very own leader devoted to furthering the kingdom in the lives of all, except for the the ones most likely to leave the church for good. *slow clap*

The expectation of our Christian kids for years has been grow up, go to  college, marry a nice Christian, make more Christian babies and the cycle repeats. And there are ministries in most churches to accommodate this life path.

But what about the others? The ones that haven’t chosen this exact life path? I’m not talking about the missionaries and others who’ve chosen full time ministry right after high school, there’s always a place for you. I’m talking about the ones who couldn’t afford college. Who didn’t know what they wanted or what they were capable of yet. The ones who lived at home and went to community college or learned a trade. Who realized the pool of nice Christian mates to choose from in their town was pretty small. Like the size of a plastic-kiddy-pool-from-Walmart small. Who are still going to Sunday service with mom and dad but realize they don’t fit in anywhere. The left-behind. The abandoned. The forgotten. Sure they maybe serve in a ministry, attend a small group with a bunch of forty-somethings they have NOTHING in common with then drop out, join the choir or worship team for a while, then drop out. But it’s so much easier to make lasting friendships with co-workers at their part time job or classmates in school. And slowly they gravitate toward where they’re more comfortable. And it’s not church anymore.

And then comes the disappointment. All the expectations their nice Christian parents had for their nice Christian kids are dead in the water. Oops. What happened?

I’ll tell you what happened. They didn’t fit into the predetermined ministry calendar put forth by the churches of yester-year. Somewhere along the way someone decided you weren’t doing God’s work if you chose to be single and have a career first, or forever, instead of having a family. So the church thought “we needn’t bother ourselves with this demographic.” They’re too independent. Rebellious. Ask too many questions.

Newsflash modern church, not all who wonder are lost. And not all who question are to be feared.

“Believe it or not, kids crave depth. They want to grapple with theology. They are malnourished from too much spiritual soda pop, and they want wine. By attempting to attract them with cultural relevance, the church accidentally became irrelevant- like when parents try to be cool.”

By giving our teens the freedom to ask questions without judgement, to push back on the gospel, we can begin to reverse the damage that’s been done by generations of watered down Bible studies and fluffy love-Jesus-because-you’ll-feel-good sermons. They can handle the truth. They can also handle the truth that they may not find that perfect Christian mate whenever it is they think they should. That they have a purpose in their current season of life. And it’s not to be a square peg trying to fit into the round holes of ministries already in place. It’s not to fit a certain mold. It’s not to sit around waiting for “God to open a window” because he recently “closed a door.” *insert eye roll here*

Hard things

Author Logan Wolfram describes the conundrum of hard truths in her book Curious Faith; “Life is hard. Sometimes we watch the world crumble around the people we love. Other times the crumbling world is our own. Sometimes the wretched happens, and we have to reconcile that. And sometimes we can’t. We cannot live our lives curiously after God when we spin our wheels trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Sometimes we just can’t. We weren’t even supposed to know the difference between good and evil.”

When I read that for the first time my immediate thought was; if only someone had bothered to explain that to me when I was twenty-two.

Sometimes there are no windows and no doors. There’s just the stuff of life. And instead of telling our kids they need to pick a path, pick a direction, how about we just suggest they pick Jesus. Not because he’s a genie in a bottle who’s going to show them a specific path, but because if they pursue Him and His word, everything else will take care of itself.

How do we fix this?

We have to provide opportunities. Small groups with leaders who are passionate about young adults in this season of life (and not just one, but as many that are needed). Churches working together in the same towns/regions to ban these young adults together to serve, learn, and worship together. Ministry opportunities where they can use the gifts they already possess. Internships where they can invest their time gain valuable team building and leadership experience. Courses or classes where they can study the Word of God in a way that spurs curiosity and helps them grow in their faith. Right where they are. Not later when they’re married. Or have kids. Or are empty-nesters. Or are senior citizens.

I know I’m all fired up about this and yet I’m just one person, who’s not in full time ministry who has no decision making capabilities in any church. I’m just one of the 80% who eventually made their way back to the church after years of running. But I have my own set of regrets. If only I had known what I was capable of. If only I realized I had gifts that could be used. Passion to be shared. If I’d just had a place to share it. We need a solution for this. The American church needs a solution for this. We’re sitting on a vast populous of untapped potential, all we need are the tools and the desire to change it.