I had the distinct pleasure of accompanying three of my students from our church’s youth group up to Walla Walla University, where they are beginning their college career. I could tell they were a little nervous about the unknown world of college. I can imagine that their thought process wavered between several thoughts, such as: Will I make friends? Will I be able to cut it academically? Will my room mate drive me completely insane? But mostly, I think the major concern for all involved was: Will I fit in?
I know in my heart that they will all be successful, in whatever they do, and they will fit in to their college surroundings. They are all wonderful people. However, they won’t compromise their relationship with Christ in the process. That’s probably what I am most proud of. They are all smart, beautiful, loving people. But, that doesn’t really impact my pride for them. I am most proud of the fact that they will not end up being a statistic.
Studies are showing an alarming trend, a statistic. Over 6 out of 10 teenagers who regularly attended church, and even youth groups, walk away from their faith shortly after graduating high school. That’s over 60% of our teens that leave their faith for various reasons. In recent years, I have noticed that the statistic is inching ever-closer to 70%. It gets worse. Only about 9% of them ever return. Our teens are becoming statistics.
Many academic-types have taken a shot at why this phenomenon is happening. Suggestions such as more programs, more training for youth leaders, more retreats, etc., are all great suggestions. However, it took this past weekend to help me realize that the answer is actually quite simple.
Those who are supposed to provide spiritual guidance never move beyond the acquaintance level with their students. These teens never form a close bond with their youth leader, pastor, parent, fellow church members, or God for that matter.
In a world that moves at light speed (or at least 4G for those that can afford a decent cell plan – not me, by the way), we get busier with each passing year. With this busyness comes less and less time for real, authentic interaction with people. Rather than having deep, meaningful friendships, we have acquaintances; people we know and chat with occasionally, but not really people that we have a deep bond with.
Why? Because investing ourselves in others takes time. Seeing them for one hour at church provides time for a handshake and small talk at best. Providing a 45 minute lesson before (or after) church gives them information, but does not make it personal. Producing a 90 minute weekly youth group provides fun, fellowship, and some instruction on God, but still doesn’t allow students to feel like they matter to the leaders. We create all kinds of busyness pushing information at them. But, it doesn’t stick.
What then needs to be done? We need to make time to get to know our teens. We need to spend time with them, talk to them, text with them, be honest and open with them. Share our own, personal struggles, and listen to them as they share theirs. In short, we need to get to a point where we feel like they are our close friends, not just once-per-week acquaintances. This is true discipleship. We move beyond that of an instructor to that of a trusted friend.
As I left my students and headed back home, I was pretty bummed. Driving home, I thought a lot about the time Jamie, Jazmine, and Jessica (the three J’s, or Triple-J) shared with me. I am so proud of them, yet I will miss them. It’s weird, I guess. I’m their youth leader, not their parent, brother, sister, or any other relative. Yet, I was actually sad to be leaving them behind. I realized how much they all mean to me, because they had become a part of my life. I realized, I was happy that I was sad!
With these three young women, I have laughed with them, cried with them; prayed for them, and prayed with them. I’ve honestly and openly shared my life experiences (good and bad), and they have let me in on theirs. I shared Christ, they challenged me. I opened the Word, they saw truth. We opened our lives to God, and each other, and found love. All of this took many hours outside of actual church programming. It took place on the phone, on church trips, in the hallway of a hotel at 2 A.M., throughout the day via text message, or even on the campus of their school. We broke bread together and just hung out. I sacrificed my personal time, some time with my own family, and even my work time so that I could hang out with these friends of mine. I wouldn’t trade a minute.
We need to move beyond casual chit-chat and invest time in the lives of our teens. They will test you. They will argue with you. They will resist your attempts to learn more about their private worlds. But, if you care for them, if you love them, if you don’t judge them, they WILL let you in.
This is true for anyone who declares themselves a Christian. We are called to disciple others – to love them, teach them, nurture them. Parents, church members, youth leaders, pastors, elders, deacons, it doesn’t matter your official role in your congregation, you can, and should, reach out to our teens in friendship. It is only through YOU that we can prevent any more of them from becoming a statistic.
Will you miss them when they leave for life’s great adventures? Yes. But you will be happy that you’re sad.
True discipleship = friendship. Friendship = time invested. Time invested = Sacrifice. Sacrifice = Love.