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Building faith that will last

Second of Two Articles on Youth Ministry

Like Rip Van Winkle, the Church is waking from its long slumber to find the world changed. All branches of the American church have a problem retaining young adults; this issue is rapidly working its way down into college and youth ministries. Mainline churches have discovered that failing to provide leadership and politicizing our youth does not work. Evangelicals are beginning to speak about how the segregation/parachurch model does not work either. What will work? Is there a model of youth ministry that creates robust Christian disciples and sees adolescence as a mission field for extending the gospel? I believe there is. Let me tell you the story of Iliya’s introduction to the youth group at our small mission church.

Iliya, an emigrant from Russia, considered himself an atheist when he first visited the youth group. He tagged along with a girl because he had a crush on her. That evening he was dismissive without mocking outright. Two weeks later Iliya returned, stood in the middle of 30 students and young adult volunteers, and passionately described the love of God that had flooded his heart as the result of a phone call with the girl. “I told her to shut up about Jesus,” he said, “but she wouldn’t. So I yelled at her, Shut up about Jesus! But she kept going. So I hung the phone up on her. As I sat there I felt Jesus speak to my heart: ‘She is right, I do love you.’ At that moment, so much love came into my heart that I sat down on the floor and cried.”

Iliya went on tearfully to urge the other students to give themselves to Jesus’ great transforming love. The most beautiful part: he was led to faith in Christ, not by an adult leader, but by a student. In fact, he represented the fifth generation of students led to faith by students in the group. It is an example of remaking youth ministry as youth who do ministry.

That was nearly two years ago. Iliya is now one of the “cool kids” in the local high school, and has grown in his faith. He attended our diocesan summer camp. His habits of poor relationships with girls, marijuana, and bad grades were replaced by Bible studies, good grades, sharing his faith with others, and playing guitar in the youth group. His mother, who initially objected to his “joining some cult,” also joined the church. Iliya’s mother made a cross-country move last month. Before she left she asked if she could address the congregation during Sunday worship. She described the power of relationships with Christian leaders and peers in her son’s life, how much he has changed, and the way those changes have blessed their relationship and her life. She described our church’s love for God and others as “self-sacrificial, full of love and care, and the only thing making it hard for me to leave a city I have spent a decade in.”

What is mature faith?
In the last decade a staggering degree of research has been done on the faith of youth, the factors leading to youth ministry success, and the departure of young adults. Princeton University’s Kenda Creasy Dean describes five characteristics of “highly committed” youth in her book Almost Christian (2011). They have:

  • A creed they know and believe
  • A testimony of God’s action in their lives
  • A community they are supported by
  • A mission to give their life to
  • A hope for the future

These are waters Episcopal congregations should navigate well. After all, we recite the Creed every Sunday. We generally have supportive communities. We take kids on trips focused on service. Where do we struggle? We are often remiss about offering students the opportunity to make faith commitments. We inexplicably treat sixth grade confirmation as marking an “adult” faith decision. We do not help students give articulate testimony of what God is doing in their lives; many of us fear testimony as “evangelical language.” But research tells us that youth who have a faith formed in the content of the “Story of God” with a high degree of commitment tend to stay in faith communities because they value them.

What is our gospel?
Episcopalians often use language that intentionally differentiates us from other Christians. This may serve us well with adults, especially adults who feel they have been harmed by other Christian traditions, but it isn’t particularly helpful with youth. When young people reach college they often join evangelical churches because they do not know how to respond to a basic question: “Do you know Jesus?” In Arizona, Roman Catholic youth directors recognized the language issue years ago and adopted the dominant evangelical terminology for the faith: “We are like other Christians, plus: plus the following distinctives that will bless you.” This teaches a church’s uniqueness without making students think we have kept something from them.

Summarizing the conversation
While the evangelical church wins kids with “wow” (lights, bands, fog) and community, mainline churches win them with social justice and community. These are two sides of the same coin:

  • Both evangelicals and the mainline generally fail to give students a ground for faith other than “God is for me,” and in this respect they pander to our age. We even do it with the most others-centered thing we do: service projects. Listen to people gush about serving: “I felt so good giving that homeless guy a sandwich!” We neither teach about alleviating the conditions that lead to suffering nor “teach a man to fish,” because it isn’t about others. This leaves us with faith as a feeling, which is hardly sustainable.
  • Evangelicals reinforce such self-centeredness by segregating students in youth rooms to entertain them, sending the message that they are a market to be pandered to. All too often we do the same when we give them fun with little content.
  • Both tend to give students a list of moralistic behaviors that tend toward the external and political.

Moralism and social justice without salvation by grace are nice results of faith with neither the motive behind the faith nor the power therein. Feelings without grounding in the nature of God or the costly gift of grace are empty emotionalism. The gospel isn’t “You can do it.” It is “You can’t do it. Jesus did. Surrender your life in gratitude to the only higher love worth reorienting your life around.”

Why are we losing youth? Wrong message, wrong methods, wrong investment. Youth ministry has been built first on program, then on message, but reflective youth ministers in the trenches are, increasingly, advocating content first and then context.

We can teach our young people to love the things Christians have spent 2,000 years doing: studying and inwardly digesting the Bible and the faith of the Church, learning to pray, and then loving and serving one another, while talking about their life and their faith, including their doubts. We can show them how to participate in and build real faith communities. We can form youth who know how and why to worship and walk with God. We can make disciples who live gracefully toward others and make different decisions because they are amazed at God’s goodness and mercy. There are good resources out there to help us.

To quote Paul, there is “a still more excellent way.” It is an ancient way, a rooted and connected, liturgical and sacramental way. It is a way that helps parents and makes leaders “soul friends” to youth, and helps the young live faithfully in love as they walk with God and serve the Church and the world.

Big changes take a great deal of courage and effort. But the fruit will be eternal.

Ancient-Future youth ministry
There is an adage in youth ministry: “What you win them with you win them to.” (I first heard it from Dave Wright, youth officer for the Diocese of South Carolina, and Ken Moser, assistant professor of youth ministry at Briercrest College and Seminary.) In other words, methods produce predictable results. Mainline churches disinvested in youth ministry 25 years ago while evangelicals embraced a ghettoizing youth ministry. Today we see the fruit of these models in the abandonment of the Church by 20-somethings. Will we do things differently for the next generation of adolescents, or is it fine with us that young people leave the Church when they leave high school?These factors build formative, “ancient-future” youth ministry:

  • Depth before growth. Numeric growth is a good thing. Leaders pray and strategize for growth, but it comes from the spiritual depth of members.
  • Rich content. Teach the “big story” of God’s redemption. Teach what is in the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgy and how to use it.
  • Multivalent relationships. The primary task of leaders is weaving webs of relationships: youth to youth, youth to parishioner, youth to clergy, parent to youth, parent to leader, and (finally) leader to youth. The affiliation bond between youth and leader is not the end; creating a vibrant Christian community is.
  • Equipped parents. Help parents to become the primary provider of Christian formation. Committed Christian parents are the first key in forming committed Christian kids.
  • Looking outward. The Christian faith has a goal: to extend the knowledge of God by loving God and neighbor in word and deed (the Great Commandment and Great Commission). Every Christian is called to extend the faith.
  • Youth ministry as “youth who do ministry.” Raise the bar on expectations for a life that reflects who they are in Christ and what they do as a result of that faith.
  • Practice with theology. Mainline churches often give students spiritual practices without an orthodox and creedal theological core. The evangelical church has historically tended to give students a passionate faith without the practices to sustain it. We can do both.

The Rev. Matt Marino is the Diocese of Arizona’s canon for youth and young adults.

Matt Marino on Youth Ministry


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