I’m probably not breaking new ground here, but one of the things I am thinking about this fall—regarding both our youth ministry and the congregation as a whole—is how we think about what it means to be an active member of our faith community.
As a downtown church that draws on individuals and families from all around the Chicagoland area, our youth ministry has always faced some interesting challenges. Our youth come from a variety of schools, so creating a sense of community in this context is different from a situation in which all or most of the youth go to the same school. We also focus the majority of our energy on a short window of time on Sunday morning, which we’ve found is our best chance to gather a critical mass of young people. Busy schedules and the difficulties of traveling to and parking near our church make midweek activities almost impossible.
Historically, we have also lost a lot of youth between confirmation in eighth grade and high school. As they move through high school and their lives become more and more complicated, retaining them as “active” members becomes increasingly difficult. We’re getting much better at this, but a quick comparison of our “active” participants against the number of youth in our database reminds us that we have a lot of work yet to do.
But, perhaps we need to think differently about what it means to be an “active” member of a faith community in today’s world, especially for young people.
Recently, I discovered that a student who I pretty much never saw after confirmation faithfully volunteered at our tutoring program every Wednesday night for all four years of high school. He was not an “active” member of our youth ministry, but he was clearly actively involved in the mission and ministry of our church. How many more students like this are there? Or, how many more could there be if we helped youth find alternative ways of engaging?
More commonly, young people find themselves too busy and over programmed to consistently participate in our youth ministry. To be sure, some of these youth just don’t care to be involved. But some of them would like to be, if they only had the time. Many of these youth still feel connected to our church and consider themselves members, perhaps even “active” members.
More and more, I’m wondering if this battle for active participation is one we will never win. We all know that in post-Christendom America there are numerous factors competing with church participation. Perhaps what we need to do is redefine the rules of engagement. Maybe we need to more explicitly redefine what we mean by “active” and “faithful” church participation.
Rather than creating even more stress and guilt for these young people and their families by harping on the importance of participation, we need to think more creatively about how we can minister to them in their own contexts. How can I be an effective pastor to youth that never show up on Sundays or at other activities? How can we reach out to and support youth that we never see?
Don’t get me wrong: I want to grow our youth ministry and have more young people come to church and participate in what we do. Even though we don’t really practice an attraction model of youth ministry that tries to be flashy and entice young people to come, I’d like to think that by being authentic and missional we will offer youth something they can’t get elsewhere and grow in this more organic way.
But, I’m convinced that there is a sizable portion of young people that will never show up, no matter how awesome our youth ministry is. I’m not convinced that we cannot reach out to these young people and serve them as they try to live good and faithful lives.
The same goes for our church as a whole. In our post-Christendom context in which participation in establishment Protestant churches in no longer anywhere near the center of culture, even our most active and faithful members do not attend church three or four times a month. The old way of addressing this reality was to convince people that they need to come. Perhaps we should focus instead on articulating and enabling ways of faithful discipleship and missional living that take this contemporary reality as a given rather than an obstacle to overcome.
Am I giving up? Am I conceding too much to our culture? Maybe. But what I really think I’m doing is calling for new forms of contextual ministry that focus on meeting people where they are rather than fighting what is clearly a losing battle to reclaim a Christendom way of being church in America.