Where Collegiate Ministry Begins, Part 3
No Transition to Adulthood
You would think that our churches would embrace their youth as their key strategy to impact the world of tomorrow for Christ. It would also ensure that they have a church of tomorrow. However, in the words of prominent theologian Rodney Dangerfield, they “don’t get no respect.”
After all, when does a person become an adult in our culture? Heck, you can vote when you're 18, but you can't drink alcohol legally in some states at that age. In most states, you can drive when you're 16, but you can't smoke a cigarette. You can go see a rated "R" movie when you're 17, but in most traditional churches, you'll never see a teenager on a finance committee. With such an obvious confusion in our culture and churches, is it any wonder that today's adolescents are confused? Not only do we not give our teens a change to succeed in our churches, but any cultural observer can note that we have created a climate of postponed adolescence in our society as well, with many adults continuing to act like one might expect an early teen to act well into their 30s.
I think there are two optimal occurrences that we can seize for maximum impact in adolescence. One is the 13th birthday as an adulthood transition. The other is an adolescent's first ballot: his car keys. When those keys first reach his pocket, he is given the power to vote with his presence where he will spend his time, Search for senior high students in most youth ministries today, and you will see they are "voting" to go elsewhere.
What can the church do to communicate the passage from childhood to adulthood? From being the center of their own world to being a servant in our ours? I believe the church must lead out in a cultural revolution that will bring purpose and meaning to our adolescents precisely at the time they are crying out for it. Where can we look for such models of adulthood transition? Sit down and relax. Take a deep breath. Evangelicals, don't get constipated here. I think we can look to Jesus' people for it. We can look to the Jews.
You(th) Can Learn a Lot from a Jew
What element of orthodox Jewish culture is celebrated without reservation and carries immense symbolism for a Jewish youth? What exists already in Jewish life that communicates to their young that they are now "adults?" The bar mitzvah.
This ancient practice may hold immense practical wisdom for evangelicals today. When you consider the astounding proportion of Jewish youth that go on to become national leaders in politics, technology, science, education, finance… you name it, I for one think we must look at what happened to communicate to these youth at an early age that they "can."
On the one hand, you take the typical evangelical congregation. When a child hits 6th or 7th grade, congratulations, you get to go to youth group! (Oooohh, aaaaaaahhhhh!) And so begins a six-year odyssey in which we not only segregate youth from the "life" of the congregation (I use life here very generously), but we proceed to entertain them with camps, retreats, concerts, endless supplies of t-shirts with war-like messages on them (won't they endear themselves to our culture with messages like "Turn or Burn" cheerfully emblazoned on their backs), and a weekly youth group meeting that has no overall vision or strategy for what it wants to accomplish or produce in the lives of these impressionable youth (Adolescence is the age at which they’re the most impressionable. Billy Graham tells us that if a person hasn’t become a Christian by the age of 18, there’s an 85% chance they never will. More recent research suggests that the age is dropping, that youth are cynical younger, and that the key average age is actually more like 15.).
I suggest that each church form a youth strategy team that would actively research and then implement a plan for their church that would affirm a child as he reaches the age 13 and lay before them the vision of service and responsibility they will find within their church. This doesn’t mean we don’t have fun with our teens in church. It does mean that we will most likely hit at what we’re aiming at, that we will produce what we are organized for, that youth will meet our expectations of them.
Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas was planted by a trio of friends that sought to address this very issue... with their own kids. Years later, lead pastor Robert Lewis wrote a book called Raising a Modern Day Knight. It's principles are transferrable to girls in many ways. But he has also produced material called The New Eve. Both seek to begin the strategic instruction of kids much earlier than traditional churches.
However you consider it, if a church waits until a student reaches 18 to begin doing effective collegiate ministry, it will be too late. By the time a student reaches his or her teen years, their faith (or lack thereof) is firmly formed. I'm reminded of the admonition of Hebrews 5.12-14:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Unfortunately, this verse as often as not applies to adult members of our churches. But that's another series for another day. Perhaps we just don't expect enough from our church...