In April, I attended Faith Forward, a conference for progressive thinking church people who are involved in church based faith formation of children and youth. Church guru Brian McLaren usually kicks off Faith Forward each year with some words of wisdom regarding children’s and youth ministry and the future of the church. This year, Brian has been on a travel sabbatical, so he was not with us in person, but favored us with a short video presentation. In this presentation, he spoke of the problem of the aging of the church and suggested that maybe our (those present at Faith Forward) task was to turn Christianity back into a youth movement.
Those words have stuck with me. A few days after Faith Forward I was in Sheridan, Wyoming, at the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference’s annual meeting. I spoke about the basics of faith formation in our churches: intergenerational relationships and worship; enabling at home faith formation; exploring Bible stories personally and contextually, rather than always assigning a meaning to them; and the importance of faith communities realizing that everything they do teaches about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. In one of my sessions, a pastor said something like this: “If my church did all the things you are talking about, all my older people will leave and the church will die.” The only answer I had for him was, “If you don’t do these things –– your church will die.”
I think these two stories well illustrate the dilemma facing many churches today. The people who keep the church alive through pledges and service use this power and privilege to keep things as they are so they “don’t lose their church.” And in the meantime, progressive Christianity is not capturing the imagination of its children for the work of Jesus and the possibilities of the Reign of God because church leaders feel compelled to keep things as they are in order to keep the doors of the church open.
So what if we took seriously the words Brian shared with us at Faith Forward? What if we could turn today’s Christianity into a youth movement –– what might it take to do that?
It will take courage on the part of clergy and church leaders. It’s far easier and less stressful to maintain the status quo, even if it is leading to our death, than to make changes that will anger people and cause them to vote with their bank accounts or their feet. It will take extreme focus on the children and their families in both our churches and surrounding communities. The church will need to ask –– about everything it does –– this question: how does this affect our children and how they understand what it means to love God and live in the way of Jesus? It will mean saying “yes” to seeing children as co-worshipers, co-teachers, co-learners, and co-leaders. It will mean that churchgoers will need to relearn the lost art of cross-generational friendships. It will mean that our churches must learn how to do ministry with children rather than simply for children.
So are you with Brian and me? Are you ready to turn Christianity into a youth movement? Let’s say a collective “yes” to this and see what it is that God’s spirit is up to.
Sparking Ministry Conversations
Name the things your church does now to do ministry with children, not just for children. How would your church need to change if your faith community started to see and value children as co-worshipers, co-teachers, co-learners, and co-leaders.
The Rev. Dr. Ivy Beckwith is the Faith Formation Team Leader for the United Church of Christ. Ivy and her team want to hear your stories about the transformative ideas your church has implemented in the area of faith formation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 216-736-3875.