Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Conversations with Young Adults Who Stayed in The Church: Why They Didn’t Walk Away

Over the last several months I took the opportunity to interview dozens of young adults who have not abandoned their faith and who have not walked away from church.

I have been one of those authors and speakers that has talked at length about the phenomenon of high school graduates who have left the church following their active years in youth ministry. To be clear, I am certainly not one to blame youth pastors for this departure. In fact, I champion church leaders who are trying to emulate the many positive aspects of youth ministry and who are trying to build those characteristics into the fabric of their churches as a whole. (For more on this topic, see my book Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for The Church, Chapter 7 beginning on page 71.)

The statistics seem overwhelming. The majority of young adults who were once active participants in youth groups are leaving the church in droves once they become adults. Plus, the majority of today’s Millennial generation feel no loyalty for any particular church polity or denominational structure. Let’s face it – our kids are leaving the church and are expressing no real allegiance or commitment to church once they reach adulthood. These trends are real; but they don’t include everyone. Not every young adult has walked away from church. So, I intentionally spent some time over the past several months identifying and interviewing Christian young adults who remain active in church to try to pinpoint the common denominators of why they stayed.

I talked with scores of young adults, including my own 3 children, who are now actively involved in church – and I asked them why they didn’t walk away. Here’s what I found:

1.       Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents demonstrated a genuine love for the Lord.
The majority of young adults I talked to described the consistent Christian testimony of their parents as the most important role model in their lives. If their parents’ faith is real, the kids know it, and they are much more likely to want a genuine faith of their own.
I did talk with some young adults that are now very active in church, but grew up in non-Christian or incredibly dysfunctional families. These individuals each spoke of a clear message of God’s grace that overcame human sinfulness and weaknesses.
The take-away here was 2-fold: Christian young adults are much more likely to remain plugged in to church themselves if their parents were genuine, Godly role models. Yes, there were exceptions to that general rule; but in those cases God’s matchless and amazing grace did something miraculous that overruled the missteps of the parents. 
2.       Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if their parents were consistent about their own personal and family commitment to the local church.
Again, the majority of emerging adults I spoke to mentioned the commitment their parents had made to the church during their own formative years. Several shared anecdotes of parents that “never missed a service” or who “made us go to Sunday School and youth group”. Some spoke about not being allowed to take part-time jobs or get involved in sports if that interfered with church activities. It was clear, if the parents made church a priority – the kids most often grew up making church a priority too.
3.       Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have experienced the church working in collaboration with their parents for the spiritual growth of the young person.
Every one of the young adults I interviewed spoke highly about a significant adult, often several adults, who took a personal interest in them during their days growing up in church. My own personal interest in youth ministry was stirred when I heard so many speak about the youth pastors or lay youth workers who played an active role in their lives. They each identified various Godly adults who cared enough to build a personal relationship with them during their maturing years. My conclusion following these conversations was obvious – the positive relationships they had with Godly adults was a key factor in their long term spiritual growth.
4.       Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they have not been actively involved in specific ministry and service initiatives throughout their lives as children and teenagers.
Another conclusion was also clear – if the church entertained kids, once they became adults they would most likely walk away. The converse is also true, if the church (and youth ministry) was intentional and missional about involving young people in specific ministry and service projects, the participants were more likely to stay involved in those things into adulthood.
Again, the take-away here was clear: youth programs don’t work – youth ministry does work, and it lasts!
5.       Young adults are less likely to drop out of church if they see the relevance and importance of Biblical truth and if they can vividly see how God’s Word applies to their current lives.
My final observation seemed to jump out of every single conversation. Young adults who see God’s Word as relevant and life related are the ones who also see The Church as vitally important. They realize that The Church has been designed by God to help people come to Christ and grow in Him into spiritual maturity. These young adults participate in church to worship Him and to hear God’s Word taught.
I absolutely loved talking to these young adults. They each craved the opportunity to be a part of an inter-generational community of Christ-followers who gathered together often to open the Scriptures together because they knew they needed to grow closer to Him.

(Note to Readers: Full disclosure - I serve on staff at Summit University of Pennsylvania, a school where all of our students are Bible majors. This means that I am surrounded every day by students who are preparing to serve the Lord in a variety of ministries or careers. These are students who are all actively involved in various local churches and therefore are students who have made the commitment not to walk away from The Church.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Is “Inter-Generational Youth Ministry” an Oxy-Moron? How to Involve Godly Adults in the Lives of Young People

We’ve all heard about “oxymoron’s”, right? It’s a figure of speech where contradictory terms appear together. Here are some illustrations from http://www.oxymoronlist.com/:
  • Accurate estimate
  • Act naturally
  • Adult children
  • All alone
  • Big baby
  • Calm winds
  • Casual dress
  • Sanitary landfill
  • Airline food
Someone asked me the other day if the title of my book, Inter-Generational Youth Ministry: Why a
Balanced View of Connecting the Generations is Essential for The Church, is an oxymoron? While I get what they are saying, I really don’t believe that there should be a conflict there. I believe in youth ministry and I have been actively involved in it in some form or another for more than 40 years. But, I have a growing conviction that if churches totally separate their teenagers from the overall life of the church, they are making a big mistake.

Older adults need the life and energy of youth – and young people need the wisdom and maturity of older adults. The church was designed by God to be inter-generational and the generations need each other.

However, there are concrete and definite strengths for having a strong and effective church youth ministry. (I present some of those strengths in my book. See Chapter 7. Here is my list of youth ministry strengths that I posted in an earlier blog. http://www.melwalker.org/2014/01/13-things-big-church-must-learn-from.html.) It’s not time to overreact and eliminate the many positive aspects of youth ministry in favor of all ages meeting together for one more lecture in the church auditorium. The key is balance. I am convinced that today’s churches can and should balance their programming and methods so that peer ministry can exist and thrive alongside of inter-generational ministry.

Dr. Chap Clark, well-known youth ministry professor, writer, and researcher, has made the assertion that today’s teenagers need strong relationships with 5 significant adults (other than their parents) if they are going to continue involvement in church following their youth ministry years. (Note for more information about Chap’s 5 to 1 ratio see http://billygraham.org/decision-magazine/september-2004/in-spite-of-how-they-act/, http://www.cpyu.org/2013/08/13/5-adults-to-1-kid-but-who-are-the-5/, http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/articles/moving-away-from-the-kid-table, and http://theparentcue.org/why-your-kids-need-five-other-adults-in-their-lives/.)  

Our young people need Godly adults to be actively involved in their lives. I believe that it is essential for the spiritual development of youth that older, Godly adults take the initiative to build growing relationships with them.

How to involve adults into the life of your church’s teenagers & young adults?

How can churches be proactive and intentionally build 5 significant, Godly adults into the lives of the next generation? Here are some suggestions:

1. Hire a qualified, trained, and experienced pastor to shepherd your church’s youth.

I admit it, I am a fan of youth pastors. I’ve spent the majority of my life involved in local church youth ministry, so I believe in the role of youth pastors. Plus, as a dad, I can’t tell you how thankful I am for the ministry the youth pastors in the churches we attended had in the lives of my kids. According to my friend Wayne Morgan with the National Network of Youth Ministry, the majority of young adults who stay in church after they graduate from high school had a youth pastor who invested in their life.

Let me take a moment to explain the adjectives I used in this sub-point:
  • Qualified: Pastors, even young youth pastors, must meet the Biblical qualifications that are found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
  • Trained: Youth pastors should be trained before they begin. They need to know what they are talking about and they to know what they are doing. And, are they called of God to do this?
  • Experience: As a parent I don’t want someone who we pay to minister to kids that has never done this before. If someone is really called to be a youth pastor they will have already had experience in working with teenagers. It’s in their blood. 

2. Recruit a team of Godly, caring adults to serve as lay youth workers in your church.

With or without a paid youth pastor, your church needs a team of Godly and caring adults to work with teenagers. Please notice the plurality of my terms. I believe in team ministry - different models who can reach and minister different teens. The main responsibility of any lay youth worker must be to build relationships with teens. That really is the key. Opportunities to teach and disciple will grow out of positive relationships.

3. Recruit and train competent adults to minister as small group leaders in your youth group.

Your small group leaders are another level of adult interaction with students. Be sure to find adults who have the ability to guide discussions around the Scriptures and who can think on their feet in case the teens ask difficult questions. I think it’s also wise to look for small group leaders who are able and willing to interact with the students in occasions outside of small group. (Some churches are organizing their entire small group ministry around inter-generational connections; and of course, this would add an interesting dynamic to this type of ministry structure.)

4. Utilize church leaders, parents of teenagers, and other significant adults to serve your youth group.

Another way to build adults into the lives of the young people in your church is to use significant adults in various ways within the fabric of your existing youth ministry. Here are some practical ideas to consider:
  • Ask some parents of teenagers or other adults to accompany your group on youth events or trips.
  • Ask church leaders to speak, teach, or otherwise participate in youth group meetings.
  • Ask the lead pastor or other pastoral staff members to teach on a specific topic in youth group.
  • Ask select, Godly adults who have unique life experiences to minister to students who are facing some of the same experiences.
  • Give older, Godly adults the opportunity to share their story (or their testimony) with teenagers.
(Of course, you’ll need to be cognizant of your church’s policy on child protection or use of potential background checks before making these decisions.)


5. Ask key parents of teenagers to build healthy, growing relationships with their kids’ friends.

Parents of kids in your church can be the ideal people to minister to their kids’ friends – especially if you have young people involved in your ministry who are from dysfunctional home situations. When our own children were teenagers we often encouraged them to invite their friends over to our house. This provided a safe atmosphere for our kids and gave us the opportunity to get to know their friends. It might be a good idea to be intentional about making this kind of thing happen with Godly parents of teens in your church. 

6. Motivate your church’s senior citizens to pray specifically and intentionally for young people – by name!

I am excited about a growing trend around the country to intentionally involve senior citizens in specific ways with teenagers and young adults. This absolutely must start with prayer. Do whatever you can to motivate your church’s oldest adults to pray specifically, by name for the young people. This simple practice will put a growing burden on their hearts for the students - and honestly, it has the potential to revolutionize your church and shatter its’ generation gap!  

Friends, I am convinced that by implementing some of the ideas listed above your church can create that 5 adults to 1 student ratio that is so essential to help our young people grow up and go on for God. Blessings.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What Does It Take to Be an Encourager? 8 Characteristics of Effective Mentors – Acts 11:19-30

I love encouragers. You know the type – those people who can’t help but be positive, friendly… and encouraging to others. These are the people who couldn’t say a negative word about anyone. Ever. My experience tells me that there are very few people like that (which is a shame, by the way); but as I get older, I want to be one of those encouragers. I pray daily about it. But, wow – I have a long ways to go!

There are a couple of people identified that way in the Scriptures. One of them was a man by the name of Onesiphorus. He is introduced to us in 2 Timothy 2:16-18. The Apostle Paul writes this about him, “He often refreshed me.” The word “refreshed” there implies being “revived, renewed, or reinvigorated”. That’s an amazing testimony. I want people in my life who are like that – and I want to be that kind of person for others. I need to build encouragers into my life. I honestly think everyone needs people like him – and maybe the best way to change a culture of discouragement into a culture of encouragement is for each of us to be intentional about trying to refresh others like Onesiphorus did.

Certainly the most familiar encourager in the New Testament was Barnabas. That’s how we know him, but his real name was actually Joseph (see Acts 4:36). God’s people called him by the nickname Barnabas, because he was characterized as someone who encouraged others. His life demonstrated it.

There’s one specific account in Scripture which especially exemplifies his ministry of encouragement. The story take place when the church was new. Facing heavy persecution, the early Christ-followers scattered spreading the Gospel, which resulted in a great number of new believers in places like Antioch. You can read the narrative in Acts 11:19-30. It really is an amazing story!

What happens in Antioch is one of my favorite mentoring illustrations in all of Scripture. These new believers had come to Christ and were growing in Him, but they needed help. They needed direction, counsel, and they needed to be taught and discipled by someone older and more mature in their faith. So the mother-church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas, the ideal encourager, to the newly-established Antioch church so that he could mentor them in their faith.

I am absolutely convinced that what Barnabas did in Antioch is exactly what the church needs today – especially young people. The next generation needs encouragers – older, more mature, Godly people who will take the initiative to build growing relationships into the lives of younger people. That’s exactly why I am a big fan of intentional, church-based mentoring.

There are some amazingly practical principles in this story of Barnabas in Acts 11:19-30 that can be implemented into the fabric of our churches today. Let me highlight some of them for you:

Biblical Characteristics of Effective Mentors -
  1. Barnabas was accountable. Notice that “the church in Jerusalem” (v. 22) sent Barnabas to Antioch. He was under their accountably and their authority. This was not a random act. The word “sent” implies purposeful activity.
  2. Barnabas was a mature Christian. By this time in the Biblical account his life, Barnabas was already a seasoned and experienced leader in the early church. Among other experiences, he was greatly used by God to mentor Saul (Acts 9:27) by helping this young convert get assimilated into the church community. He was the ideal person to help these new believers in Antioch grow in Christ. This is an imperative in a truly effective mentoring relationship. Mentors must be spiritually mature and must be Godly examples to the younger, less mature believers.   
  3. Mentoring is about having things in common. A little background information is in order here to fully appreciate this story. This passage points out that some of the new believers in the Antioch church were men from Cyprus (vs. 19 & 20). It is quite interesting to realize that Barnabas was actually from Cyprus (Acts 4:26) too. Barnabas could connect with them because he certainly had things in common with them. That is a key ingredient of any mentoring relationship. Ministry is much more effective when the mentor’s life background is similar to the people they are mentoring.
  4. Barnabas was an encourager. This point perhaps seems obvious in the flow of this article, but it needs to be emphasized.  Barnabas “encouraged them all” (v. 23). It’s a rare quality to be able to have that kind of positive influence on everyone; but that’s how God used him. And note, what he did specifically. He “encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord.” This isn’t a description of a “power-of-positive-thinking”, eternal optimist, or Joel Osteen / Robert Schuller type of person. Quite the contrary. This verse depicts the ministry of someone who was used of God to exhort others to go on for God. Today’s young people need people like this in their lives - older, Godly, more mature encouragers to motivate them toward their own walk with Christ.
  5. Barnabas was intentional about mentoring.  The intentionality in the passage is obvious - and should be motivating as well. The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch, and he had an incredible ministry there (v. 24) so that “a great many people were added to the Lord.” But, then, right in the middle of all the great things God was doing there, the text tells us (v. 25) that Barnabas “departed for Tarsus to seek for Saul”. Barnabas was wise enough, mature enough, and serious enough about these new converts in Antioch that he knew they needed someone else with a different set of gifts and abilities to get involved in their lives. Barnabas immediately thought of Saul – the new convert he had personally mentored earlier. So, Barnabas left the activity there in Antioch to make this trip back to Saul’s hometown to recruit him to join the team in the work at Antioch. That is exactly what good mentors do – they get other people involved in the process.
  6. The ministry was Bible-centered. There was a certain focus to the ministry of Barnabas, who was now partnered with Saul in this strategic mentoring ministry in Antioch, and that was their emphasis upon teaching the Scriptures. Verse 26 puts it this way “they assembled with the church and taught a great many people.” This phrase also implies an intentionality to their ministry. It wasn’t a hap-hazard, informal relationship. These young converts needed to be grounded in the Scriptures and the Lord gave Barnabas and Saul the opportunity to do just that.
  7. Mentoring takes time. Spending time together is another practical aspect of any mentoring relationship. Notice this phrase in verse 26, “for a whole year they assembled with the church…” Obviously, this is also very important. Real ministry cannot happen without spending time together – and this will probably be a huge issue in today’s culture. People are so busy. That’s why I often remind people that true mentoring is not necessarily a commitment of extra time. Instead, it should be something like this – do what you do, just do it with someone younger. Your ministry must flow out of a genuine lifestyle of living consistently for Him.
  8. Their ministry was Christ-focused. It is significant to note that Barnabas and Saul did not make their work in Antioch about them as individuals.  Notice this in verse 26, “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Their ministry there was so Christ-focused that they produced disciples (followers of Christ) who were so Christ-like that they were actually called “little Christ’s” (or Christians) by the people there in Antioch. 




Yes, the next generation needs encouragers – older, mature, Godly people who will take the initiative to build growing relationships into the lives of younger people, younger in age or younger in the faith. These principles from this story in Scripture may be able to help. Blessings.