It isn’t just statistics about young people leaving the church that cause alarm. What is equally concerning is the lack of Christian maturity that exists within young Christians who remain in the church. Ephesians 4 begins to paint a picture of what mature Christian believers look like. How do today’s young believers measure up to the standard of maturity we read about in scripture?
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Today’s young adults are a generation raised primarily by school, sports programs, internet, T. V. and video games. They may have had only a few spiritual moments with their families and with youth groups throughout their lives. Even a cursory reading of Ephesians 4:11-16 shows there is a great distance that exists between God’s expectation of the maturity of adult Christians, and the realized maturity of young adult Christians today. Many young adults today are not mature contributing members to the body of Christ. Many young Christians even in their early twenties are a decade away from having an understanding of God, a life that seeks the full measure of the fullness of Christ, convictions that are wise to the deceptive ways of the world, and a realization that the body of Christ (the church) is depending on them. Ephesians 4 not only paints a picture of Christian maturity, it also portrays church and it’s role in contributing toward maturing believers. God has gifted his people as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Younger generations cannot adequately grow unless they connect with the spiritual influence of the entire church. Ephesians 4 clearly shows how “option two,” the church, is God’s plan for growing a generation of faith. God’s plan for “option one,” goes back much further into the biblical narrative.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.
For thousands of years faith in God has been primarily passed down in a singular fashion . . . through family. It was passed from father to son, mother to daughter, grandparents to grandchildren, uncles to nieces and nephews. Faith was advanced through family. Even within ancient Hebrew culture followers were not primarily made at the temple, synagogues, or at the hands of any other organization. Families banded together as a unit to instruct and model what was important, namely, God. It was their life, not merely a ritual or weekly gathering at the synagogue.
When one considers Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Ephesians 4:11-16 together, a comprehensive plan for faith development emerges. If we view Ephesians 4 through the lens of Deuteronomy 6 we see faith development through the everyday faith practices of the family. Godly maturity happens first at home! When we view Deuteronomy 6 through the lens of Ephesians 4 we see how the church equips families and includes them in a larger community of faith that shares a unity in thinking, direction, and support. Faith in the home is critical to the development of young believers. Young Christians today will rarely attain maturity without the daily faith practices of their family. Likewise, Christian families and their children will not attain maturity without the influence of the entire church in their lives.
TODAY’S SAD REALITY FOR FAITH DEVELOPMENT
Most Christian families do not have a Deuteronomy 6 environment at home. In many cases, Christian families cannot imagine what a Deuteronomy 6 life would look like in their home. They see it as unrealistic within today’s busy culture. Families often respond with blank stares when asked how they are leading their children toward the picture of maturity found in Ephesians 4. Many parents have taken a more casual approach to faith development. This casual approach looks something like bringing children to church once a week, talking about faith if it ever comes up; and if the family gets really serious, enrolling them in a Christian school. A casual approach to faith development may have worked in years past, but it is not working in this culture. This culture is relentlessly promoting its lifestyle and a casual plug for a different way of life will be too small to be noticed among the barrage of distorted thinking that is entering the lives of children and teens.
In addition, most churches don’t know how to consistently involve the entire church in the faith development of children and teens. Churches have been content to relieve the whole body of Christ from the maturing process of young believers by placing them in vibrant children’s or youth ministry programs. It seems like a good idea to hire a professionals to raise young Christians in their faith, but as a result, most church members have relinquished their influence in the lives of students. Children are missing the influence of a body of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to shape them and develop their own spiritual gifts.
All hope is not lost. As it stands now, youth ministry, “option three,” is uniquely positioned to lead families and the church to rediscover “option one” and “option two” as the primary methods to grow a generation of faith. This seems a little unusual at first. Youth ministry is, in many cases, the only group that has enough influence to connect teens, families, and the church together in spiritual relationships.
1. The youth ministry has enough influence to help the teens see that faith discussions with their parents are important. Since teens trust the success of the youth ministry, it is much easier for them to listen to a youth minister/volunteer who says that talking to their parents about faith is important and is something that God expected of them.
2. The youth ministry has influence with parents, because of its relationship with the teens. Before this transition, I had never realized the inherent trust that parents placed in a good youth ministry. They trust the youth ministers to teach, and lead their children on trips, it isn’t that far of a stretch to instruct parents in how to teach their children about faith. Most mature youth ministries have enough respect to help families create a spiritual environment at home. Don’t misunderstand; most youth ministries will quickly find themselves over their heads if they try to tell parents how to raise their children. However, youth ministries are experts at creating environments for teens to listen to biblical messages.
3. Youth ministry also has a strong enough voice with the church to communicate what is expected of the church as a whole to contribute toward the lives of teens. Teens are often separated for years into age-segregated programs. Youth ministry can be a bridge connecting teens to the larger community of faith that exists in the church.
As a result of this approach, our youth ministry found itself in a new role to coach parents to disciple their teens at home, to leverage the relationship the minister had with teens to accept several potentially awkward faith moments with their parents, and to challenge the church to get involved in raising the next generation in faith. A youth ministry apart from family cannot be effective. A youth ministry isolated from the church as a whole cannot be effective. Don’t get me wrong. All of the fun and games don’t have to disappear in order for a youth ministry to work, but it should be clear that youth ministry has a much greater challenge ahead of it than making the next calendar of events.