Thus far, I haven’t written much about what I believe is to be my calling in the next few years: helping local churches realize that what they think they are doing in terms of discipling teenagers is not working and has not worked for a long time. Case in point:
I had lunch recently with a college freshman from one of our ministry’s supporting churches. He is a great young man and, from my viewpoint, has been raised in a church that is serious about impacting young people for Christ. For example, he told me that he had two adult mentors who committed themselves to his class of peers from the time they were in sixth grade until they graduated from high school. Brilliant! His parents also seem to be in tune with the spiritual needs of their kids. Last summer, they approached one of their pastors to get connected with our ministry because their son had declared his intent to come to Appalachian State University. As a result, I and a student met him and his parents for lunch and made a crucial connection before he came to campus later in the summer. These are all great things to help young people buck the predominant trend and maintain their faith once leaving high school.
Yet, when we talked over lunch, some very basic things were missing from this young man’s understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. We talked about his appreciation for our ministry’s size (small) and how it allowed him to not be overwhelmed by so many new people and to enable him to develop a small group of friends. He liked that it was easy for him to make these connections. Seeing a teaching moment, I explained my vision for our ministry being to grow and to impact the campus for Jesus. I told him that if he thought our ministry had many good attributes, that perhaps he should consider how he could invite others to check out our community. Then I reminded him of the words of the Apostle Paul: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” (II Corinthians 5:20 NIV) I told him a follower of Jesus is one who seeks to proclaim the Lord’s name wherever he is.
This young man then made a startling statement. He said he had never thought of that before, that he had just thought his purpose in coming to college was to get his degree. Think about that for a moment. A kid who has been raised by Christian parents and been involved in a church that embraces its purpose of making disciples had never given any thought that the Lord wanted to use him on the college campus for the work of the Kingdom.
This is the reality I encounter on a near daily basis with college students raised in Christian homes and who have actively been involved in a local church. They have no sense of missional purpose. We ministers on campus continually have to cultivate that among our students, as I began to do with this student. They rarely ever come to campus with it.
Sadly, the local church has normalized this spiritual shallowness. This is one reason that 60-75 percent of high school graduates leave the faith. The vast majority is unprepared for the spiritual realities of the college campus and our culture, which has grown increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. For the most part, they are biblically illiterate, uncomfortable with prayer, struggle explaining the gospel, and only a very few have any sense of missional purpose when they arrive on campus. When students have little true understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus after a lifetime in the church and living under the roof of Christian parents, what do we expect? We should not be surprised. But we should be appalled.
Imagine if we were talking about public education, and at the end of 12+ years of schooling, 60-75 percent of the students were functionally illiterate. There would be a nationwide outcry. Yet, generally among Christians, there is no such alarm, except perhaps to blame the culture and the University. Instead, there is this sense that all that can be done is hope and pray kids hang onto their faith after they leave high school.
I recently explained my views and solutions with a representative of a group that is committed to helping parents better disciple their kids. I also noted that their materials and approach seemed very basic, like milk instead of meat. He replied that what I envisioned would require a complete paradigm shift in the local church. Exactly!
When we are raising up kids that, by the time they become emerging adults, have no missional vision and are basically spiritual babies, then indeed a major shift is required. If we as the Church hope to ever have a substantive impact on the culture in which we live, there must be a monumental shift in how we raise our children. But in order to do that, parents need to be discipled so that they are able to pass along a deep and abiding faith to their kids.
When I was growing up, my parents took my two brothers and I to church, but at home they fought a lot, never read the Bible, never prayed, and never talked with us about spiritual things. Guess which had the most influence on me. Of course, it was my parents rather than the church service and programs. When I entered college, I knew almost nothing about Jesus or the Bible, nor had I ever seen an example of someone truly walking with the Lord. My parents were the ones who most impacted my view of spiritual matters as an emerging adult.
There is a significant trend today where parents basically contract out the spiritual raising of their children to the local church. They put their kids into children’s programs and then, later, the youth group with the hope the pastors and volunteers will help their kids grow and develop spiritually. They are sincere, but in doing so, they are abdicating their biblical responsibility as parents.
The truth of the matter is young people are growing up with so little spiritual maturity as they emerge into adulthood because their parents are also spiritual infants unable, as the Hebrew writer explains, to grasp basic truths from God’s Word. If this cycle is ever to be broken, the next generation of Christian parents must be committed followers of Jesus, not just good and moral people who go to church every week. They must be taught the Scriptures and how to obey their commands. And then they must be trained in how to pass along their deep faith to their children.
To achieve this, there must be a willing partnership between the local church and parents. The church nurtures and trains the parents and the parents nurture and train their kids. Yes, a radical paradigm shift, but how else can we nurture spiritual depth and purpose in our young people? My 35+ years of working with college students verifies the common approach of the local church does not do this, nor does it result in spiritually maturing young people. As does the fine young man of which I wrote earlier, they have the openness and ability; they just need to have the proper training along the way. Let’s get serious and begin talking about how we can best do that.
© Jim Musser 2018