It’s a scary story most Christians have heard at one time or another: a large percentage--many studies put the figure at 50% or more--of young people who attend church youth-group programs leave the faith within a few years of high school graduation. And though some do return later in life, there are too many stories of those who leave the Christian faith behind forever.
How can a church--or concerned parents--address this challenge?
To start, we acknowledge there is no magical solution. Growth and commitment to faith is the work of the Holy Spirit, and nothing a parent or church leader can do will guarantee a continued love for Jesus and his church.
But that doesn’t mean that we simply throw up our hands and do nothing to tell young adults about the importance of following Jesus. A Christian parent or grandparent–-indeed, every Christian adult-–should take seriously the challenge of mentoring faith in young people.
This task begins early in life, as children are introduced to the basics of the faith at home and in public worship. Admittedly, young children won’t understand everything that goes on in a worship service. But when older adults see worship as an opportunity to invite young people into the story of God’s redemptive work rather than just an hour of fighting them to keep quiet, they provide a solid foundation from which to continue conversations about the importance of Jesus in our everyday lives. This is not simply a parental task, but one in which the whole church can invest.
But faith development involves more than just public worship. As children grow, particularly into their pre-teen and teenage years, they need authentic relationships with other adults who will point them toward Christ. As a pastor, I regularly schedule time to meet with young people. It’s a great opportunity to hear about their lives now and their dreams for the future. But I also try to make sure these conversations include space to talk about what it means to follow Jesus, and how this makes a difference in their daily lives. As the Bible makes clear, the goal of our faith is not simply relationship with one another but restored relationship with God, and a sense of belonging to a community is a strong foundation from which to point young people to Christ.
You don’t have to be on staff at a church in order to invest in young adults this way, though. Do you know the names of the young people who sit near you in church? Do you know what matters to them? Ask them about school or activities. Invite them for coffee, if it’s appropriate. It’s a lot harder to leave a place where others care for you in a way that makes the love of Jesus real.
Finally, keep on praying for the young people in your church. As much as your relationship with them is important, realize that their relationship with Jesus is even more significant. Pray that God’s Spirit would keep working in their hearts. When they struggle, sin, or appear to walk away from faith, keep bringing them before God.
Our prayers for the faith struggles of young adults help us remember the eternal importance of a vibrant walk with Jesus. But such prayers should also bring to mind the things we desire for all of our children in the church--and the ways in which all Christians, including myself, have a prodigal spirit in us. Praying regularly for the ongoing work of conversion in our own hearts helps us understand how we can share the gospel with others who are at different stages of life or of spiritual maturity.
Becoming a disciple of Jesus is a life-long process. Our personal and congregational ministries should model this. As the apostle Paul writes, mature believers desire that others should follow our example as we follow the example of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). By investing in young adults, by challenging and encouraging them to recognize the power of the gospel in their own lives, congregations can keep pointing these young people--and the whole church--towards Jesus.