Remember youth group? The lock-ins. The retreats. The super-hip worship band. Wednesday nights. Stupid games. Trying to give the church basement a coffee-shop-like atmosphere. Hopeless crushes. Long talks. Painstaking efforts to make Jesus seem cool.
If you do, then you’ll probably be interested in this fascinating interview in Leadership Journal with Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary and a former youth pastor.
Citing statistics that show that 70 percent of young people leave the church by age 22, Powell contends that fostering intergenerational relationships in church may be the key to changing the trend. This could mean putting an end to the classic youth group model that so many of us grew up with, the model in which teenagers participate in their own worship, their own Bible studies, their own social events, their own outreach activities, their own missions trips, and so on.
I like Powell’s illustration:
“On my dad's side of the family, there were too many of us to fit in one room or around one table at family gatherings. So we adopted the two table system. The adult table had pleasant conversation, while the kids' table usually degenerated into a Jell-O snorting contest. Theoretically we were having the same meal; but we were having two very, very different experiences. That's what we've done in churches today.”
Hmmm…. I must admit that something about a Jell-O snorting contest does remind me of my days in youth group!
(I should say that I actually had a fantastic youth leader, who really encouraged me grow in my faith….and win Jell-O snorting contests, of course.)
In addition to sparking some fond memories from youth group, the article caught my attention because, as a young adult, I too have been disillusioned with church in recent years. I’ve been one of those statistics.
I always attributed this disconnect to my general frustrations with modern evangelicalism—that it’s been hijacked by the Republican Party, that it’s in a perpetual state of defensiveness and “wartime” posturing, that it has closed itself off to science and independent thought, that it has lost sight of the message of Jesus regarding the Kingdom of God, that it has become commercialized and shallow—all the things we “emergers” like to write books and articles about.
It never occurred to me that part of the disconnect might be social, that like the other young adults Powell has studied, I had trouble adjusting to the “grown-up table.”
While there are a lot of things I DON’T miss about youth group (the lock-ins, the stupid games, the painstaking efforts to make Jesus seem cool), there are some things that I do miss.
1. A sense of community: I spent a lot of time with my friends from youth group. Because we all lived in the same small town, most of us went to high school together, played in the band together, went to church together, partied together, got into trouble together, grew in faith together, and shared a history together. We probably saw each other at least six times a week. As a result, we developed a strong sense of community – of looking out for one another, of sharing with one another, and of loving one another. Perhaps because of the generational segregation that Powell observes, I just didn’t feel this way about the rest of my church congregation. After graduating from high school, church was something I did once a week with people I didn’t really know that well.
2. Deep, authentic conversation: Powell notes that in her research, she asked high school seniors what they want more of in youth group. “Time for deep conversation ranked highest,” she said. “Games ranked last.” Powell uses this statistic to show that teenagers are more willing to be intellectually challenged than we might think. Growing up, I was lucky enough to be a part of a youth group in which deep conversations happened regularly. In fact, it wasn’t until my young adulthood that I felt pressure to try and squeeze myself into the Christian mold and respond to every question with the right “Sunday School” answer. I guess I just thought to myself, “Okay, I’m a grownup now, and grownups aren’t supposed to have doubts or fears or questions about their faith. My real thoughts will have to stay a secret from now on.”
3. Girl power: I was a leader in my high school youth group, and no one ever questioned me for it or made me feel guilty about it. In fact, I kicked butt at leadership,( if I don’t say so myself). It was tough for me to enter the grownup world of conservative evangelicalism, where opportunities for female leadership are so limited. I went from feeling validated as an equal among my male counterparts to suddenly feeling powerless…and keenly aware of the tricky balancing act of maintaining my “proper role” as a woman in the church. It was like, one day I was being asked to give speeches and write mission statements. The next day I was being asked to throw baby showers. (I’m better at writing mission statements.)
4. A sense of investment: That last point about female leadership made me reflect on the fact that I always felt like I had a personal investment in my youth group, like I had an important role to play. After graduating, I was just a little fish in a big pond. The church didn’t need me the way my youth group needed me.
5. Diversity: My youth group attracted kids from a variety of homes, and I benefited enormously from a diversity of religious perspectives, socioeconomic backgrounds, personalities, and political persuasions. I think that the longer you are in church, the more you become aware of all those unspoken rules for fitting in. Churches lose a lot of their high school graduates when those graduates begin to realize that they don’t fit the mold.
Based on this picture (with my good friend Quentin, of Learning with Lawrence fame), do you think I should add "bangs" to the list? Nah.