Over the weekend we visited Porkhov, a county center in the Pskov region. The pastor of the local church, Vyacheslav, is a missionary who moved with his family from Samara, Russia, two years ago.
We spent Christmas Day with Nansi’s home church in a Gypsy village of Dupnitsa, a town south of Sofia. I preached from a nontraditional Christmas passage (John 1:1-16) and Nansi translated. The children all got presents from Samaritan’s Purse, so if you and your church participated in any of the international Christmas gift outreaches, we saw the fruits of that!
Surveys in recent years have shown that between 60-75% of American Christian youth will cease attending church after graduating from high school. This low retention rate has led to many concerns about the demographic decline of confessing Christians.
Many speculate as to why, and a Christian foundation asked confessing atheists at colleges across the country why they became atheists. The conclusions were surprisingly uniform – and present a damning condemnation of contemporary approaches to youth ministry.
One student, Phil, shares his journey to unbelief:
“Church became all about ceremony, handholding, and kumbaya,” Phil said with a look of disgust. “I missed my old youth pastor. He actually knew the Bible.” …
[Phil] loved his church (“they weren’t just going through the motions”), his pastor (“a rock star trapped in a pastor’s body”), and, most of all, his youth leader, Jim (“a passionate man”). Jim’s Bible studies were particularly meaningful to him. He admired the fact that Jim didn’t dodge the tough chapters or the tough questions: “He didn’t always have satisfying answers or answers at all, but he didn’t run away from the questions either. The way he taught the Bible made me feel smart.” …
During his junior year of high school, the church, in an effort to attract more young people, wanted Jim to teach less and play more. Difference of opinion over this new strategy led to Jim’s dismissal. He was replaced by Savannah, an attractive twenty-something who, according to Phil, “didn’t know a thing about the Bible.” The church got what it wanted: the youth group grew. But it lost Phil.
Too often we think that youth ministry should be about fun and games. With the reduction of “Big Church” sermons in the Evangelical world to simplistic, rhyming aphorisms for a better life, the standard has been set so low that the youth ministers are forced into farce. From the adults our youth have learned that doctrine isn’t fun, and catechism is a terrible game. Of course, catechisms were originally meant to train children in the faith.
In tandem with, and likely because of, the dumbing down of our teaching in youth ministry, there has been a devaluation of the depth of the Christian response to this world:
“The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. [Stephanie] seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. …
Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: “I really started to get bored with church.”
Jesus’ call is not to a better life, at least, not in the way that the world understands as better. Jesus calls us to lose our lives, to renounce all that we have. Personal significance, purpose, ethics – our whole lives – are to be understood through God’s plan of redemption and self-revelation in Christ.
Our answers are deeper, sharper, more meaningful … and costlier than the world’s. We just shy away from them. Through our methods we teach that fun is the core value of life. Are we surprised that when freed from church they continue to seek out self-centered pleasure?
We should not be ashamed of Christ’s full-throated proclamation of payment for and dominion over our lives. If people don’t sense that we take the Christian message very seriously, why would they?
But sincerity is indispensable to any truth we wish others to believe. There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:
“I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,” someone asked.
“I do not,” Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, “But he does.”
You can read the full article here: “Listening to Young Atheists: Lessons for a Stronger Christianity” [The Atlantic]
I got up early this morning to pray. Early. Five o’clock early. That may not seem excessive to many, but it’s absurd for me, who usually goes to bed around one. Making it even more complicated, I didn’t get much sleep this weekend. Although that’s not really news, I rarely do. Normally, people are supposed to sleep in on the weekends and come back to work on Monday refreshed. I, however, actually sleep more during the week than on the weekends.
My church has a prayer meeting every Monday at 6am, and a lot of the youth go. I’ve always considered it too difficult, and only gone once before (when I had a plane to catch at 8am, so it was already getting up early, and church is on the way to the airport). A friend explained that getting up at 5 was a bit early for him, too, but that he considered it making a small sacrifice for God, and that the prayer really helped get the week off on the right foot.
Needing a good start to my week, I decided that, paradoxically, taking even more sleep away from an already sleepless week might actually make me more refreshed. Funny enough, after only about 4 hours sleep, I had no problem getting up on time and making it to church for prayer. So far, so good. Though I don’t always expect it to be this easy, I think God was just easing me in. The morning prayer takes about an hour, and starts off with reading a couple of psalms followed by group prayer. Baptists – so on your knees, no weak sitting-in-a-chair prayer! We have a small breakfast before going our separate ways to work, and it gives us the chance to wake up a bit more. I don’t know about anyone else, but for me, deep prayer always puts me in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness.
I got to the office around 7:30, and was feeling pretty good. Amazingly, the whole rest of the day I had a wonderful, almost carefree attitude. Everything went smoothly, and my heart was filled with joy towards everyone I interacted with. “Want me to write or check something? Sure!” “Hey person who just cut me off in traffic, I hope you have a great time after work!” The morning prayer really seems to have had an elevating effect. Taking my normal attitude and view on everything up a couple of notches.
My friend was absolutely right. It is a sacrifice, but one well worth it that puts everything in perspective for the week ahead!