By Irwin

A 20-something-year-old youth shares her observations of and frustrations with her church’s youth leadership. This is her personal sharing about her one church and not reflective of all or the majority of churches. Still, there may be others who share her feelings. We hope readers read this opinion piece with an open, prayerful heart and willingness to look out for and engage with their youth.

Every year, we hold meetings to discuss the “phenomenon” of young people leaving the church. We say “keep the back door closed” and re-do our youth halls like hipster cafés to attract the youth. We try our best to mimic youth’s gestures and lingos in order to relate to them, and comfort ourselves with thoughts like “at least we are doing something”.

But every year, the same thing happens – young people leave. As a youth, I’m so tired of this “phenomenon”. I’m sick of hearing people say that it’s normal. It’s like Christian nihilism. “Ah it’s ok. It doesn’t matter. They’ll leave anyway. We’ve just got to do our best and God will do the rest.” We’re masters of coming up with excuses to comfort ourselves with the reality that’s hitting our churches.

We’re also afraid of saying what we really think. In his blog under the section “Most Unpopular Beliefs”, Pastor Don Bryant writes: “The advice I have heard is shout your beliefs and whisper your doubts… that is not good advice. It just produces a lot of whispering Christians. They can’t process and they end up losing their connection to other people who know that ambiguity is there – no one will just admit it, and we end up looking silly and dishonest.”

We tiptoe around church issues because we want to be peacemakers, but we end up with lots of things unsaid. Our meetings are filled with words and prayers, but we keep silent on things that matter. Our words are filled with vague notions that only rub on the surface. Our lack of courage to be honest with ourselves ultimately leads to dishonesty at meetings, which translates into everything we do.

When this happens, young people see through our lack of transparency and hypocrisy. One teenager told me that church leaders nowadays are trying to “climb the social hierarchy” and asked me if these leaders were truly genuine when they asked questions about our well-being or if they were just “asking for the sake of asking”.

When young people lack genuine support, care and guidance, some will inevitably turn to entertainment and the world outside to distract themselves from the emptiness within. Then, they can’t help but talk outside the church about the “dirt” inside the church. It’s not unusual these days for Christian youth to go from their youth gathering straight to a pub to drown themselves in alcohol. The differences aren’t stark between a church and a pub when the church prioritises entertaining the youth instead of serving as a lighthouse to our generation’s increasing confusion in navigating the meandering road of life.

In his post titled “Engaging the Culture’ Doesn’t Work Because Christian Beliefs Are a Mark of Low Status” on the faith-based site Patheos, Dean Abbott writes, “Many evangelicals… responded as though the problem were a matter of style rather than content. …The result was churches that had rocking worship bands, superb lighting, a million cool programs and no cultural impact.” We are desperate for the world to like us, while neglecting the fact that Jesus said that the world will hate us. 

We think we know what’s best for young people, just like how politicians and big corporate companies think they know what is best for our education system. The data and trend of young people leaving church is an indication that we really do not know best. And we forget that what young people want and need are two different things. We say our education system makes students like a cog in the machine, but how many of us can say that our church is any better when it comes to discipling young people?

“Our meetings are filled with words and prayers, but we keep silent on things that matter.”

Desperately needed: Leaders who REALLY care

Young people need church leaders who truly and genuinely care for not just their salvation but their being. But the sad reality is that some leaders who actually invest in young people’s lives have been accused of creating division and “wanting to do things their own way”. Those who have left have had their fervent passion turned to nothing more than cynical resentment. Young people today are hungry for God, but are disillusioned with church because we allow glory-seeking, calculating leaders to be where they are.

Some of the leaders are in it not because they have a vision for the next generation but because they are better at hyping things up. Others are in it because they just submit blindly without questioning. We say God has placed individuals in leadership positions because He wants them there, but who are we kidding? Yes, God gives us the freedom to elect different individuals and there are times when He specifically calls someone to that role, but we’re not exempted from the consequences of our mistakes.

Our leaders today are so caught up with their ministries that they put their methods before the mission. When members express suggestions and disagreements, they’re accused of not “obeying” God by not submitting to the leaders. Other times, instead of listening to the young people’s feedback, the leaders’ first reaction is to deflect the suggestion or disagreement by asking if they (the youth) have been hurt. This sort of manipulative tactic is so hard to catch because the response is veiled in a question of concern. Leaders don’t seem to know how to listen and aren’t appreciative when respectful feedback is given, and would rather have everyone agree with them instead.

The reason why we get so defensive when others disagree with us is that our identity is rooted in our ministry instead of Christ. We forget that unless and until God builds the house, the builder builds in vain. The result of this is that we stop seeing members as individuals, but tools to further our ministry.

Church has also become an avenue for competition. We look good on the outside, but are spiritual deserts within. We are like celebrities who are so concerned about our external image that we’ve lost the sense of who we are and what really matters within. The crumbling reality is that we have lost the essence of what it is to be church, and it might be too late before we come to our senses.

When I look back at the history of those who fought and died for the sake of the gospel, I often wonder why we invest our energy in things that really don’t matter. If these individuals were alive today, what would they say about the way we practise the faith that they bled and died for?

The polarity between us Christians and the world outside has narrowed as we become more like the world each day, and it is likely and worrying that we may not find the narrow gate. 

We must stop the hypocrisy, be transparent, put aside our selfish agenda, start caring – really caring – for our youth and be like Christ to them as Christ has been to us. That’s the way to keep the back door closed. I can’t see a future bleaker than one where God is “alive” in our words and buildings, but dead in our hearts.

Asian Beacon: Jul – Sep 2018 (Vol 50 #3, p34-35) template for bottom

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