The online journal of Luke Dockery

Tag: Faithfulness

Last year, I was surprised and humbled to be contacted by the Gospel Advocate and asked to write on the issue of young people leaving the church. What you read below is my offering, which was published in the May issue.

It is well documented that a large percentage of teenagers who are active in church life and have committed their lives to Christ walk away from that commitment after graduating from high school and their youth groups. A study done in conjunction with the Fuller Youth Institute suggests that 40-50 percent of teenagers will leave their faith behind during their college years[1], and statistician Flavil Yeakley, focusing in particular on Churches of Christ, presents a similar figure saying that only 58 percent retain their church affiliation after growing up and leaving home.[2]

This alarming trend has developed despite the increase of full-time youth ministers on the staffs of our local congregations and the increased availability of Bible class materials and other resources for teaching our young people. So the question needs to be asked: why aren’t our youth ministries more effective when it comes to developing a lifelong faith in our young people?This is a complex question with multiple answers and a big problem with no quick fixes, but I do think there are some simple and important principles that we need to embrace on a congregational level to begin to combat this epidemic:

(1) Follow a More Biblical Model in Youth Ministry.

I am a youth minister. I like youth ministers and think that youth ministers have a vital place in the work of the church. That being said, today’s youth ministry has become mixed up: where do we get the idea that the task of discipling our young people should be removed from the family and congregation and outsourced to a youth minister instead? Scriptures such as Deuteronomy 6.4-9 and Ephesians 6.4 make it evident that parents are responsible for teaching the ways of God to their children, and in Titus 2.4-8, Paul extends the task of fostering spiritual formation in young people to the entire congregation. Older Christians need to be involved in mentoring and training those who are younger. Youth ministers should be figures who help to equip parents and the congregation as a whole to raise their children in the Lord; they should not take over that task themselves.

(2) Change the Way You Measure Success.

Typically, we measure success in youth ministry the same way we measure it in our churches: numbers. How big is your youth group? How many seniors did you graduate this year? How much has your youth group grown over the last five years?

Keeping track of numbers isn’t a bad thing—Luke certainly seemed to think it was worth noting the numerical growth of the church in the beginning chapters of Acts—but it shouldn’t be the main way we measure success in youth ministry. Rather than a primary focus on numbers, we ought to focus on helping our young people develop a mature faith that will stay with them all of their lives. In this regard, a youth ministry of eight teenagers may be more successful than one of eighty if the eight all grow up to be faithful Christians while half of the eighty fall away. As long as we judge the success of our youth ministries by how many people we are getting in the door, then we are likely to neglect the importance of long-term faithfulness and also try some questionable methods to get them to show up in the first place, which directly ties into the next principle.

(3) Be Careful How You Attract Young People.

It has been said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” Basically, the idea is that if you get lots of people to come to your church by building a really nice building, then you haven’t really brought in a lot of disciples, you’ve brought in a lot of people who appreciate comfort and architecture and aren’t necessarily opposed to Jesus. If you get lots of people to come to your youth group by having lots of fun and exciting events, then you’re really just building a group of people who like to have fun—even if it’s good clean fun—rather than a committed group of disciples. But if you get people to come to your church or your youth group by teaching them about Jesus or offering genuine Christian community, then you’re building a group that is focused on learning about Jesus and trying to follow Him and live as His church.

(4) Pay Attention to Young Adults.

The years after high school are challenging ones. During this time the influence of parents diminishes, and young people really begin to determine for themselves what kind of people they are going to be and what they will believe. This isn’t a time when young people should just be graduated from a youth group and ignored, but rather a time when they should be specifically targeted and ministered to. Develop challenging Bible classes targeted at young people in this age bracket. Encourage them to continue their involvement in the youth program as chaperones, teachers, and helpers. For those students who are going off to college, make every effort to connect them to a church or campus ministry group. Most vibrant congregations arevibrant because they have found a way to retain and develop their young adults; most declining congregations are ones which have no young adults to speak of.

Ultimately, I think that youth ministry comes down to an issue of stewardship: as congregations, what are we doing with the young people that God is entrusting to our care? The statistics have shown that our track record has not been very good, but with a few changes in the way we think about youth ministry, a lot of hard work, and God’s grace, our future can be greater than our past.

[1]Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011): 15. Kendra Creasy Dean, “Proclaiming Salvation: Youth Ministry for the Twenty-First Century Church,” Theology Today 56, no. 4 (January 2000): 525, states that “more than half of those confirmed as adolescents leave the church by age seventeen.”

[2]Flavil R. Yeakley, Jr., Why They Left: Listening to Those Who Have Left Churches of Christ (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 2012): 39. Yeakley’s findings are somewhat more hopeful than the others upon closer examination: while fifty-eight percent remain affiliated with Churches of Christ, only twenty percent abandon their faith in Christ, with an additional twenty-one percent joining denominational groups. Even still, these findings are less than ideal.

Being A Pessimist Realist

My wife likes to say that I am a pessimist; I argue that I am a realist. For example, when I’m watching an Arkansas Razorback football game, it doesn’t take me long to decide that we aren’t likely to win. To me, that’s not pessimism, it’s realism, based on the reality that the Razorbacks have only won 7 games over the past two combined seasons.

And I’m that way about other things too. As a minister, I’ve had ample opportunity to become very familiar with a lot of really good people, and in the process see how flawed they are. So when it comes to most people, I really don’t have very high expectations. Again, Caroline would call me a pessimist; I would argue that I’m a realist. Either way though, it’s really just an issue of semantics.

My realism/pessimism is useful in a lot of situations because it keeps me from getting my hopes up only to be disappointed by the end result. However, it’s neither helpful nor particularly faithful when it comes to my expectations of what God can do.

Which brings me to the Elf Party.

The Elf Party

A few years ago, a sweet lady at church came up with the idea of an “Elf Party” for our youth group, where our teens would play the role Santa’s elves by purchasing and wrapping gifts for the kids of a needy family. Generally, we would “adopt” a family from one of the local schools (anonymously), and our 10-15 teens would get a bunch of gifts for 3-4 kids who otherwise wouldn’t get much of a Christmas. It was great.

In addition to this, several adult members from our church would also “adopt” a child from one of the local schools on their own, and purchase gifts for them.

Well, during my study and practice of youth ministry, I have become increasingly convicted that young people need to spend a lot of time with older Christians. Developing relationships with older Christians is key ingredient to building a faith that lasts, and furthermore, serving alongside older Christians helps younger Christians to learn that service is an inherent part of the Christian life rather than an isolated youth group project.

With all that in mind, we decided that this past Christmas, we would expand the Elf Party to a church-wide event, and invite those adults who had participated on their own in the past to join in. We would all meet together, split up in groups to shop, and then come back and wrap the gifts together. Teens (and kids) working alongside adults all along the way. Also, since we were expanding our numbers, we decided to expand the number of kids we would adopt, so instead of the usual one family (of 3-4 kids) that I was used to, we adopted 26 kids (a large increase, I know).

And so we were all set. We picked a date on a Monday night, made a series of announcements about it at church, and got ready. For my part, I started worrying. Had we taken on too many kids? What would we do if we didn’t have enough people show up and volunteer to spend their money buying presents for others?

Then a winter storm came, a good bit of ice with six plus inches of snow on top (which is significant for here). Schools were closed on the Thursday and Friday before the Elf Party. Church services were cancelled on Sunday. It stayed so cold that the roads didn’t improve much—they would melt a little during the day and then refreeze at night and become hazardous again. School was cancelled again on Monday, and we decided to push the party back one day, to Tuesday night.

As Tuesday came around (and school was cancelled once again), I began to get really nervous. I received calls and texts from people who I had expected to be there who weren’t going to be able to make it because of the weather. The roads were still really bad in some places. By not having worship services on Sunday, we had missed our opportunity to push the event one last time to the whole congregation. Donations I had expected to receive in advance were minimal.

I really wasn’t sure what we were going to do when we had a dozen or so kids not get presents. I figured I would just go and pay for a bunch of stuff personally, which would have been a real concern—now that Caroline doesn’t teach and we are basically living on one salary (she has a small part-time job), there’s not a lot of extra money to go around.

And in the process of all of my worrying, I basically sold God short. I should’ve known better than to think that He would let us fail in an effort to show our love for our neighbors.

Because then Tuesday night came, and it was awesome. We filled up our 21-seat bus with people who had braved the roads to come help, and had to take several other vehicles besides. We all headed to Wal-Mart, and what a fun experience it was to bump into shopping groups from our church around every corner! We returned to the church building, and our fellowship hall was overflowing with happy, cabin fever-crazed people (this was the first time some of them had been out of their houses in days because of the storm). We spent the next hour or so in fellowship, sharing a quick meal together and then wrapping the gifts we had purchased.

And, as it turned out, we had just enough volunteers and funds to cover all of the needs. Our church family came together on an icy night and provided a Christmas for 26 kids who might not have had one otherwise.

Our Elf Party gifts filled the stage in the auditorium.

An Important Lesson for a New Year

The point of this post is not to highlight what we did, or to emphasize how amazing we are. I was proud of and thankful for my brothers and sisters who came out to help, but that’s not my focus here. My focus is on how faithful God was at a time when my faith proved to be pretty weak. When I was full of worry and doubt and could see no way that we would be able to live up to the commitment that we made, God was faithful, providing all that we needed and teaching me a helpful lesson that I will remember.

Although our Elf Party was almost a month ago, it’s fitting that I share this story with you at the beginning of a new year. Because in 2014, I am determining (or resolving, if you will) that I am not going to sell God short. I am going to make big plans, and attempt big things (doing my best, of course, to make sure that those plans and things are in accordance with His will), and let God provide results that glorify Him.

Failure and Faithfulness

I had written a fairly lengthy post on the subject of failure and faithfulness, but then I deleted it because it didn’t accomplish my goal—I found it to be more discouraging than encouraging.

Here was the overall point of that post: I fail. A lot. With my family, in my personal life, and in my ministry—especially in my ministry (it was in my attempt to list some of those failures that the post quickly became discouraging!).

But while failures can be incredibly disappointing and can sometimes even paralyze us into inaction, ultimately, they aren’t that big of a deal.

I ran across a quotation a year or so ago that I really liked:

“God doesn’t call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful.”

I don’t remember where I came across it originally, and a quick Google search didn’t reveal the author. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good message: over and over again in Scripture, God calls for faithfulness from His followers, but He doesn’t demand success.

For a Christian, husband, father, and minister who seems to spend a lot of his time failing, that’s a comforting thought—God cares more about my unrelenting, dogged pursuit of Him than my triumphs (or lack thereof) on earth.

I can live with that.

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