Mon 13 Apr 2009
In a comment on Ken Maher’s article Chew on this…, I began discussing the concern of lessening teen involvement in the Lutheran Church – Canada. There I suggested that while “we’ve got a strong, unshakable foundation in Jesus Christ,” it may well “be time to do some repairs on the ground floor.” In other words, while theologically our faith is strong, the practical application thereof has faced significant difficulties for many years. Ken then asked me what kind of repairs I thought might be in order. This is my response.
Before launching directly into the discussion, it is, I think, important to recognize that the problem of teen dropout is not merely a “teen” problem. This is in actuality merely symptomatic of a much graver issue in our denomination (and many others for that matter). In particular, I am thinking of the lack of spiritual fervour and discipline far too common among our congregants. When teens are raised by parents for whom faith is a Sunday-only concept rather than a life-encompassing reality, it is exceptionally hard for the teens to see the importance of Christianity itself to their daily lives, let alone the usefulness of church attendance. And these Sunday-Christian parents are taking significantly less of a role than previous generations in the spiritual upbringing of their children. They assume, no doubt, that this void will be filled with Sunday School and Confirmation.
No surprise, therefore, that teens are failing to connect with the Church.
In the Lutheran church, we pride ourselves on our strong theological heritage, and rightly so. And so we stress in our Confirmation classes the necessity of knowing the Bible, and texts like Luther’s Small Catechism (because they are faithful expositions of Holy Scripture). But we forget, and inexcusably so, the necessity of teaching devotional practice. We make our confirmants read the Bible in order to complete Confirmation homework, but we do not teach them how to read for daily devotional purposes. We make them memorize the Lord’s Prayer, and Luther’s explanation thereof in the Small Catechism, but we do not have small prayer groups with them, nor make it clear what it is to talk daily with God. We make sure they know all the right answers to all the right theological questions, but we do not give them the tools to face life-problems outside the Catechism. Nor do we stress the necessity of Christian service in the congregation or mission outreach to the world at large.
The problem is clear: our youth have no spiritual grounding. They do not know how to read the Bible devotionally. They do not know how to pray individually or corporately. They are ill-equipped to recognize their own spiritual gifts, and as a result do not know where they should serve. More striking, they do not personally and fully understand the good news of Jesus Christ for themselves and, as such, feel no concern for evangelism.
Should we be surprised then that Lutheran youth are leaving the Church? We focus so strongly on the their intellectual assent to theological statements, but provide no practical guidance as to how this theology should impact their daily lives. As such, Confirmation becomes nothing more than a graduation exercise: “If I know the right answers, I’ll pass.” But where is the testing of their devotional lives? How many youth have we set before the Church and confirmed, all the while knowing that in their personal lives no evidence of faith is visible? “Faith without works is dead,” as James reminds us. And yet, for fear of being misunderstood as preaching works-righteousness, we do not stress the necessity of the evidence of faith in the lives of believers.
Forgive me if I sound blunt or go to far in my rhetoric. As I have said, the issue is close to my heart, as a young person myself, and it grieves my very soul to see such things in the Church.
My practical advice is as follows. Please note that it is by no means intended to be considered a “complete” response.
- Confirmation (and pre-Confirmation) should be expanded to include a continual focus on devotional maturing throughout the classes. Teachers and pastors should not be content to merely have students give the right answers; there should be evidence of spiritual growth in the lives of the confirmands.
- Confirmation should be delayed until youth are older. I know many would suggest that we have to “confirm them while they’re young and while their parents can still make them come to church” (I’ve had pastors tell me as much), but I believe this to be an error, however well-meant. Confirming young people merely because they’re still young enough to be forced to attend classes at the behest of their parents makes a mockery of the rite of Confirmation. After all, they stand before the congregation and make a profession of faith. If it is made merely to placate parents, then the pastor and congregation are, to put it frankly, guilty of bearing false witness before God. I suggest, therefore, that confirmation be delayed until about Grade 10 or 11. Youth at that age who desire to put in the work required for confirmation are far less likely to be doing it merely because their parents want them to.
- Finally, new emphasis should be placed on getting adults to attend Bible Studies and other small-groups. As I have said, the setting of teens’ religious foundations are intrinsically connected with the faith-lives of their parents and elders (see the article “The Truth about Men and the Church”). Older congregants are just as in need of devotional training as are the young.
How then should all this be implemented? To be honest, I really don’t know. And to be honest, I’m sure you’ll all agree that I’ve already ranted enough for today.
What do you think? How should we be approaching the issue of teen-dropout (or, for that matter, spiritual stuntedness in the Church at large)? Leave your comments.