Dear Bishop Bill:
We are losing teens and twenty year olds en masse. And, they are not returning. In your experience, what are the ten most significant questions such a teen might have that keep him or her from returning to active church life?
1. “Church Is for adults and little kids, isn’t it?”
The answer to this question is obviously “no,” But, let’s be honest. All too often parish leadership limits church life for teens and young adults. We think it good for them to serve as acolytes, but how many parishes have teens as Lectors and members of the Vestry? How often do we ask our young people what the parish can provide to make parish life more meaningful for them?
2. “I’m too busy to come to church.”
This is a common response and it is certainly not limited to teens and twenties. In my opinion our young people are far too busy. The church competes with so many sports and other activities. Many of which are scheduled for Sunday. When my wife and I were raising our children, church attendance was not optional. We went as a family every Sunday.
3. “My parents don’t go every Sunday. Why should I?”
When parents regard attendance as optional or worse they have something better to do, their children get the message.
4. “I went off to college and never heard from anyone at the church again. Does anyone really care?
A fair statement and one we should take to heart. Church members can be distanced from the congregation for school, employment, and military service, but they are still our members. In an age of instant communication it is easy to reinforce the worth of all our members.
5. “I went to Sunday School when I was a kid and got Confirmed by the Bishop. Isn’t that enough?
Sometimes this attitude is reinforced by parents and by the congregation. More often than once, I have experienced young people stop going to Sunday School after they are Confirmed. Often with the permission of their parents. Obviously, Christian education is for all, regardless of age. But, as every parish priest would tell you, getting folks to participate in Bible Study groups and other programs is not easy.
6. “Do I really need to go to Church to be a Christian?”
Well, yes you do. Thomas, one of the Twelve, was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them. Jesus did not go looking for him. Thomas only saw Jesus when Thomas returned to the assembled disciples. One cannot be a Christian in isolation. The Church is the body of Christ.
7. “My friends go to this really big church. They have a rock band. Why isn’t our church like that one?”
I may get into trouble on this one. The Church is not in the entertainment business. Certainly, God can be glorified through all types of music and styles of worship. But, one should not go to church to be entertained. If I want to be entertained, I’ll go to a good movie.
All too often, folks in liturgical churches think that attracting and keeping members requires a “modernization,” if you will, of worship. While the language of worship changes, the basic structure should not be tampered with. That structure, with minor modification, has served the Church well for the last 2,000 years and will do so far into the future.
8. “It seems like every week, I hear or read about kids being abused by members of the clergy. How can I trust the Church?”
First, let me remind all of us that this terrible crime is not limited to priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It transcends denominational boundaries. It happens in schools and colleges and even within the family.
Beneath the question being asked here is the belief that clergy should be held to a higher standard. Indeed, all Christians are held to a higher standard. The Church must protect Her most vulnerable members. Children were/are always safe in the arms of Jesus. Sadly, they are not always safe in the arms of His Church.
9. “The world I live in tells me that a woman has the right to choose. Isn’t the Church out of step with the modern world?”
Yes, the Church is out of step with the modern world. Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Life is a precious God-given gift and is to be protected from conception to natural death.
10. “I moved away from home after college for my job and looked for a new church to attend. I visited several, but the people were not very friendly. I never felt welcome. Why bother?
I experienced the following several times during my years as a parish priest:
Following the Liturgy a long-time member would ask, “Who was that young lady on the right side of the church in the third row?” My response was always the same. “Did you introduce yourself to her?”
For all the rhetoric about church growth and evangelism, many churches are not very welcoming to new-comers. Unless, of course, the parish budget is in the red.
There is an old story about a young priest called to a congregation of twelve members. In the first year the congregation grew to two hundred. Impressed, the Bishop asked the priest what the biggest challenge was in achieving such success. The priest answered, “Getting rid of the twelve!”
I hope I have answered your question and given all of us some food for thought. Obviously, there can be much more said in response to each question. Perhaps, another time.