Are we losing our young people?
But the kids aren’t all from Christian homes. Some have been abused. Others have parents in jail. The Contact church, in inner-city Tulsa, Okla., ministers to the children and brought them to camp.
WHY THEY’RE LEAVING
Campus minister Layne Heitz doesn’t think Churches of Christ are losing their young people. “I just think we never had them,” he said.
Heitz said that many of the students at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Okla., aren’t “converted” until they come to college, even if they grew up in Churches of Christ. Away from their parents for the first time, some students catch the evangelistic spirit and start inviting their friends to church.
Others don’t. When they leave Churches of Christ, many students “are not going to denominations,” Heitz said. “They are just not going at all.”
That’s true of religious groups nationwide. In a national survey last year by the California-based Barna Group, 61 percent of young adults in their 20s said that they had attended church at some point during their teen years but had since disengaged. They no longer actively attend church, read the Bible or pray.
Compared to other religious groups, Churches of Christ may even be retaining more of their young people, Yeakley said. From his own research, he’s found that about one-third of youths raised in Churches of Christ drop out and never return. About 12 percent leave for a time, but return later in life — often after they’ve married and have children of their own, he said.
Andrew Vawser of Kimberly, Idaho, watched several of his peers “graduate from high school and also ‘graduate’ from church,” he said.
Many were regular attendees at youth events — and even enjoyed them. They seemed strong in their faith, but “suddenly, all at once, they were gone,” he said, leaving parents to wonder what went wrong.
Vawser, 20, and his 16-year-old brother, Matthew, said they owe much of their personal faith to their parents’ instruction. Parents and children have a “God-given duty to work together as a family,” Matthew Vawser said.
Their parents, Chuck and Carol, decided to take an active role in their children’s spiritual education after watching other families lose their children to the world, Carol Vawser said. The family attends the Magic Valley church in Twin Falls, Idaho.
“We always want to blame the church that they aren’t doing enough to train our children when that role is actually the parents’ responsibility,” she said.
Churches and parents that provide spiritual training for children tend to keep them, said Phil Sanders, minister for the Concord Road church in Brentwood, Tenn. “Spiritual training is not entertainment and activities, though some programs provide that,” Sanders said. “Spiritual training includes serious Bible study, memorization and involvement in the service of the Lord.”
Concord Road has about 80 young professionals, ages 22-35, Sanders said, and other congregations in the Nashville area have significant numbers of young Christians.
To help teenagers retain their church ties after graduation, churches need to give them more than Bible instruction, said Aurelio Henlon, a campus minister for the CIA ministry in Florida.
“The kids grow up learning how to be ‘Christians’ — not disciples,” said Henlon, 28, who grew up attending Churches of Christ in the Tampa Bay area.
Many youths crave chances to share their faith with their peers, said Cory Jones, youth minister for the Three Chopt church in Richmond, Va.
“They’re not interested in debating instrumental music, women’s roles, clapping,” Jones said. “Instead, they’d rather discuss how to help the homeless population in their city, how to minister to homosexual friends, how to battle drug and alcohol abuse,” he said. “They want to know how Christ matters in the real world, not just inside the walls of a church building.”
‘KEEPING THE SAVED, SAVED’
Oddly enough, many churches may be losing young people because their ministries are focused exclusively on keeping them in church, Stringfellow said.
“We gather them together in the little holy holes, keeping them safe, and Satan’s snatching them away just as fast as he can,” he said.
In Florida, the CIA ministry focuses less on “keeping the saved, saved,” Stringfellow said. Instead, the ministers encourage young Christians to be evangelistic, reaching out of their comfort zones and showing God’s love to people outside of traditional church circles.
In the past four years the ministry has experienced 120 baptisms, Stringfellow said. “I don’t hear them fighting about issues or even worrying about themselves when they’re fighting for someone’s soul,” he said.
Gina Mussenden started attending CIA events during college. Now 25 and working as an emergency room nurse, she interns with the ministry and traveled to Oklahoma to serve as a counselor at Camp Stomp. Mussenden didn’t grow up in Churches of Christ, and said her decision to be baptized wasn’t based on doctrine.
It had more to do with seeing Christ in the lives of the people around her, and realizing that “they were trying to give me medicine for the wounds the world had given me,” she said.