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Serving teens, loving prodigals


“Weary prodigal come.”
The classic song of invitation — urging those who have “wandered so far” from God’s presence to return — may have even more relevance in 2009 than when it was written in the late 1800s.
Increasingly, we are a nation of prodigals, leaving the faith in which we were raised. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that nearly half of American adults switch religious affiliation at least once during their lives. The study also notes a rising tide of Americans who consider themselves “unaffiliated,” claiming no faith at all.
Most Americans who change affiliation leave their childhood faith by age 24, according to the Pew study. That finding — coupled with the drop in membership chronicled in the 2009 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States — prompted us to find young Christians across the nation. We asked them why they decided to be baptized, if they felt they inherited their faith from their parents and what they think young people are looking for in church.
We expected to find news of a widespread drop-off in youth group attendance. We didn’t. Many youth ministries appear to be flourishing. We also expected to find a migration away from Churches of Christ toward community churches or other faith groups. That wasn’t the case either.
Teen Christians told us that their friends are leaving church after they move out of their parents’ homes — and most of them aren’t leaving for other churches. Jeff Scanlon, a 17-year-old member of the Manchester, Conn., church, said, “It’s not a rejection of church, but a rejection of religion.”
We also expected the young believers to say that they’re looking for contemporary worship and activities that cater to their generation. That also was not the case. In fact, a few of the teens said that they’re tired of being “catered to.” They want to be challenged. They want opportunities to serve. In short, they want meaning.
“Adult Christians need to understand that young people are not looking to be lectured to about faith,” said Kylee Cumby, a 20-year-old college sophomore who attends the Canyon church in Anthem, Ariz. “We are looking for a mentor, someone to learn from by their actions. We are looking to be accepted and cared for — no matter how much some of us may act the opposite.”
We must give our young people the firm foundation and the tools to take ownership of their faith after they leave home. We must supply them with strong, loving relationships they can continually cling to, even when they’re far away from us.
At the same time, we must be willing to show them Christ’s love even when they do fall away.
In Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the lost son does not realize how much he needs his father until he finds himself longing to eat the slop that he’s feeding to pigs. He’s hit rock-bottom.
As scary as it may sound, we need to pray that God will grant the prodigals of this world those rock-bottom realizations. The worst thing that can happen to one who has rejected Christ in this life is nothing — no adversity, no struggles, no challenges that would point him back to the arms of a loving father.
If the prodigal returns, how will we react? Will we look down on him for his infidelity toward his father? Or will we rejoice, killing the fattened calf and hosting a feast in honor of a lost son who has returned?

  • Feedback
    Please send me a copy of your paper. I am a Director of Spiritual Formation at a Christian school and would love to read it. Thanks
    Marysol Martinez
    Capilla Cristo Redentor A/G
    Fayetteville, NC
    USA
    July, 27 2011

    “They want to be challenged. They want opportunities to serve. In short, they want meaning.”
    This statement has been the case for at least 20 years. I have found that teens want higher expectations set for them regarding their spiritual growth than many adults. And, unfortunately if all a youth ministry or church has to offer a teen is a few shallow activities and a boring hour of routine, that teen will either find church to be irrelevant and walk, or by God’s Grace, they will find a church that actually lives the mission of Jesus Christ and grow.
    And if the latter is defined as a “prodigal” because the missional church this teen connected with was not a Church of Christ, then I take issue with the definition.
    Daren Mitchell
    New Hope Christian Church
    Marshalltown , Iowa
    USA
    June, 4 2009

    The biting issue that churches have to face is that in MANY cases, our youth are leaving churches that they SHOULD be leaving – places that have become about ritual, passivity, and spectatorism (I know…not a real word). They are sensing somewhere deep inside of them the very thing that God addresses over and over in Scripture (Malachi, James, Revelation just to name a few) – that religious acts that do not come from deep desire to live out the revolutionary lives that the Kingdom demands are pointless, worthless, & even destructive. The question isn’t, “How can we get folks back to church?” but, “Are the folks that are leaving for lack of depth, connection, and passion perhaps closer to the Kingdom than those still filling the pews?”
    Adam Mearse
    Naperville COC
    naperville, il
    usa
    June, 2 2009

Filed under: Editorial Staff Reports

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