The day after I posted my church experience, I wrote a follow-up post about the church and young people. But the afternoon I wrote it, I got a splitting headache and my lights started flickering and my furnace, which was turned off, started blowing air-conditioned air through my furnace vents. So I thought maybe Satan was attacking me, but then I thought – with cool air in summer? And I laughed, and figured somebody hit an electric pole and it was just a bad day.
But I’m still going to share what I wrote. Late.
Yesterday Last week I shared the story of my childhood church. I have tried multiple times to write the story of my second church community experience, in Ohio, but I found I cannot. I do not think I am still angry, though I may be without realizing it. There were good parts, and good people. But I have no words for the sense of displacement I felt for a decade in that place. So we must move on.
When I talk about my experience, one of the things that stands out is my birth church’s premium on children: relating to them, including them, loving them, laughing with them, working alongside them, giving them a life and a place.
I hear this question a lot in our churches today: Why are we losing our young people? Why are we losing our young people? But I do not think we are losing our young people. I think we are losing our children.
People in any group find inclusion through being valued, which I break down into two things: being seen, and being needed. I’m concerned that there’s a whole group we’re missing – not the 16-20 year old’s, who are becoming adult enough to draw our attention – but the quiet 10-15 year old group. We sort of assume their parents are taking care of them at that stage, but I’m not worried about young people leaving the family. I’m worried about them leaving the church, the place where they’re not finding enough belonging, enough reason to stay. We’re reaching to engage them too late, and we’re finding they’ve already checked out.
And it’s not primarily a pastoral/ political problem, the kind of thing somebody else should do something about. We-the-people are the ones who connect to them, or not.
What would it look like if every child in your church had a personal connection to every adult? Or, if your church is so populous that your blood pressure went up just thinking about it, to several key adults? What would your church look like if you made a point of speaking personally to several children each week – especially in that 10 to 15 year old age group? Calling them by name, asking about their interests, laughing, reaching your hand to touch their shoulder?
(No, it would not solve everything. I cannot think of anything that would solve everything. And I admit I am in danger of caring too much about little ones; you might say they are my life work.)
What is the role of the children in the Kingdom? What place can they fill at church that no one else can?
If there is no role for them, why do we keep producing them?
Or are we just thinking ahead to their adult contributions?
I do not for a moment imagine this type of disconnect is only a Mennonite problem, yet as Anabaptists we are in position to miss an important piece, because although we enjoy children, we tend to hold them at arm’s length when it comes to active church participation. We believe in believer’s baptism. Adult accountability. Adult communion. Adult jobs. Adult discipleship and leadership.
Why did Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for this is what my Kingdom is made of”? Why did He say, “If you want to be part of me, you have to become like them”?
How are children seen and needed at your church? How were you? What are some practical ways we could we do better at drawing them in?
As always, I am influenced by the book Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand: How to Create a Culture that Cares for Kids, by James Vollbracht.