Young People Aged 15-20
How do we avoid losing them?
In many of the churches in the South-East of England, including some with congregations of well over 100, there is absolutely nobody aged 15-20. It seems that people in that age group have decided that church has nothing to offer, even if they have been associated with the church in some way since early childhood. The congregation consists of old people, middle aged people, and parents with young children. There might be people aged 21-30 who have been to University and come back, but in the 15-20 age group there is absolutely nobody.
The absence of this age group is self-perpetuating. There needs to be a critical mass to attract new people. My eldest son Neville used to complain that there was no point going to church because there was nobody there of his age. He had plenty of friends outside the church, but none of them had any kind of spiritual interests. Neville used to say that his spiritual life would start when he went to University, and then he would join the Christian Union. I didn't believe him at first, because I thought if he can't find anything here, how does he know that he will find something at University? But he was true to his word and it worked out in the end. He went to the University of the West of England, Bristol, and joined the Christian Union. He also found a church where they have people of all ages, including 15-20.
My second eldest son still has nowhere to go and has basically lost interest because the church youth groups have been messed up for so long, not just in the 15-20 age group but in the younger age groups as well. The only things he learns is what I teach him myself.
What Happens at Age 15?
Children and young teenagers are quite happy to learn from adults, as long as they are given something interesting. Up to the age of about eight or nine, they are happy with simple things like crayons and colouring books. After that they want videos and computer games. From about 11-14 they want outdoor pursuits like sailing and canoeing, and maybe some visits to theme parks, and as long as you give them some of these things they are happy to sit around for half an hour and discuss the Bible. Then from 15 onwards they disappear completely and become preoccupied with money and part-time jobs so they can buy CDs, driving lessons and ultimately cars.
Recently (July 1999) I went to a conference organised by the British Messianic Jewish Alliance (BMJA). The theme was "Passing on the Baton to the Younger Generation". The Messianic Jewish congregations appear to have the same problems as the churches, with hardly anyone aged 15-20. There was nobody of that age group at the conference. The first speaker was aged about 90 and had a plastic baton which he passed on to the next speaker aged 39, who said he was quite flattered to be considered young. The third speaker talked about the latest generation of Israel supporters, which included anyone born after the State of Israel was founded in 1948. That made me feel flattered, because it means I am a youth aged 50.
After lunch we had a panel discussion with some people who were mostly in their twenties, although one of them was aged 31. They each gave their stories about how they had become believers in Yeshua during their teens or early twenties, and because they were Jewish they had the additional difficulty of being the only Jewish believer in a Gentile church. They talked about how they felt isolated, and sometimes doubted whether they had done the right thing, and then felt reassured when they first came into contact with another Jewish believer and realised they were not alone. These are stories that have been repeated throughout the entire 150 year history of the BMJA, and the movement was actually founded for this very purpose, to bring together Jewish believers who were feeling isolated.
After giving their personal stories, the panel attempted to answer a written question I had submitted about two hours earlier. The question was "What can we do for people aged 15-20 to avoid losing them?". Most of them didn't have any clear answer, although they tried really hard because they knew how important the question was. One of them said the family is very important, and there needs to be a strong father figure, but he didn't consider it to be a complete answer. Finally there was a girl who talked about the church youth group she had been involved in, from the age of 14-17. The reason this group survived is because the church leaders kept their distance and allowed the young people to run it themselves, but at the same time gave the assurance that they were available to offer help and advice when needed. This worked well because the young people were made to feel that they were being treated like adults and the group flourished. Then, unfortunately, a new vicar came who didn't have the same hands-off approach. Instead he tried to run the group himself and it disintegrated.
After the meeting I asked her a bit more about the group. I wanted to know if they had any charismatic characters among the young people, or were they just ordinary type of folk. She said they did have the active support of people who had recently been to University and come back, so there were some capable, educated people in the group, but the older church members stayed away.
I came away feeling that I had actually found the answer, but to implement it, the church needs a complete revolution in its thinking. In many churches, not even the adults are allowed to organise things themselves, never mind the young people, and I have dealt with this in my Submission article.
After the meeting I came home and talked to Neville about it. He thought that if the young people were left to run a youth group themselves, they would just fool around, but he was talking about his own friends who had never been taught anything. After some discussion we came to the conclusion that the hands-off approach would work, but only if the young people had been taught something already, throughout their entire childhood up to the age of 14.
This brings us to the Jewish idea of Bar-Mitzvah. When Jewish children reach a certain level of understanding of the Bible, usually between the age of about 12-15, they are asked to read a passage of the Bible in the synagogue, and then they go out for a meal and have a celebration. This is their coming of age ceremony, so that they participate in the congregation as adults, and not as children. Of course the whole process depends on the quality of regular instruction that they are given throughout their childhood. If the instruction is irregular and fragmented, they will not be capable of a Bar-Mitzvah at the appropriate age, and if it is left too late it becomes meaningless. There is no point giving a Bar-Mitzvah to someone aged 25.
The reason why many churches are unable to run youth groups for people aged 15-20, even with the hands-off approach, is because they have never given regular instruction up to the age of 14. Instead they have conducted social experiments and played political games with each other, so that the youth work gets neglected. If they tried the hands-off approach with the 15-20 age group there would certainly be chaos, because you can't expect people to organise themselves and do something constructive if they have never been taught anything.
The solution, therefore, is to teach them regularly up to the age of 14, or whatever is the "Bar-Mitzvah" age for any individual young person, and then treat them as adults and let them organise themselves.