As the Curate in a healthy suburban parish, one of my main responsibilities is to shepherd the various “Youth Ministries” at our church (not pictured). To make a long story short: kids are generally wonderful, but busy and church is not often on the top of the priority list. This is especially true in the High School age group where various factors—from school pressures, to extra-curriculars and developmental urges to resist and reject anything and everything in the name of constructing an individual identity are all working against regular participation in Youth Group activities. I know we are not alone in suffering this dynamic. The areas that have the most success are, as seems to be the case with most parishes, mission trips and service work.
This is no small thing. To awaken in young people the desire to give their time and energy, to get them to put down their phones and look a homeless person in the eye while giving him a sandwich, or sweat over a construction project for an elderly woman in need is as important as anything else they might learn in their lives. In a culture of “me first,” learning to be among others as one who serves is very much a Gospel education.
These exciting, exotic and engrossing activities (that, let’s be honest, also look good on a college resume), seem to be the dominant mode for “Youth Groups” across The Episcopal Church. Forging relationships is the focus. Relationships with a few caring and devoted non-parental adults, yes, and most importantly, relationships with their peers. The kids will come if they have fun, like each other, and get food, the thinking goes. This is approach that the Rite 13, Journey to Adulthood, and Young Adults in the Church curriculum–which has been the dominant youth group formation curricula for a generation, has taken.
As someone formed by that track, I can tell you: it’s incomplete. It’s not enough not because relationships are bad, or that mission trips are unnecessary (as is often the case in the life, the problem is a matter of degree, not direction) its incomplete because it glorifies relationship with others above relationship with God. There needs to be a balance.
I grew up in the Episcopal Church, went of my own accord since I was in Middle School (I recognize that makes me an anomaly). I was a part of a very good Youth Group. But when I showed up at college (a liberal, northeast, non-religious private college mind you, not some bible belt university) I was woefully unformed in the substance of the Christian faith. I had little to no idea of what the Bible was. Beyond the Lord’s Prayer I had no theological understanding. I loved the liturgy but damned if I could tell you the difference between a cruet and a crucifix. The people who did know about their faith were Evangelicals and Catholics. Theirs was a faith of assurance and straightforwardness. Mine was only, or so I was lead to believe, questions and filial feeling. It was all too easy to be wooed by their charisma and caritas, even though it never felt quite like home. I couldn’t tell you what home was, because I never learned how to articulate it. And for those who didn’t get swept up in the fun and fervor of the well-formed and well-informed, it was just as easy to get swept out to the seas of agnosticism and ambivalence. Because what roots did we have? If relationship was all that mattered—relationship with the priest, or relationship with your friends, or relationship with a particular church community—what good was that going to do you miles from home, facing a Christianity you neither recognized, nor particularly wanted much to do with?
If you look around on any given Sunday in an Episcopal Church, chances are that most people there did not grow up Episcopalian. This should not necessarily be a point of pride. It is great that our Church has become a place where disaffected Roman Catholics, the mixed marriages (Roman Catholics and Protestants who met in the middle) and those who grew up with no faith tradition at all can come and worship. But are we okay with so many of our Episcopal children not becoming Episcopal adults? We need to do better, plant deeper and more robust seeds, in the souls of our kids so that they feel a certain familial love and pride in their Church. We know that we can but water, it is for God to give the growth. But we have to at least give those seeds a shot of taking root. And this is not on the kids, this is on us, their priests and parents.
You see if our relationship with God is built only upon certain people and certain circumstances, when those people and circumstances change, one is left spiritually adrift. One of the ways to combat this (if The Episcopal Church is serious about keeping its members from Sunday School through adulthood and not just acquiescing to the debatable claims that “everyone wanders at some point” or “it’s healthy to explore”) is to start taking some pride in our particular brand of this age-old, worldwide, multifaceted force we call the Church. Why Episcopalian? Why God? Why Jesus the Son of God? Why the Holy Spirit? Why the liturgy? Why the creeds? Why the robes? Why the Bible? If we don’t help our kids ask these questions, when those questions arise freshman year of college—or whenever they come up, more are going to leave than stay, because we haven’t been very good about telling them what they are staying for. This does not have to be done in a dry, didactic way. You can still have fun and learn, but it requires equal commitment to learning and to fun.
If we’re content just to show our high schoolers a good time and get them open to the idea of God, then I think relationship building, centered on positive and committed lay leadership will be an acceptable model for some time. But if we want to raise up and form the next generation of The Episcopal Church, then that bar is too low. Our job is not just to make them friends, it is to make them faithful. This means informing them as well as forming them. For doing one without the other is to create misshapen disciples. It is to build the foundation of the Church’s future on sand and when the floods of cultural secularism, or evangelical fervor, or even Roman Catholic piety rise, they will be swept away.
We have something worthwhile in The Episcopal Church. We’re not good at articulating it, presenting it, or asking others to commit to it (for fear of driving what few people we have away). But in an age when souls are suffering hunger pains from subsisting on the sugar highs of materialism, we offer something that is both ancient and modern, formal and flexible, beautiful and approachable, welcoming and wondrous. We offer a relationship with Jesus Christ grounded in thousands of years of teaching, prayer and song; in sacrament AND Word. For the converted it is the best of both worlds. For the uninitiated, it is intriguing. Why don’t we want our kids to know that? Why don’t we want them to carry a love for Jesus formed and shaped by The Episcopal Church, with them for the rest of their lives? We have to do better by them. The Church deserves it. And so do they.