The greatest missions opportunity in American history lies before us.
It is in part this: to engage and retain children and youth in the church today who are poised to leave in record numbers. Using the Base Case Scenario discussed in the Size of the Opportunity, to return to the retention rates we saw just 20 years ago would mean at least 22 million more young people walking with Jesus.
These are not children of other faiths, atheism, or agnosticism. These are children in our youth groups, attending our Christmas services, going to confirmation classes. They are in families today that would call themselves Christian.
Preventing these young people from walking away from Christianity isn’t about church growth or filling seats. It is about 22 million souls knowing the goodness and joy of a life with Christ and the impact that they could have on the world.
It’s about generations experiencing the Gospel for themselves, reaching their peers, and seeking to mend a broken world.
So why are so many people leaving?
There is no one reason, but the most interesting fact is that the majority are not angry at the church, or intellectually at odds with the Gospel. It’s just that they don’t think a life with Jesus matters.
Why the Unaffiliated Leave the Church
Contrary to what we may assume, the most impactful people in a teen’s faith are not their peers, but the adults in their lives. In fact, when parents and adults take their faith seriously and ask the young people in their lives to do the same, their likelihood of continuing in the faith increases dramatically.
Dropping our kids off at youth group for an hour and a half is no longer enough in today’s society. It’s not that the current youth ministry model is bad, it’s just empirically insufficient in a culture that competes for the attention of children.
We need to come up with better ways of engaging and apprenticing our future generations.
Christian pastors in the second century were keenly aware of the importance of preparing and training youth for a life with Jesus.
Read about intentional, costly discipleship in the Early Church.Read more
A High Bar for a Deep Foundation: Catechism in the Early Church
If a Christian from the early church, say the second or third century, were to observe an average Evangelical church in America today, one of the most striking differences (besides the obvious cultural differences) would be the spiritual formation of its members.1
Formation, by which we mean the apprenticing of new believers into a life with Jesus, was one of the most central and dominant themes of the early church. Church fathers like Hippo, Tertullian, and Augustine wrote extensively on the subject. It was often discussed in church councils and a matter of great debate. Why? Because Christians were ambassadors of Jesus, reflections of Him in a culture that did not know who He was, and to know how to live like Christ wasn’t something easily learned.
Formation, to the early church, was a three-year process with regular scripture study, doctrinal training, moral instruction, and spiritual counseling culminating in a baptismal admission into formal church membership. The length was due to many factors, not the least of which was new church members had little religious context (they were not God-fearing Jews) and needed a long period to invest in learning what it meant to follow Jesus in a world that didn’t agree with Christian doctrine. Without it, the church would have struggled to have a distinctive witness. Cyril of Jerusalem, a bishop in the fourth century, said, “Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and join the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted.”
It was critical in a culture which did not understand the Gospel to shape new converts well such that the church truly acted as the body of Christ. New converts had deep scriptural study under the tutelage of the pastors, with surveys of the entire Bible, daily readings, and exposition. In an oral culture, there was a regular recitation and memorization of creeds and confessions. There were explicit renunciations of conduct that was sinful or incompatible with the Christian faith. There was even spiritual counseling that would be consistent with charismatic and Pentecostal traditions today.
What is striking about the early church is the effort paid to the spiritual formation of new believers. We believe that there is much that can be learned from the holistic catechesis of the early church in the formation of our youth and young adults. The intentional effort paid to teaching doctrine, engaging moral formation in a culture that would instruct otherwise, and confessional practices to cement their decisions are all translatable into our context. What would a more extensive formation practice look like today?
1 For an excellent and important summary of the early church’s approach to Catechesis and implications for the modern church, see the Presidential Address by Clinton Arnold (President of the Talbot Seminary and past president of the Evangelical Theological Society) to the ETS in 2003, found at http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/47/47-1/47-1-pp039-054_JETS.pdf Also, see, Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1.
How Can I Help?
In addition to prayer, we believe intentional and bold action is needed on the part of leaders, pastors, and parents. For a deeper exploration of ways to take action, download the report.
- Pastors and
- Funders and
How can I involve my entire church in engaging with young people to strengthen their faith?
How can I encourage and involve young people in the life and leadership of the church?
What can I do to support, train, and disciple the parents at my church to model an active faith for their children?
How can I encourage young people, along with families and other mentors, to do missional outreach together?
Am I conducting my life and my relationship with Christ in a way that encourages young people to do the same?
Am I actively invested in the spiritual growth of at least one person under the age of 25?
Do I know a young person who seems disinterested or disengaged from a life with Jesus? How can I speak with them about it?
How can I equip and mobilize whole churches to foster youth formation?
Can I provide funding and resources to create tools for parents to teach their children?
How can I help equip and send youth into missions?
How could I help to build a national advocacy movement for youth formation?