This phrase announces the death of a relationship. It’s the cry of younger Christians as they ice their bruises, bandage their bleeding wounds, and decidedly limp away from the church. It’s the echo through empty sanctuaries.
Barna Research, Pew Research, Thom Rainer, Ed Stetzer, Gabe Lyons, James Emery White, David Kinnaman, and Christianity Today are faithfully leading the church into strategies and explanations about why young people are leaving the church and the Christian faith.
The thoughtful research of these people and their ministries encourages me and provides me with biblical frameworks for processing the church’s loss of younger Christians. My bookshelf is full of their wisdom.
But I wonder if we are getting ahead of ourselves. Are we strategizing more than mourning, course-correcting more than apologizing, and self-preserving more than changing? I’m not pointing fingers; I’m looking in the mirror.
For the last nine years, I’ve devoted myself to sharing the gospel with young professional women through an outreach ministry called Polished. We’ve reached close to 10,000 women in their twenties and thirties with the gospel, which has led to countless conversations with millennials and Gen Xers who feel far from God or have rejected the faith. These conversations have revealed that the erosion of trust they feel toward the church is our fault.
And I’m not sure if, as the church, we’ve grasped that just yet. We sling statistics, write books, schedule breakout sessions, script podcasts, consult consultants, and throw dollars at a problem that first demands personal and corporate mourning, repentance, and restitution.
Every loss must be mourned.
You realize the church’s relationship with young people is dead, right? This is not something we will revive. It will have to be resurrected. Before we birth a new relationship between young people and the church, we first have to acknowledge the death.
If we took the time to absorb the statistics we are projecting about young people leaving the faith and disconnecting from church altogether, then we would mourn. With each new finding documenting the loss of young people, we should find ourselves weeping with compassion and reaching for sackcloth and ashes. We’ve lost from our own flock.
But often the reactions to this dead relationship sound more like grave robbers haggling over the possessions of the deceased rather than the woeful cries of grieving loved ones at a funeral.
We’re pounding their chest trying to revive their faith, but we’ve lost their trust and it killed our relationship. We need the only resurrection power that can defeat the grave to fix this problem, the power of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, we already have it.
Christian, is your heart broken? Have you taken the time to grieve the loss of young people?
We are prone to blame culture for our loss instead of engage in mourning that’s laced with responsibility. Our culture is no doubt a contributing factor to the exit of young people, but our culture was not commissioned to co-labor with God to build his kingdom. We were.
Younger Christians don’t trust us anymore. And this should grieve us, not just frustrate or redirect us. Before we launch into a solution to a problem, we should grieve the death of our relationship.
Relationship isn’t possible without repentance.
A call to repentance was a death sentence for the prophets of God. It was confusing when John the Baptist preached it to the religious. And it was shocking when Jesus demanded it of his followers.
Repentance is the starting place for our peaceful relationship with God. So, it makes sense repentance will be the starting point for a new relationship with young people.
Those of us eager to birth a new relationship with the disillusioned or disconnected for the sake of the gospel will repent. We will look into the eyes of young people and apologize. Before we can ask for forgiveness, we have to own our part in this dead relationship. Saying, “I’m sorry,” will not be enough, but it’s certainly the start.
Younger Christians, if you haven’t heard it ever, lately, or enough . . . I am sorry. I killed us. Forgive me. Forgive all of us.
Restitution will be costly.
Restitution is costly. The ultimate cost of restitution is blood shed at an altar. By God’s grace, the ultimate restitution for our souls was won on a cross by Jesus. And as we are buried with him in baptism to death to ourselves and our mistakes, then he can make way for forgiveness—for new life, for a new relationship with God, and I’m hopeful for a new relationship with young people.
The cross changed everything about our lives and brought integrity to our relationship with God. We will build integrity into our relationships with young people by changing the way we worship, lead, speak, teach, and live.
It’s one thing to simply commit to reaching young people. It’s another entirely to be willing to put to death our hypocrisy and corruption to seek restoration.
I’m talking about the difference between learning how to better reach them and a humble willingness to die to ourselves to birth a new relationship with young people.
Are you willing to make costly changes to restore this relationship?
Restoration is possible.
Young people missing from the pews and rejecting the faith need to be restored to God, to the church, and to us. The situation is dire. But make no mistake, God’s mission to restore all things is not on pause, and his power is not weakened by our mess.
Just when the death of our relationship with young people and our own brokenness that led us there buries us, we find the Spirit of God raising us up to meet him in the newness of life. Now and forever he will prove to be the same.
If years serving the unchurched, de-churched, and over-churched have taught me one thing, it’s that the church is worth fighting for. In spite of our mess, the church is the answer.
Let’s rise up together by the power of Christ’s resurrection and reach out to young people for the purpose of restoration.
God, let them be restored to us.
Cover image by Alex Ronsdorf
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