One of the exciting things about being a dedicated sports fan is getting to keep an eye on minor league teams to see the next wave of talent before they make the leap to the big leagues. It’s a source of hope for the future of your team when you see talented young players get drafted, knowing that eventually they’ll work their way up to a starring role for your team. This minor league system is something that works great in sports like baseball and hockey. It’s not, however, a good idea for the church, no matter how hard we try to make it work.
How does the church have a minor league system? Consider what happens when our young people get baptized. Generally speaking, they remain a part of the youth group but are given no role of service in the church. In so many congregations, nothing will be expected from these young people as long as they are in high school and living at home with their parents. Then, as they enter their college years, they are still considered too young to take an active role in the congregation, so we try college and singles groups. At some point they have to enter the “big leagues” and be part of the regular church, but we’ve been terrible at facilitating some kind of transition and so they never truly connect with the church. They never make the jump from our arbitrary, man-made minor league system into being fully active, serving members of the body.
Consider the disconnect between the youth and the rest of the church in a large number of our congregations. If there is a men’s meeting, the men are expected to be there… but the baptized young men aren’t expected to attend. In most congregations, the women find ways to serve by taking meals to those in need, teaching children’s classes, and organizing ladies Bible studies… but what do we expect of the baptized young women? If there’s a service day, the church counts on its members to turn out… but unless it’s announced as a youth function, the youth aren’t there. The problem isn’t that we have youth functions, it’s that young Christians aren’t expected to be a part of the church outside of those functions.
Whether we like to admit it or not, we see young Christians as a different type of Christian. They weren’t baptized into a minor league version of the church, though. What we forget is that no matter how much we try to simplify their church experience, they’re still facing the very real issues of temptation and distraction in their walks of faith. To continue the metaphor, they’re facing major league pitching while receiving minor league coaching.
So, we need to start to consider one of two options.
The first option – maybe we need to reconsider baptism at such young ages. If we really think young people are incapable of growing into functioning members of the body, maybe they aren’t ready to become Christians. I’m not saying we expect them to get up and preach or teach a Bible class a week after baptism, but since the church needs every member to serve in their own way (see Romans 12, Ephesians 4), we can’t keep having baptized members that we feel don’t fit into the church’s work. While this is undoubtedly true in some cases, I don’t think it’s the solution. I don’t think the problem is that these young people aren’t ready to serve, I think the problem is that we aren’t letting them.
So, we need to consider the second option – start coming up with ways to develop the young people we have into active members of the body, not minor leaguers who might someday be able to contribute to our efforts. As I’ve cited before in this column series, a large amount of the research done on Millennials indicates that they don’t feel challenged in the church and that they want to serve. The question is whether or not we let them. In fact, it’s that attitude – “whether or not we let them” – that’s the problem. Service is something that we don’t let Christians do, it’s something we should expect out of all Christians, no matter their age. If they’re mature enough to understand their sins and understand the commitment of following Christ then they’re mature enough to serve.
Until we start raising our expectations and finding ways to help them serve the whole church (not some artificial, minor league version of it that we hope they’ll leave “when they’re ready”), we will continue to struggle to connect with them as they transition into adulthood. A Christian is a Christian, no matter the age. God doesn’t lower His expectations for Christians, and neither should we.
By Jack Wilkie
This article appears in the November 2014 issue of “Think” magazine.
Jack Wilkie is the author of “Failure: What Christian Parents Need to Know About American Education” and is the speaker for Focus Press’s “The Lost Generation” seminar. To schedule a seminar at your church, contact jack@focuspress.org.