The Slow Fade: Why You Matter to Twentysomethings
Chuck Bomar was student ministry pastor at Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, for several years before taking his current role as founding pastor of Colossae Church in Portland, Oregon. Along with Reggie Joiner and Abbie Smith, he is co-author of the new book The Slow Fade: Why You Matter in the Story of Twentysomethings.
Chuck, you folks start the book with a startling statement: “Every expert suggests the same thing–somewhere between 65 and 80 percent of people who grow up in the church drop out of church when they become college-aged.” Clearly this has implications for college ministry, but before we get to that doesn’t it also raise the question of whether those people had ever been engaged by the church in their younger years? That maybe they had only been going because they were forced by their parents, but never developed a love for the Body?
Yeah, I do think that’s a question we ought to be asking ourselves. What does it mean and how do we define their connection to the church? That’s why I would say we need to be examining our ministries before college. That’s something we hear all the time, “We should be doing this stuff earlier. If you wait till college it is too late.”
Given the maturity levels of younger people, is it even possible to help them take ownership of their own spirituality earlier?
I think there are some areas where we can shift our emphasis earlier on. One of those areas is shifting from the idea of education being defined as “giving information” to the idea of “Imparting wisdom.” And that’s where I think that mentorship comes in. Really all of youth ministry, at its core, is gathering young people together so older believers can invest in their lives.
I would say there should be a shift from trying to “fix” someone, like a problem that needs to be solved, to just being mutually fascinated with what God is doing in each other’s lives. It’s not that we don’t teach doctrine, but there should be a balancing act between giving conclusions and being mutually fascinated in what God is doing in one another’s lives.
That involves helping older adults open up their lives so there can be mutual transformation. Often times what we think of as discipling as being information based. Certainly there’s a place to learn Scripture and history and tradition, but I do think there ought to be more of a shift to a deep commitment to simple truths. That is not our hearts, just to get kids to be able regurgitate information. Instead we are allowing them to be a part of our lives and gain insight and wisdom and to see how God is changing us, and then through that God transforms both the mentor and the mentee.
Does that set the bar too high for younger ages, or have we not given them enough credit for where they are able to go?
I would say that younger kids will go as far as you take them. But you have to meet them there and take them along, and that takes time and relationship. I’m not going to say anything is limited because of age, if we’re willing to bring them along—and that is what discipleship is. The only thing I’m implying is that people are going to have to pay the price in time.
You say that churches should more actively stay involved with their high school students once they graduate and head to college. How do you do that when they have become so geographically scattered? I think that’s why most people assume that campus-resident programs like Campus Crusade are the best people to handle it.
Well, we do need to change the definition of involvement a little bit if they’re a thousand miles away. But campus ministries are great for peer connection and evangelism that kind of thing, but they can’t do long-term intergenerational relationships. That is one thing they lack and that the church has. I think the connection is actually really simple. Very practical things such as just a phone call every once in a while to ask, “How are you doing” gives them a sense of care and nurture, and even belonging. We all think about people and just don’t call them.
There can be more formal things like Facebook groups and online discussions, and you can certainly stay in touch with them through holidays and summer, but I think it’s even simpler than that. Random phone calls, emails, rolls of quarters for vending machine snacks all remind them they’re being thought of and they belong to something. And don’t send it from an individual; send it from the actual church. Let people use church envelopes so the students aren’t just connecting with the individual, but the larger body.
I get nothing but positive feedback from people on this—not just the students but the parents. Also, helping them connect to a church or a ministry is just as important. We can do searches on the internet and make some phone calls to make sure we’re doing what we can to help them get connected. We can do our research and talk with the youth pastor of the church in the place they’re going.
You appeal to all believers to become proactively involved in the lives of college-aged people. I’m not sure most of us know any! But even if we do, I think there’s a sense of unease in dealing with people that age that is similar to the generation gap with middle schoolers. It’s sort of like we can’t parent them, but they aren’t ready to be treated as adults. We feel like there is not a connection point.
Finding that common ground can be a little bit difficult, and that’s where somebody being the bridge for that relationship is key. The main role of a college pastor would be finding a common ground between two people; not between two generations, but between two people of different generations. It can be as simple as a vocation or any life circumstance where someone can find common ground.
It is tough, and there are obstacles, and sometimes the younger generation doesn’t see value in having an older person in their lives. Their parents will be happy to help you connect. It’s like the young couple that is perfect parents…until they have kids. But when they have kids and real life happens, and it doesn’t happen the way they envisioned it, they see the beauty of having someone else in their children’s lives. Somebody being involved and optimizing those moments when life didn’t work out the way they expected, who can speak to that issue and find the common ground.
Sometimes our churches make it harder because they are designed around difference—and sometimes in unhealthy ways. We don’t do very well at helping people find common ground. We structure around differences rather than commonality. But I do think if we concentrate on individuals; connecting two people of different generations rather than two different generations, I think that is the key.
In one of her sections, Abbie says that college-aged people don’t cut themselves, suffer from eating disorders, change majors seven times, change churches ten times, or abandon church altogether because they’re flighty. They do so because they don’t know where they belong. Did they never feel like they belonged in church or with Christians before, or is that the groups they try to connect with just don’t deal well with people at their new point in life? Or maybe even that they are too much in the throes of figuring out who they are to know where they might be able to fit in?
I think it’s both. When they’re younger they might connect to a ministry, but they don’t necessarily connect to the church as a whole. There is a difference between helping someone connect to a ministry and belonging to a church. Some of that disconnect happens when we use terms like “children’s church” and “big church.” We use an “us and them” terminology. That creates separation; it doesn’t build a sense of belonging. When they graduate high school, they still don’t feel like adults but they don’t feel like kids. Most churches haven’t figured out how to meet them where they are, and they disconnect.
I think there’s some encouragement in the book’s statement that they don’t need an expert, theologian, or put-together person. They need someone who cares enough about their stories to listen as they process things. It’s encouraging because we all know we don’t have all the answers and feel like we should. I wonder if maybe part of the value is in letting them realize that that’s normal, and they shouldn’t expect having all the answers to be the sign they’ve become an adult?
That’s exactly right, and some of that is generational. The older generation would tend to feel like they have to have all the answers and the younger generation doesn’t feel like that. To stand firm in your faith doesn’t mean you never have a doubt. Having a doubt just means you’re at that point between being absolutely certain and having some questions. Helping them see that is very freeing.
Chuck, I appreciated your comments that in the demands of life we often lose our own sense of wonder, and even our sense of identity of who we are in Christ. I get the feeling you were saying that with that alone we already have something deep in common with college-aged people and their identity crises. I would guess that likewise you were saying we have as much to get out of exploring these things with them as they do.
Yeah, and that’s the mutual fascination and mutual transformation that I was referring to earlier. The common ground is the wonder of discovery and passion. The only obstacle is whether or not we’ll be honest about it. Sometimes we need some more surface-y things, not as vulnerable things, like a vocation or a sport or building cars or whatever it might be. But that’s building the relationship so we have a connection when it’s time for the deeper, more personal stuff.
It’s a tough shift for some people to move from sharing knowledge to imparting wisdom. Not giving answers, but exploring together. One way to help older people become mentors is to start by spending time with them in relationship. Then you can ask them to become a mentor for a young person and when they say they don’t know what to do, you can say, “The same thing we’re doing.” Some of the reason we feel that kind of pressure to have a question and answer based relationship is because it’s all we’ve ever seen.
In the beginning, I said I wasn’t sure most of us knew any college-aged people. I guess the truth is that they’re all around us working in stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. What’s the first step? How can we begin a relationship with someone we just happen across in that kind of setting?
Well, in that setting I think consistency and frequency are the key words. For instance, if you see somebody at a coffee shop the more you go in there and see them and interact with them the easier it gets. You start by just asking about their day, and over time get to what’s going on in their lives. Then you show up with your spouse a time or two and you can say, “Hey, we’d love to have you over for dinner some time and get to know you outside of the coffee shop.” You have to make the investment of time to build the relationship.
But even if you don’t see someone around you, you can go into your youth pastor’s office and ask, “Do you know of any college-aged people who used to be around but aren’t in the church any longer?”
Sometimes we think you have to be a Type A personality to do that, but even if we don’t have that outgoing attitude, the more we’re around people the more we open up. It really becomes very natural. Just go into it expecting to invest a lot of your time to make a difference in that person’s life.
Brian Proffit brings experience as pastor, writer, and publisher.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”
This article “The Slow Fade: Why You Matter to Twentysomethings” by Brian Profitt was excerpted from: www.churchunleashed.com web site. July 2010. It may be used for study & research purposes only.