We are often asked our opinion on the trend in Western Christianity of youth leaving the Church. Many people are becoming concerned with these trend lines. Usually, those asking for our opinion admit to feeling anxious about the future of the Church because of this trend.
I have responded to this topic in several different ways over the years, but have found it most helpful to approach the topic as a study in how we think about missionary equipping rather than offering quick-fix methods to alleviate the anxious emotions tied to this current reality.
When we enter a new culture, we have to be mindful to our underlying motivations and emotions. When my family moved from Indiana to South Africa, my underlying motivations were not always honorable. Rather than coming as a listener whose only agenda was to help others hear and experience God for themselves, I often felt the anxiety of needing to “sell” and idea of faith. It was not until I found myself serving under a local leader that I was able to see my role as an outside leader was simply to serve and not control the conversations. Secondly, my emotions tended to be anxious. We were in a foreign land with culture norms that differed from what we had grown up with. When I became honest with my underlying anxieties, I was able to move forward in health, listen more attentively, and serve more accurately those God put in front of us.
There is no amount of reading that will prepare you as you enter a new culture. Pre-field deployment work is very helpful in as much as it helps you have language for the nuances of the culture. Only when you have fully submerged yourself into the culture will you be able to understand what is going on. We work with missionaries before they deploy to the field to remain inquisitive in their posture. We cannot assume understanding in something we are newly arriving to. Doing so violates the relationships with those we are there to partner with.
Healthy missionaries only have an agenda for how they show up to a situation. They do not have an agenda for other people. This may seem counter intuitive. Our hope in engaging missionally is to help people encounter God. But it is important to remember that God is already at work in the lives of other people. It is God’s Spirit that is drawing people to Himself. We are joining God where God is already at work. We work with missionaries to master the art of asking better questions that help people discover what God is saying to them. The lightness of ministry comes when a missionary begins to live in the reality that their only responsibility is to show up, pay attention and ask better questions. They are not “on the hook” for someone to do anything in response.
No one likes to be a “textbook case”. Humans live inside real relationships and circumstances. When we learn to ask better questions we are able to hear more effectively what is going on in reality with the person in front of us. This is especially true when we are working cross culturally. Rarely will we have a full understanding of what is happening in a context that we are not from. Missionaries should posture their lives according to the reality of the context they find themselves in. Western youth culture, like many other cultures, will reject assumptive postures taken by outsiders. But inquisitive and caring postures from outsiders can be the very thing that helps a person experience God’s invitations in their lives.
Remember that this culture is not your home. When we cross cultures, we are outsiders. There is an essential role that an outsider can play in bringing healing to a place. The goal is not for an outsider to become an insider, it is to help those inside a culture connect to God. This positions the outside leader more like a midwife than anything else. They exist to help give birth to something they had no hand in creating and will have no role in growing. The less anxious we become in our role, the better we are able to serve the culture.
The good news about youth, as is true with every other culture, is that God cares for the hearts of people. We cannot out love God's love for anyone. Our role is to be with God as we sit with people. The only outcome we can control is how we show up to the relationship we find ourselves in.
What we have found in our congregational equipping processes is that youth tend to be the most open to spiritual conversations and best situated to advance disciple making. Their friends are exploring many things in their teenage years. Many people will not connect with an existing institution as well as they will to a trusted relationship. Equipping youth to form stronger prayer practices, have spiritual conversations, and invite their friends to explore scripture has proven to be effective in strengthening their own faith and leadership.
We can help you form the skills mentioned in the points above. Look through our “Exponential Ministry” course where you will learn how to cultivate prayer practices that ground your ministry, how to have spiritual conversations, and how to invite others to discover God through scripture. We have seen this be helpful for churches attempting to address the trend of youth leaving the church. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to reach out to our team. We will walk with you as you enter into this exciting context for ministry among youth.