I was a church kid.
I was born into a Christian home.
I grew up going to church like clockwork every Sunday.
I did church things…went to Sunday school, memorized Bible verses, and volunteered to help out around the church.
I checked off boxes and jumped through hoops.
I followed the Christian list of do’s and dont’s.
I was a forced Christian.
Fast-forward to 2014…
I still live in a Christian home.
I still go to church like clockwork every Sunday.
I still do church things.
I still wrestle with the boxes to check off and the hoops to jump through.
But, I am a Jesus follower.
I am also a 40-year old youth pastor who has been working with church kids for a long time now.
And, a lot of the students I work with remind me of me.
I’ve been around long enough to hear the numbers. All the surveys and studies out there that tell us that anywhere from 40-80% of students walk away from their faith after high school. The numbers are alarming…but not for the reasons you might think.
We tend to measure stuff that we can see.
So, we track stuff like how many times a kid shows up at church or youth group.
We pat ourselves on the back when we fill our youth rooms with students “on fire” for God.
We pile them into church vans and buses and take them on mission trips.
We put them on youth worship teams.
We encourage them to “get involved” and “plugged in” with the church.
We give them verses to memorize and Bible studies to read.
We train them to share their faith story with their peers.
In other words, we make the lists and the boxes they check off and the hoops they jump through.
And, then we wonder why they walk away.
A wise man once said, “Don’t judge by appearance…the Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7)
God doesn’t measure stuff we can see.
He is not a God of lists and boxes and hoops.
He never has been.
The Gospels are full of encounters Jesus had with the religious leaders of his day who measured spirituality with lists and boxes and hoops. And, Jesus had this to say about them…”Everything they do is for show.” (Matthew 23:5)
Thousands of years later, we’ve gotten pretty good at putting on a show.
Our youth groups are full of church kids who put on a show every Sunday, but haven’t ever gotten past the lists and boxes and hoops. We might think they’re Jesus followers, but in reality, many of them are nothing more than forced Christians.
They are born in Christian homes.
They go to church most Sundays.
They do church things.
They follow the rules we’ve set, but they don’t have a personal relationship with God.
And, so they graduate from high school and leave the church.
Because we taught them that it’s more important to show up once a week than it is to submit their lives to God every day of the week.
Because we taught them that praying a prayer is all it takes.
Because we taught them that complying to the rules of the church is better than conforming to the image of Christ.
Because we taught them that Christianity is more about the things you can and can’t do and less about having a personal relationship with the only One who can promise you true freedom and a “full life.” (John 10:10)
The bottom line question is this…
Are students really leaving the church (and everything it stands for & believes in), or are they simply escaping from a way of life they never truly embraced in the first place?
Our calling as youth workers is the same one that Jesus gave His disciples back in Matthew 28…to make disciples.
Not rule followers.
Not church goers.
Not youth group groupies.
Not forced Christians.
It’s time for us in youth ministry to ask questions like these…
What exactly is my ministry making?
How do I measure success in my ministry?
Is my ministry contributing to students leaving the church or is it compelling them to follow Jesus?
Am I raising a generation of forced Christians or Jesus followers?