By Karen Swank
I almost walked out of church today, at the beginning of the sermon.
Ever done that? Walked out of church, I mean?
I haven’t. Though, there have been a number of times over the years that I “almost” have. My overwhelming desire to vacate the premises quickly usually happens amidst what I perceive as extreme/abusive insensitivity toward the most broken among us – it’s usually a protective instinct within me, that wants to find the shutoff valve when church seems to become in instrument of pain inflicted most harshly on those already suffering.
Today’s near-flight wasn’t about others, though. Today it was all about me. I thought the sermon was heading in the direction of raging about the economy and politics, and I was So Over It. I hear, watch, and read that kind of thing all around me the rest of the week (generally communicated the most loudly by people self-identifying as Christians), and I’m well beyond sick of it. The opening lines of the sermon sounded like a remix of all that frustrates me of late.
I stayed because one of my best friends was beside me, and my Sunday school kids were in front of me. I gritted my teeth and sighed, and argued within myself about staying or going.
Oh boy, am I ever glad I stayed.
The opening lines were not the theme at all. The guest preacher was aiming to get us to stop obsessing about those items and start considering the spiritual legacy we are passing along to our children (“we” being modern day Christians), which all too often amounts to:
Little or nothing at all.
This is the part where I wish that as a Sunday School teacher, youth leader, and mom I could say, “I know how to do this right, I practice it well, and you should follow me.” I wish.
I can remember when I used to feel like I could justify such statements. I recall feeling like a supermom. I know how quickly I used to criticize others who worked with kids.
“He’s just not teaching the truth plainly enough.”
“She’s not focused clearly enough on the gospel.”
“His lesson is not biblical enough.”
“He’s talking to lost kids like they were saved kids.”
“His teachings are too oriented on being good people, and not enough on grace.”
“Her lessons are too much ‘mushy love’ and not enough call to holiness.”
On and on and on. I used to have a whole lot of opinions on what was the right way to reach kids and to follow the command to raise up children in the way that they should go.
This morning, the guest preacher asked us to look around the room compare numbers of adults to numbers of kids. My memory in that moment was vivid: not so many years ago, one of my greatest pleasures while in church was looking at the great crowd of teens we had. These were no cookie-cutter images, all stamped out to seem the same. They were diverse in their looks, in their attitudes, in their giftings, and in their failings – but they were so unified. I don’t suppose they will ever guess how encouraged I was by just watching them sit there in church every Sunday.
The kids from that time aren’t kids anymore. They are twenty-somethings.
And almost none of them ever darken our door anymore.
I wasn’t their youth leader; I was just a hanger-on at youth events (I jokingly called myself the “youth groupie.”) But I heard the teaching. I participated in the discussions. It was biblical. It was plain. It was gospel focused. There was grace, and there was holiness. I am not saying it was perfect. But…I was there…it was darn good, I thought. The kids were involved, focused, able to go deep. They were funny, real, and caring. I remember thinking we were getting it right.
Some are gone to other churches. That’s okay – great, even – where they are growing in their faith. Many, though, are just gone from church, period. Even that would be okay if they were still following hard after God like they seemed to be back then. But the part that haunts me is this: an unacceptably high percentage of them aren’t just absent Sunday services – they appear to have stopped considering their faith as the central element of their lives. Some seem to be even questioning God’s existence.
I promise you, I didn’t see that coming.
Another youth ministry person and I talked about this phenomenon recently. She smiled wryly about a new leader who feels sure her kids won’t derail when they get to college. We remembered feeling sure. We remembered getting our certainty kicked out from under us.
Youth ministry is humbling, if you stick with it. Sooner or later the kids grow up, and if you’re depending on “fruit” to feel like your time has been well-invested…ummm…let’s just say, you might experience some disappointment. Youth ministry will teach you to persevere (or will drive you out.) Youth ministry will teach you to shut your big mouth. Or at least that’s been my experience.
Some close friends who put a lot of years into youth ministry have resigned themselves to believing the only kids anyone can have a real impact upon are their own. I’m not ready to believe that yet (and since my 20-year-old son is out of church and seems to have a variable estimation of God, there would be only small, cold comfort for me in believing it anyway). So I struggle to find a way to feed into the lives of my junior high Sunday School class in some way that might rescue them from the 20-something fade. I hang on hard to God, asking how I can make any sort of lasting impact on my youth church kids, whose lives so often seem unchanged by my efforts.
Maybe, though, in the end, I am giving myself too much power anyway. A fellow Jesus-freak recently noted wisely that “it is very hard for us to believe God is working in others’ lives, isn’t it?” Oh man. He’s so right. I want to see it happening in the way I want to see it happening. Never mind that anyone watching me through my 20s surely thought there was little hope that I’d ever lay down my selfishness enough to draw near to God. He did what it took to bring me there (a little drawing and a whole lot of driving), and I’ll never stop being grateful for that breaking process.
I guess I’ll just have to quote Todd Agnew and say, “I’ve got better questions than answers.”
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Karen Swank seems to see God best from a falling-down position. She loves working with teens, who tolerate her goofy perspectives well. She laughs too loud, dreams outrageous dreams, and is learning that she can’t save the world all by herself.