I went to Wisconsin right before the New Year to go on a Youth Retreat as a supervisor for our Youth Group. There were many Youth Leaders, both paid and volunteer, with other adult volunteers there supervising their own Youth Groups. Our own group had 18 children, a bus driver, his wife, a youth leader, a parent of one of the children who is a school teacher, and myself, the senior pastor. I was the only one on staff, the rest were volunteer. That is six youth per supervisor (though there were two 18 year olds among the youth). I do not know if this follows the minimum guidelines for adults per youth, I do not know if this is a desirable ratio, but I do know that it is hard to get one on one time with that kind of ratio. I do know that if you have ever been a leader on a youth retreat the ratio of 1:1 hardly even seems sufficient at times. We live in a time of big numbers and big results. One pastor leading hundreds, maybe even thousands in the crusades of their church is what we call a success story. If leading one person to Christ is a good thing, then leading thousands is a great thing. If bringing people to church is a good thing, then bringing thousands would be a great thing. In the mean time we see many youth and young adults falling through the cracks. We create alluring programs to get youth connected to other youth, minimize commitment, maximize opportunity, and then wonder why they desert the church when it is time for them to become participating members of the church.
Families do not easily fall into the kinds of mistakes churches do. Having one child is a good thing, but unless you are the Duggars you do not think that having 18 must be a great thing. I am not questioning the Duggars’ parenting choices, I do not know them, but I am questioning the parenting choices of our church. We want to cram more and more youth into our churches without the necessary parenting available. We chastise and demonize Nadya Suleman (a.k.a. Octo Mom) for having more children than she can properly handle. Our churches want children and youth, but are not willing to parent them. We want more and more and we can hardly develop them to be healthy members of our church. We make up for our lack in parents with our excess in programs. However, programs are a poor substitute for spiritual parents. The goal in the church should not be how many youth the church can get, but how many spiritual parents can we pair up with our youth. If our goal is to be a healthy growing church, than growing our youth should be connected with growing our spiritual leaders to help lead the youth, and other new members of the church. We proclaim Jesus is about relationships, but we organize our churches to be about programs, and we wonder why so many fall through the cracks. Programs do not equal relationships. We don’t need directors, we need parents, we don’t need programs, we need families.
Churches often fail to establish the relationship necessary with their youth that families naturally make. When does a child become a member of the family? Is it when they turn 18? Is it when they make a verbal commitment, or a public address? In a healthy family (which for the most part I was fortunate to be a part of) a child becomes a member of the family at birth. I remember at a very young age having responsibilities. My responsibilities may have been small in the beginning, and perhaps I caused more harm than good in my attempts to be helpful, but nonetheless I was a participating member of my family. As I grew so did my responsibilities and my ability to actually become more and more helpful. The hope is that by the time I am 18 and go off to college, that I am a fully functioning adult. Sure there is still much to learn at 18. And the fulfillment of our responsibilities is not always graceful at that age, but we have the necessary tools to scrape by. In the church it seems that it is often all or nothing. We fail to bring the youth along in growing responsibilities of the church. We fail to teach them one on one the importance and joy of being a participating member of the church family. Therefore, when they turn and we expect them to be full participating members, they bail. It is not because they are lazy, but they have not been trained to be active members of the Body.
The solution? Better parenting. We need to ask ourselves are we ready to bring more children into the church and raise them up to be spiritual adults. We ask not, are we ready to invest not in thousands, but we need to ask are we ready to fully invest in a few, financially, personally, and spiritually? This is something that cannot simply be designated to the youth leader, or youth group session, but it must be a full commitment from the church, to grow disciples of Christ by joining with them on their journey to spiritual adulthood.