Heather Savage (pictured below) lives in Peachland, BC
There is a disturbing disconnect between the church and generation X and Y. As our culture is changing rapidly, young people have grown up in a time that has produced drastically different values, mindsets, worldviews, and attitudes than those of previous generations. They are the product of the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, the environmental movement, and the gay movement. They have grown up with the messages of free choice, relativism, tolerance, multiculturalism, and political correctness. They learn who they are, how they act, and what is cool through the media, including but not limited to television, magazines, the Internet, computer games, cell-phones, and iPods. The phenomenon of reality TV splashes mostly dysfunctional, twisted, or shallow representations of "real" life in front of their faces. At the same time, while MTV (Music Television) is degrading women by reducing them to sex objects, sitcoms trash men by displaying them as stupid and clueless. They stay connected with literally hundreds of "friends" on websites like Facebook and Myspace, while choosing to message closer friends more often through a text than a phone call. They are the children who learned to eat fast and jump in the car while their mothers rushed home from work, threw a frozen meal into the microwave, and turned the ignition as they hopped from hockey to ballet, to karate, to soccer. There is a higher rate of anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders than ever before, while suicide is the third leading cause of death in our generation. Many of them had little contact with their parents and were basically raised by their babysitters, the education system, the media, their peers, and themselves. To them, a family is anything from a single mom and an absent father, to two moms, two dads, and an assortment of step-sisters and half-brothers. They are preoccupied with weight, fashion, and status. They believe that whoever is most beautiful and most thin has the guy, the job, the money, and the attention. The younger of them are being frequently diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, while schools in many areas are being required to have a child and youth worker to deal with the ever-increasing group called the "at risk" kids. There is ever increasing abuse of alcohol and drugs, while teen pregnancy has become more common in this generation than any before. Girls and young women are expected to dream, to pursue, to strive, and to succeed, but at the same time, culture forbids standing out, being assertive, and looking different. Perfection is demanded, and very little else is accepted by their peers or colleagues. They are the generation who never went to church and never heard the Gospel, and who put their faith in science and their hope in materialism. Their parents gave them pretty much everything they wanted, except their time or a foundation of security. The youngest of them don't know Christmas is anything except Santa Claus, that Easter is anything but bunnies, or that Good Friday is anything but a day off school. This is the lost generation. This is the generation we are expecting to walk though our church doors.
Having grown up in the church, I have observed how very different church culture is from the emerging culture of my generation. As I appreciate the fact that we are to be in the world but not of it, I speak hesitantly. As Christ's body, we are called to be different, to be holy, to be set apart. It is defining this "difference" which becomes the issue. As we are to be salt to the world, it cannot mean to be stale, tasteless, or stuck in time. Paul says, "To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." — 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (NIV). Our main purpose as followers of Christ is to demonstrate his love to all, bringing him to as many as possible. As I've watched and grown, I have been saddened and even distressed by the apathy and lethargy with which most Christians live out their lives, and hence how the church lives out its so-called mission. It feels as if we have fallen asleep and are content to lie upon our bed of comfort. The church does not primarily exist for itself; it exists for those not yet within it. Being "set apart" is setting an example to the world of the true beauty for which Christ created us. The fruits of his spirit are meant to be evident in our midst; if they are not, which is often sadly the case, we are living just as the world lives, with bitterness, greed, selfishness, malice, gossip, and vanity. "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God … made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." — Philippians 2:5-7 (NIV). Without Christ as our foundation, we are nothing, and without love, we are a clanging cymbal. We need to be filled with love and the true sense of urgency that now faces us with the present generation. In this space, we will be able to let go of our traditions and tools that are no longer serving those whom Christ came to save. It is important that we regard the ways in which we "do" church as mere tools. Always we stand by the essentials of our faith; always we inspect the usefulness of a tool and remain willing to pick up a more valuable or functional one in its place. If we are not willing, a whole generation of broken children will never know the love and freedom that is found in Christ. They will remain chained in their prisons while we sit satisfied in our pews.
Many of our local congregations are growing smaller and smaller, and the company of the present generation is rare. At some point, and I believe that time is coming, we must stop bemoaning the loss of our youth and begin actually reaching out and pursuing. This will mean sacrifice — sacrifice of time, energy, money, traditions, forms, and our lives. Jesus says, "Take up your cross and follow me." He was obedient to death, even death on a cross — so must we be. He experienced tremendous pain through rejection, abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, grief, sorrow, shame, and physical suffering — so as his disciples will we. "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." — Hebrews 12:1b-3 (NIV). With this in mind, let's look at some of the needs of the present generation and discuss some potential tools with which we may reach them.
Those from my generation are craving basic needs. These needs have not been met in the places they were originally intended, namely the family. They are searching for love — one that lasts — and safety, security, and acceptance. Because many lack these fundamentals, they are engaging in an endless pursuit to fill the void. When all seems to fail, either hopelessness prevails (hence the perils of stress, mental illness, emotional disorders, and suicide) or resignation sets in. If the hearts of those of us who are part of Christ's body were changed, we could offer a place of security, a sense of belonging, a safety, and an acceptance. We could demonstrate and point them to our God's agape love, his promise of faithfulness and commitment. We need to find ways of communicating what they are already so desperately seeking. This generation tends to be very relational and very inquisitive. There have been a few times when I have asked my grandmother or a great aunt questions about their past lives which they consider to be personal. They've looked at me and said, "What is it with your generation? You're always asking questions. When we were young, things were just as they were. We didn't question them." We desire intimacy, and with true intimacy comes honesty. We crave authenticity, the real thing. Perhaps this is due to the counterfeit that prevails around us. We're hoping to reach out to something tangible, real, and genuine. Through our questions, we desire for people to emerge from behind their masks. We easily determine those who are genuine from those who are pretending. When deciding to reach out to this generation, this is one extremely important thing to note: be real, don't put on a face. We see it, and it repels us. Perhaps it is because we despise it in ourselves, and we crave somewhere safe where we are accepted for who we are and where we can see others for who they are. Understanding this then aids us in our exploration of how it is we reach this lost generation. It is in building relationship and community. We need to provide meaningful ways to engage. Let us encounter each other, ourselves, and Christ. We need places to talk about life, culture, philosophy, relationship, emotions etc. Discuss with us the deep questions of life. Talk about struggles and pain. Talk about your screw-ups and how you walked past them. Tell it as it is. Being real, being honest, however awkwardly, is actually the fastest way you will win the respect of this generation. The teachers who are down to earth, aware of the dirt in their student's lives, and not afraid to address real life are the ones who have the respect. As soon as respect is established, you have someone not only willing but even desiring and expectantly waiting to hear what you have to say. It is not therefore primarily in programs, music, or activities where you will most meaningfully impact this generation — it is through your deliberate attempts to know, understand, accept, and love them; and to allow them to know you. With this goal in mind, we can explore avenues which will potentially facilitate this embrace.
Because this goal is broad, there are endless ways of meeting it. The important thing is to remember to whom we are directing our ministry and to develop it accordingly. Another thing to note is the fact that most older church buildings are not particularly inviting to the present generation. Holding a ministry within our buildings will unfortunately bring few, unless we have an exceptionally good way of marketing. Otherwise, though difficult I realize, I would suggest that if we are serious about reaching out, we need to find a warm, inviting, non-churchy-type meeting place. I would also suggest not emphasizing a denominational name or even the word "church" when naming our outreach. Choose something that captures the desire or the heart of the ministry and which will potentially draw people to find out more. (An example is of a new shelter being built in Perth, Ontario, called Cornerstone Landing — very spiritually solid, very descriptive of the particular ministry.) Also when distributing literature or presenting advertisements, feature quotes that are captivating, something that makes people stop and think. Make use of images that capture attention also. A picture representing the church building would not be advisable. This just takes creativity and a bit of knowledge of the art and media of today's culture. Everything must be as welcoming, inviting, and attractive as possible. Once people are in and involved, this will soon cease to matter as much, as the importance of the new-found relationships will preside. Though, we must remember it will remain important to those not yet within. Here is a list providing examples of needs and potential ministry avenues. Let this be a starting point to begin creative thinking. Take time to discover prevalent needs in your particular community.
The Need: Many pregnant teens lack the support of families who will aid them in the raising of their children. This either causes them to turn to abortion, or they end up in dire straits emotionally and economically. This leaves an unstable home for the infant as well as the teen. How can a young woman parent her new child as she would want, when her own parents didn't properly parent her?
1. Begin a mentorship support program that places teen girls alongside mature women who will support them through the pregnancy, the birth, and the raising of the child.
2. Provide an alternative education program for girls who will likely drop out of school due to the care their infants will need.
The Need: Many youth are silently homeless, as they come from parents who have kicked them from the home, being unable to deal with their adolescent's behaviour. They end up hopping from friend's house to friend's house, lacking direction and security
Ministry: Establish a safe place for young people to go when they have nowhere else to turn. Provide them the safety, security, and love they are desperately lacking in their homes.
The Need: This would include eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, sleeping disorders, phobias etc.
Ministry: Begin a support group that provides a place for love and attention. As many of these disorders find their basic roots in a lack of security, this new-found sense of security, love, and commitment can be very helpful in their eventual recovery. It can be helpful in teaching them to form an identity and to feel less alone in what feels like incredible darkness.
The Gap Year
The Need: Many young people find themselves without direction as they exit high school. They are in need of somewhere to go as they search for the purpose of their lives. They aren't ready to go to university or college, but they aren't satisfied working a mediocre job.
Ministry: Develop a discipleship-type program that invites them to participate for a year before moving on to what's next. This program could be based a number of various starting points, e.g. outdoor education, music, art, sports, etc. The primary purpose would be in discipling and mentoring these young people, with these other activities being only a means to an end.
The Need: Many young people are looking to be a part of something beyond themselves, and yet don't know where to turn. Living in Mexico in a trailer park at an orphanage with many other young people opened my eyes to this realization. We were all searching to be a part of something larger and to be close to others who desired this same thing.
Ministry: Have a place, a large home for the young people to live, where they have a particular purpose in being there. For instance, teach them to help run a ministry, to do community service. Find out their interests. If, for example, they all love children, help them to develop an after-school program for children and perhaps a daycare program for preschoolers. If they are interested in combating bullying in schools, help them to develop support programs for middle-school kids.
The Need: Many kids suffer through tremendous and cruel attention from their peers. Girls particularly experience a extremely silent yet painful form of relational bullying.
Ministry: Create awareness in the community about this and offer groups particularly for middle-school-aged girls that combines both the "popular" girls and those being tormented. Facilitate a safe environment for all the girls, and teach better and more appropriate ways of interacting. I did this with a group I called "Encounters". When the girls feel safe, you will hear story after story of painful things they have done to one another.
Abuse And Neglect
The Need: Many children today come from abusive homes, some recognized and others not. These children and youth are in need of a particularly deliberate form of commitment and love: a re-parenting.
Ministry: Begin a ranch using horses and other animals in therapy. Youth should receive one-on-one attention from an adult who is willing to commit to loving them and not giving up on them when many in the past will have.
The Need: Many young people are simply looking for places to go to ask their questions, and to know each other and safe adults more deeply.
Ministry: Begin a coffee house, featuring an inviting area of comfortable couches and chairs, bistro tables, places for laptop hookup, etc. Be around to engage and discuss. Let it happen casually and naturally. Offer coffee-house-style music: guitar/folk. Encourage artwork and expression.
The Need: Many children and youth are being diagnosed with particular learning disorders. They are often left behind academically in school, even though they are capable of learning. It simply takes one-on-one attention in unique ways.
Ministry: Begin an after-school tutoring program for kids who would otherwise receive little attention academically. Allow this, like all the other ministries, to be a time where you get to know them. Don't just impart knowledge; engage them and show interest in who they are.