Wandering from worship: What churches are doing to hold on to the next generation

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 6:00 p.m. MDT

Gnuse disconnected from his childhood church, only to reconnect with one that offered him more depth and greater understanding. In fact, nearly 23 percent of youth surveyed by the Barna Group said that "the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough."

In some churches, Bible study has been replaced by more exciting options like rock bands, pop-culture discussions and lavish youth trips and activities.

"But what (churches) discovered is when the kids got out of high school, all they learned how to do was play games and have a good time," said Gary Gilley, Gnuse's pastor at Southern View Chapel. "We don't think we're called to entertain the children. Although we have fun activities, we train them to walk with Christ and be involved with God's church."

And for 36 years, Gilley has been teaching the Bible without any watering down or spicing up.

"We're not just talking about fluff," he says. "We're teaching the word of God, and God has something to say that's pertinent to (their) life."

And He can say it in a variety of ways.

Derrick Wilcox, youth minister at Union Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., allows his students to use Bible apps on their iPads or smart phones, and they can even message him gospel questions during services.

"We, as leaders, have to think outside the box," he says. "It's not watering down the message, but adjusting the method of how we bring that message."

Empowering parents

But that message shouldn't just come from church, says Kara Powell, executive director of Fuller Youth Institute and author of the book, "Sticky Faith."

"Too many parents have become 'dry cleaner parents,'" she says. "They drop (their kids) off Sunday at 9 a.m. dirty and want to pick them up 75 minutes later all clean, with the youth pastor (as the one) who has done all the cleaning."

Instead, pastors, adult church members and parents must all work together — with the parents in the lead — to teach and model faith to the next generation.

Now, when Powell's 5-, 9- and 11-year-old kids see her reading the Bible or praying, she'll tell them what she's praying for, or what she's learning. And at the dinner table, she'll ask her husband, "How did you see God at work today?"

"So every night we're introducing God into our conversation with our kids," she said.

Despite such efforts, some teens will still wander. That doesn't mean parents should give up or consider themselves failures.

"Be patient," advises Erica Brown, author and scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. "We can give a spiritual inheritance to our children but we can't forget that they also have to receive it on their own terms. They are not us. The best we can do is model sincere faith and upright morals and wait and see without judgment."

It's a fear of judgment that forces some teens into a "double life," where they hide immoral or illegal behavior from parents and religious leaders because they don't feel safe confessing, says Jeff Schadt, a non-denominational Christian minister in Durango, Colo.

To help prevent such deception, Schadt encourages parents to remember they're raising adults, not children.

When parents see their children as the leaders of tomorrow rather than the feisty teens of today, they stop imposing their own expectations and instead help their teen identify their own long-term goals, then offer support.

"If parents ... move from being a parent to being a shepherd, a coach, a mentor with our pre-teens and teens, and focus on our influence, our voice, our relationships," Schadt says, "then we can have far more influence than the world."

Devotion in the dorms

As Judy Cozzens walks to the post office in Edina, Minn., carrying 1,800 personalized letters, she prays they'll help the Catholic high school students who receive them.

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