For a long time, I just couldn’t believe it. I was 20 years old, an aspiring English major with few goals and fewer skills, living in my parent’s basement and unemployed, recovering from a bicep tear. In other words, my market value was at an all-time low.
He was a spiritual leader in the church and a former missionary. A husband, father of two, and head of a multi-million dollar organization, he seemed to know everyone, and everyone wanted to be around him.
So when he called me, I didn’t even know why.
Our families had previously visited together, watching The Lord of the Rings, or playing Dutch Blitz. He and I had talked, but never seriously. He was adult from a very different stage of life; I was barely out of my teens.
“Let’s go for a walk across that new bridge in Golden Ears,” he said. “I want to get to know you.”
I didn’t know it then, but that phone call was the start of one of the most important friendships of my life. As we have talked, prayed, snowshoed, and even travelled together, I have shared my ambitions and my vulnerabilities, and I’ve discovered the kind of leader I want to be. In return, he has helped me see Jesus’ work in my life, and even shared some of his own struggles and triumphs.
In short, he became my mentor.
We have the answers
Perhaps because of my experience, I find the most convicting part of Hemorrhaging Faith to be the call for Christian mentorship of church youth. For me, the key question of the report is not how to engage young adults during the transitional years, or how (as co-author Rachael Harder put it) to produce “a life-giving way of doing church.” I think we largely know the answers to those questions, as they’ve been asked within the church for centuries. What I want to know is why are we not implementing the answers?
Report author James Penner told me, “The closest thing to a silver bullet we have” – capable of destroying the problem – is intergenerational connections within the church. In a parallel study done by Fuller Theological Seminary (“Sticky Faith”), the authors drew a similar correlation: participation in all-congregational worship is strongly linked to young adults “developing a mature faith” that keeps them participating in church.
Why is all-congregational worship so important? I doubt it’s something magical about the preaching or music in that specific context. As far as I could tell from Penner’s work, it’s that youth who understand “church” to be more than specialized programs populated exclusively by their peers are youth who develop greater connection and loyalty to the community.
The more we try to cater to youth with specific programs and activities that isolate them from the larger church, it seems, the more we lose the individuals we’re trying to nurture. This was my experience growing up, and it requires a paradigm shift to fix.
Penner argues that the “hemorrhage” occurs primarily in two key transition zones: those between child and adolescent, and between adolescent and adult.
Why are these points, rather than any others, the times of greatest attrition for churched youth? From my experience, the answer is that these transitions stress the only truly meaningful bonds to the church that many youth have: those with their peers and youth pastor/leaders.
A community of mentors and students
My churches have generally been good at creating lateral bonds between groups of youth engaged in the same level of programming. These youth move through the ranks together, and they experience the transition zones at roughly the same times. The bonds they form are important, yet they only pull youth forward if the peer group that created them still exists. What Penner and the rest of us are searching for is something to guide youth into the next stage of life, to connect them to a church community that transcends their own age, interests, and friendship group.
In my case, it was the appearance of an adult mentor who invited me into the church and helped me “stick.” He created what’s called a vertical bond, a connection between different generations, professions, social circles, and levels of church leadership. Vertical bonds weave with horizontal bonds to form the fabric of faith communities, yet they do more than simply link the (crudely named) leaders and followers within a church.
My mentor tells me that every person should have both a mentor to learn from and be encouraged by and a student to teach and be an encouragement to. Otherwise we as mentors begin to assume that we’re almost infallible, and we as students have trouble transitioning into leadership. Adopting both roles creates a community that’s vibrant and dynamic, instead of one that’s segregated hierarchically into static groups.
My mentor took me from spectator to participant within the church, and kept me from “hemorrhaging” into non-attendance. He taught me how church is crucially important, and how integral it was that I pass that message along to those who looked to me for leadership.
In other words, he taught me to stick.
—Paul Esau is a communications intern with CCMBC and the MB Herald.
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Updated Feb. 10, 2014: links added.