I’m going to be redundant. This will not be the last time, for what I offer herein has been the primary cry and focus of my first sixteen years in the priesthood, and I see little chance of that changing for the remainder of it. It is that important. Given the cultural milieu in which the Church in the United States finds itself, we have no choice but to circle back to this point over and over again: ministry to children and young adults must be at the very top of priorities for any congregation which intends to survive.
I recognize that sounds dire and perhaps even hyperbolic. Some might choke on my singling out ministries with certain sections of our membership as particularly imperative, as many of our beloved members do not have children, are single, or are way beyond the time in their lives when they dealt with kids and young adults. Please hear me correctly: I am not saying that children and youth matter more than anyone else. To the contrary, we all are equally valued by Jesus. Yet I chose the words with intention: at the very top of the most important things we will do at St. John’s is build our ministries with children, youth, and young adults, while finding ways for families to live into their faith with one another.
As I detailed last month, Christianity in America is hemorrhaging followers, most particularly when it comes to young people. The 19% of Americans who identify as “Formerly Christian” now outnumber all Mainline Protestants combined. While it would be nice to believe, as some have suggested, that many of these people are “spiritual but not religious” and thus just waiting for the right time in their lives to reconnect, the statistics do not bear that out. Amongst the young, 64% of millennials who claim “none” as their religious preference also identify as agnostic, atheist, or say faith is important “not at all” to their lives. Moreover, the rate at which these hardline stances against faith are solidifying in the young is increasing at alarming pace.
American churches are facing massive headwinds as we try to offer faith to the future. A significant part of the problem is the loudest voices amongst us sound the least like Jesus. When young people are asked why they have left the Church behind, they are clear it is because they do not hear Christians speaking love and embrace, but rejection, fear, bigotry, and crass political power games. This must end, and thankfully, this is a place where the Episcopal Church has much to offer this cultural moment – if we but will. Yet for too many Episcopal congregations, the issue is not tone, but neglect. Well, that and failing to give voice to a hearty enough telling of the Christian story that children and young adults want to enter into the exciting life of following Jesus.
This is a hard word. While tempted to apologize for telling it or soften it, I cannot, for it is the truth.
However, there is also great news to share: St. John’s is going to defy this cultural drag toward oblivion. We have already started to do so. Pay attention, if you have not already, to the new directions we are taking within our children’s ministries and the bold, new endeavors our gifted leaders are introducing in these areas. Much, much more is coming this fall. We will offer rich, faithful, fun and inviting children’s programing that I believe will quickly be regarded as one of the great strengths of our parish. We are on the threshold of an exciting new beginning for children and family ministries at St. John’s.
So too, there is broad consensus that we must ensure that our youth ministry programs are solid and equally situated to meet the call of our day. There is much work to do here, and yet there are glimpses of possibility. For instance, I write this as our youth and adult leaders are at Grace House in Virginia’s coal country, showing God’s love to an impoverished family in great need. Their work serves as a clear snapshot of promise, as our parish continues to build offerings for our young adults that will meet the challenges of our time.
You have a role to play. This is an “all hands on deck” moment for St. John’s. In the months ahead, you will hear of many new opportunities to participate in children and youth ministries in myriad ways. We need considerable numbers of new volunteers to lovingly work with these disciples in the making. Furthermore, we ask all of our members to carry the message to your children, grandchildren, family and friends that today is a new day for the children of St. John’s. If you know people who have drifted away, grab them up and bring them back. We need all of our people to step forward and be willing to help.
It has often been said Christianity is but one generation away from extinction. Despite what I have said above, this is untrue. The Body of Christ will survive because Jesus is Lord. However, particular congregations within the Body will not, and if they fail to take the commission of our Lord seriously, this should not be a surprise.
St. John’s will meet this moment of challenge. We will prioritize these ministries. We will work to have the best leadership possible overseeing them. We will invite all of our members to consider their role in giving our church a Christ-shaped future.
St. John’s future is now.
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector