Never let go…. keeping the porch light on.

The exodus of young people from our congregations is heartbreaking, especially if it is someone from our family or someone with whom we have worked closely.  Is this just an inevitable phenomenon in 2014 or is there something we can do?  Can we plug the leaks or is the flow too great?
(Graeme Thompson of PCI shares some of the results of his Doctoral research)

Becca is like so many other 20-somethings in Northern Ireland.  She grew up in a church-going family, went to a Presbyterian Church in small village where she was involved in everything and knew everybody.  She became a Christian in her early teens and never consciously walked away from church or God but now she lives outside of Ireland with her partner, living a decent life, but with no active faith or church connection.  Becca does not appear bitter but it is clear that she cannot understand why she was allowed to leave church without anyone ever following up with her.  During my research into young people leaving church, she told me “no one ever came and said you know ‘what happened, what happened to Becca?’ or anything like that…nobody’s made any contact with me and as far as I know nobody has made any contact with my brother or sister, to see how we’re doing”. 

When young people drift from the church, or leave more abruptly, there can be a range of responses and feelings.  The young person can feel hurt that, whatever the reason they left, if no one seems to have noticed or to care.  The parents can experience the heartbreak of seeing their young adult child apparently turn their back on the church and Jesus.  Some in the church can be guilty of complacency in that they may assume “sure she will come back after uni / when she gets married / has a baby….”  Later on, the one who has left may feel guilt and shame because of life choices they have made, assuming they will never again be welcome at that church, no matter how much they want to go back.  Worst of all perhaps, there may be apathy from some who do not notice, do not care or even feel “we’re better off without the likes of them, really.”  Even if that kind of attitude is from a small minority, the majority can be far too silent, which is perhaps more damaging.

We need to be careful that we make no assumptions when someone stops attending, least of all thinking that they are gone forever.  Especially if they once professed and demonstrated Christian belief, we should not assume that non-attendance necessarily equates to non-belief. There must be distinction between those who never attended and those who have ceased, and between those who never believed and those who have lost or changed their beliefs.  Let us never make someone like Becca into a statistic or, worse still, demonize them so that our consciences will more easily allow us to put them in a box marked “gone for good”.

It could be argued that it is better to stop them from leaving in the first place.  Is there an inevitability in this 21st Century that we will have increasing numbers of “prodigal sons and daughters” and we just have to accept it, or can we make changes to keep them in church?  We need to be careful and realistic about what we do.  Our churches can feel pressure, not least from understandably concerned parents, to provide activities designed to “hang on” to their teenagers.  Even with young people for whom some aspect of church is important – their youth group or whatever we provide to engage them – do not think for a minute that we will keep them long term simply by “keeping them happy”.   We do need change, to engage young people and to intentionally build faith in them, but let us be clear that change must ultimately be to allow them to be part of the whole church family; otherwise we at best will have to keep coming up with new inventive programmes to keep them “in their small corner”.  That will inevitably produce exhausted leaders, a segregated church and young people who are unlikely to be growing disciples of Jesus – it can be a recipe for disaster!

In the Board of Youth and Children’s Ministry’s Close to Home conference last April, Rev David Thompson spoke about the need to “keep the porch light on” for those young people who have wandered from our churches.  He urged delegates to adopt a “posture of grace” towards those who have stopped attending and provide pathways for them to complete the journey home.  Do we have an attitude like the father in Jesus’ story of the Lost Son?  Do we look out for them and be prepared to run down the road to welcome them back?

In our churches we must develop a much more proactive approach to those who have stopped attending and make contact, if not to persuade them to return, at least to give them a message that they still matter and the door is still open for their return. Whatever complex combination of factors which has lead an individual to leave church, whether or not they give up on their faith, it is important that churches make reasonable efforts to demonstrate that their spiritual home is still accessible and not so far away. Some may be departed and gone for good, but others who have just drifted may be easier to reconnect than some might believe.

The truth is that we can assume this is someone else’s responsibility, when in reality it is one we all share to connect with young people and help them feel that they are an invaluable part of a family of faith.  We can also support parents while their children are in church or after they leave.  My research showed that those who belonged to a home where either parent lived out an open faith with integrity were significantly more likely to have a strong faith themselves and be connected to church.  Moreover, those who had a strong faith were 4 times more likely as others to say that there as an adult in their church who had been very influential on their faith development.  So perhaps parents, rather than expecting youth leaders to make things work, can look at what they can do and perhaps we can all do something together, even if that means changing things we hold dear.  The evidence from surveys and interviews is consistent with Nicky’s statement that ‘I just felt that the church lets people walk away too easily’.

In my research I also met Nicky who, similar to Becca, expressed a desire to know she had been missed; ‘the church weren’t interested in where I’d gone… it would have been nice to hear, ‘you are still welcome here…’. Yet, with even one contact, some of these young people might just come back.  Becca said that with the right invitation she would ‘definitely be along to drink my cup of tea! Although my faith isn’t there now…I don’t regret my upbringing and would want my children raised in the same way’.

We may be encouraged by the experience of David who received a pastoral visit when in hospital, after which he felt able to return to church following a period of absence.  He explained, “It’s a big enough step to even attend that after a long time but I thought, ‘well, they were nice enough to invite me so I can’t turn around and say no so I’ve made the time and went out enjoyed talking with them.’”  While’s David’s story may give us some hope, let us not fall into the trap of assuming it is the job of the minister or anyone else to look out for our young people, before or after they drift away.  There is something all of us can do.

Becca’s plea was simple: who will do that for her sister?  “My sister is just 19 now and she’s now living on her own and you know someone to call in and have a chat and make sure they are ok – reassure them that the church is still there for them. Because my sister is living in the village now and so she could obviously come.”  Is there anyone like Becca’s sister in your congregation?  What can you do to reach out to her – or better still, ensure she never leaves in the first place?  It is not someone else’s responsibility; it is yours and mine.