2 in 10 students under (the age of) 30 see church attendance as a priority. While 49% believe the church is "very" or "somewhat" important, 51% see it as irrelevant. However, students need the support of the local church now more than ever. Here are a few reasons why:
Students Need Confidence in their Identity. It has been said that memory jolts awake with trauma's electricity. My primary Sunday school memory from grade school involves skin-tight Wranglers, a bowl-cut hairstyle, and hightop Nikes. I was an awkward kid. But, each week I attended Sunday school I was greeted by an 80 year-old lady with crooked fingers. She explained the world to me from the Bible. It changed my life, and helped me see my place in a changing world. Out of the many things that students wrestle with, identity is often the most pervasive. Membership in the local church gives students a community to grapple with identity. In a world of constant communication, students rarely converse. Conversation is a primary way we hammer-out ideas, build concepts of reality, and have thoughts tested. Church membership pulls students into a body of people who are conversing about the world, and this simple element, that many adults take for granted, is a ravenous hunger within students who seek a framework for defining who they are and their place in the world.
Students Need Outlets to Build Giftings. Students growing up in a post-agrarian culture lack the natural opportunity to build a work ethic and a develop sense of pride in work. All students have gifts, but few get the opportunity to exercise them. My Lutheran church didn't allow drums in worship, but by pastor was an incredible drummer. Connecting with him privately, I built a base of skills that saw me join a peer-ministry music group, which saw allowed me to share my faith on a weekly basis to hoards of students, ultimately taking me across the ocean to India for a month-long, life-changing experience. I then went on to major in Intercultural Ministries in college. These experiences, supported by my membership in the local church, led to my passion for training students using short-term mission trips to help students see the need for Biblical explanation. Whether we talk about society's emergence from the "Dark Ages", or the abolition of slavery, the church has been a powerful force driven by young people practicing their faith. The church is a place for young people to step in and develop skills in customer service (greeting), maintenance (custodial work), leadership (small group facilitating), computer science (supporting the local network of a church), public relations (recording services and posting pictures on social media), etc. The church is a training ground for future leaders, and young people need opportunities to develop giftings and create a disciplined work ethic.
Church Membership is Concrete. When students join a church they demonstrate that they are part of Christ's expansive and eternal church (1 Cor. 12:27). Many students struggle with the theoretical idea of God's body; it joins the nebulous realm of purity before marriage and New England's deflated footballs. Church membership reveals a concrete expression of the body of Christ in action. Seeing others at work in ministry, concerned about the outreach and structure of the church, helps students to see that the Gospel is moving with a tangible force that is supported by God's people surrounded in prayer.
Church Membership Encourages Believers. One Sunday I arrived late to worship with all my college friends. Water was dripping on my collared plaid shirt from my hair that I whipped around looking for an open seat. Finally, one of my friends darted down the center aisle to the front row. People don't sit in the front row at Lutheran churches. As I sheepishly followed him and slid to my seat I had to crank my neck to view the pastor behind his perch in the pulpit. From this new vantage point I took note that I wasn't distracted by Herb, who nodded-off every Sunday during offertory; or Melonie's kids, who always made faces at me during worship. I have a funny face. Instead, I was focused. But, more importantly, it took me twenty-five extra minutes to get out of church. I found myself wrapped in conversation with my former confirmation teacher. I sat down to tell my high school basketball coach about my history class in college and how his class gave me an easy A, post high school. From then on, our group of college guys sat in the front row every Sunday. We invited friends and organized "church dates" with beautiful girls. The experience was incredible, and saw a number of our college friends attend church regularly. One of our front-row friends is going to Africa soon with her husband, whom she upgraded to after our group of friends first brought her to the front row.
Church Membership is Outward-focused. A USA Today poll found the Millennial generation (those born between 1982 and 2002) to be the most civic-minded and culturally-concerned generation. Many young people are taught that faith is a personal decision, accompanied by personal habits. Daily devotions, TAG (time alone with God), personal prayer, and other spiritual disciplines/expectations are heaped on students, where they often fail. In my sophomore year of high school, three friends and I set out to read the entire Bible in a year. We each took $100 out of our bank accounts, I over-drafted mine by $3, and placed all the cash in a safe with the understanding that if we completed the reading in the next year we would get our money back. If we failed, we would contribute it to the pot. When December 30th rolled around my friend Sam didn't show-up to the hockey rink. He was camped out in the book of Isaiah. He finished reading the Bible three hours before the ball dropped the next evening, and took my money. I failed. However, weekly attendance at Church developed an appreciation for missions and outreach. I saw that, despite my personal failings in my lofty goals of spiritual disciplines, Church membership offered a place of growth that was communal and beautiful. It didn't depend on me, but it needed me. I shook the hands of spiritual champions whose bodies were failing, and worked in the nursery where I met new families coming to church. These inter-generational contacts showed me that faith is more than spiritual disciplines, it is the power of the Gospel that works salvation in the hearts of those who hear it. I heard the Gospel most powerfully in church, and the membership in my church helped me see faith as an outward expression of an inner reconciling. Hillcrest staff member Dawn Synstelien told me her perspective of inter-generational contact in church. "In our youth-glorifying, age-segregating society, it is a much-needed adhesive component between generations to a Gospel that is timeless."
For more reading on this topic, please pick-up Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.