There are few things more jarring and daunting than being dropped into a foreign culture, having to learn a new language, and navigating your way around. The overwhelming strangeness of absolutely everything leaves one feeling unequipped or unprepared for each new day. This is where the church in America finds itself today. Yet we did not move to a distant country, our country and culture became foreign to us.
Years ago, my wife and I packed up our young family and left America to serve the Lord 4000 miles from the Chicago suburb we had been serving in. I was 10 years into full-time student ministry as we embarked on this life-changing venture. We moved to Cheshire, England. Though we knew it would be something of a culture change, we expected a common language and cultural similarities. We were naïve, underestimated the differences and found the first several months overwhelming. Fortunately, our priest was married to an American and they translated life for us.
The shift in culture that America has experienced has been so sudden and strange that it has left many youth and children’s ministry leaders scratching their heads. School teachers are experiencing much of the same. Nowhere is this shift more evident than in the area of sexual orientation and gender identity. To grasp the dramatic shift, consider the data of a 2021 study of over 12,000 US adults. The percentage of those who self-identify as LGBTQ has doubled with each generation. Specifically that is 2.6% of Baby Boomers, 4.2% of Gen X, 10.5% of Millenials, and 20.8% of Gen Z.
For schoolteachers (my wife among them) there is a reality that most preteens and teens are experiencing significant confusion around their identity. Every day they have students coming into class announcing a change in how they identify as they try to navigate their world. All this is being driven by our culture and it’s right here in South Carolina.
For youth ministers, there is a clear sense that if they teach anything counter to the cultural narrative, some students will drop out of youth group. Approaching cultural issues is like walking on eggshells. Speak with the wrong tone or words, and students’ eyes glaze over. By the way, this is also the experience of many who are working with college students.
A rapidly shifting cultural landscape is not only challenging for those of us in church leadership, but also overwhelming to kids growing up in the midst of it. We are seeing epidemic levels of anxiety and depression among children and teens in America. The suicide rate has risen drastically. Studies are showing us that despite being the most connected generation, teens today are also the loneliest.
Assuming that the rate of cultural change is unlikely to slow, how do we respond as God’s people? Let’s rule out the instinct to withdraw or hide because we are not likely to become like the Amish and isolate ourselves from the world around us. We need a strategy centered around the gospel, loving others, being gracious, and remaining true to our faith. We need a reorientation that will especially benefit younger generations. Three interconnected points of focus come to mind immediately based on what research is teaching us.
First, we need a renewed understanding of family and its place in ministry. We need our churches to be like big families and our families to be like little churches. The church and family need to be places of worship, discipleship, and serving others. They need to be the structures where we experience relational care, God’s love, forgiveness, and truth. It is God’s family in which kids need to find their identity and have that affirmed.
Second, we need a culture of hospitality centered in family. Keep in mind the understanding of family just mentioned. We have to see the family as a unit where ministry takes place that not only raises up the next generation but blesses the world we are immersed in. When exiled to Babylon, God’s people were instructed to be a blessing to the place that God had put them. Our families need to be a blessing in their communities. Our churches, as God’s bigger family, need to be a blessing to its community. As our kids grow up they need to be a part of how we love others and demonstrate God’s love to others.
Third, we need to be very intentional about the evangelism and discipleship of students (children, teens, and college-age) both in the church and in our communities. Everyone needs good news! We all need hope. The gospel is good news that gives us hope and transforms lives. It is no longer enough to provide Sunday School, VBS, and youth groups for our students and expect transformed lives in this rapidly changing culture. The world has changed too much for the church’s strategy for raising up kids to remain the same.
If you would like to learn more about these ideas visit engagingeverygeneration.com or contact me via diocesan house. I’d love to meet with anyone interested in engaging younger generations. I am also available to speak or preach in your church or group.
by David Wright, Diocesan Coordinator for Student Ministries