An enormous, stuffed-to-the-max backpack drops to the floor with a “thunk” as a sixth-grade boy shuffles into the Youth Center after a long day at school. He shrugs his shoulders, shaking off his jacket, which lies on the floor beside his backpack causing me to silently chant one of my new mantras to myself, “I am not the mom, I am the Youth Minister. I am not the mom.”
He breathes a giant, adult-sized sigh before sitting down across from me at the table in the center of the room where I’m setting up the slideshow for Crossover, our Wednesday night youth group meeting. The room is quiet and still; he and one other student are the first to arrive, a good 25 minutes early. We have some time before the evening gets off the ground, soon to be filled with prayer, music, laughter, and
“How are you? How was school? Why in the world is that backpack so big? What burden is making you sigh so deeply?” I want to ask, but I hold back. He looks at me wearily and says, “I’m tired. What’s for dinner? Can I play the Switch?” (Sometimes I really do feel like the mom.)
The Switch (a game console) lives in a hiding place—not to be used on Sundays during formation—so I give him permission to get it out and start setting it up, and while he does, we chat. Or, more accurately, he chats. Turns out his backpack is almost as heavy as he is and he carries it—proudly—all day, every day. I very briefly worry for his poor back. He looks awfully small with that thing on. He tells me he didn’t sleep well the night before and he had a test that day that he thinks he failed. He confides in me that other kids make fun of him because he struggles with reading and that “no one laughs at me at youth.” I am struck by a sense that he knows he belongs here, with us, and I am grateful. He didn’t seem to feel that way at the beginning of the year.
According to Lifeway Research, approximately 70% of young people leave the church after having been raised in it. I doubt any one of us is particularly surprised by that figure, though I wonder if we realize how many of our assumptions about why they leave are likely wrong, or at least not entirely accurate. Among the many beliefs we tend to have about young people leaving the church—beliefs that are in fact much more nuanced than they might seem—there are two that stick out to me that I would like us to reconsider:
We think: Kids lose their faith after high school, perhaps as they begin to resist their parents’ faith as part of a developmental, maturing process.
We might consider: Kids who leave usually have more profound reasons for leaving than simply as part of growing up, and they often become prodigals, nomads, and exiles, rather than losing their faith entirely.
We think: College pushes people to drop out of church because of newfound independence, lifestyle choices that might not fit with church attendance, or for a host of other reasons.
We might consider: The church doesn’t always do a good job of preparing young people for life after youth group, for the challenges of adulthood and for decisions about call and faith in regard to career and relationships.
What I would like us to reflect on though is that we have been given an amazing opportunity and a great gift, especially here at Transfiguration, where we count on a beautiful, well-appointed Youth Center full of highly qualified Sunday school teachers, and a phenomenal children’s ministry providing our students with a solid biblical foundation before they ever arrive at that Youth Center. We also have clergy and parishioners who actively seek and serve Christ in all persons, intentionally including our children and youth in that mission. As I see it, the gift we have been given is that we are called to equip our young people with the tools they need when they inevitably come to a crossroads in life, as we all do at some point. And not just tools like understanding Scripture, or carrying on our traditions, but just as importantly, the knowledge that they are part of the Body, surrounded by people who will, with God’s help, “strengthen them when they stand, comfort them when discouraged
or sorrowful, lift them up when they fall” (The Book of Common Prayer,
p. 830). Because they are already at that crossroads, carrying heavy burdens, wondering if the church is here for them.
In the Spring we will, God willing, present for confirmation 11 youths, at which time we will agree, as a congregation, to “support these persons in their life in Christ.”
Before then, in our youth ministries program and across the parish, I challenge us to take that vow seriously, and in preparation ask ourselves:
What are we (as a church and as individuals) doing to equip our youth for the time when/if they become prodigals, nomads, or exiles, to prepare them for life after youth group?
And then, of course, to invest in making sure we are doing those things. Certainly, the question requires us to take stock of what spiritual resources one needs for living in this world as faithful Christians. So perhaps taking time to consider the tools you yourself have required over the years is a good place to start.
My own story is one of a prodigal. I left the church at 16 and, like a bungee jumper, bounced back periodically for major life events, to baptize our babies, or for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t until much later, when the realities of adulthood had long since set in, that I realized I had wandered in the desert long enough and I wanted to come home. I still wonder though, what if I’d had a better spiritual foundation—a more solid Sunday school program, a vibrant youth group, adults besides my family who invested in my faith? What if I had been reminded of the church’s vow to strengthen me, comfort me, and lift me up?
So, I ask you, what is your story? Have you ever been in exile or wandered like a nomad? Could that story help prepare our young people for their own journey? I encourage you to share that story when you can, by all means, but I also encourage you to give yourself fully to the church in ways that will develop those tools which would have helped others on their own journeys. I encourage you to tell it, but I also encourage you to give fully of yourself to the Church in ways that will strengthen, comfort and uplift others the way you were or would have liked to have been supported, whether that is by serving as a youth or children’s Sunday school teacher, helping fund youth pilgrimages, or any number of other ways to use gifts God has given you. Our youth truly need you to and our beloved church will thrive for it.
The first one to the door at the end of Crossover that evening, my 6th grade friend turned to look back at me, a giant lopsided smile plastered on his face. Waving goodbye, he bounced out into the night, headed home where I presume he’ll drop his jacket and backpack on the floor, plop down on the couch proclaiming his exhaustion, and ask for a snack, hopefully with a peace-infused smile rather than a heavy-laden sigh.
About the Author
Dana Jean is the Director of Youth Ministries at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration. After raising three children, Dana decided she hadn’t gotten enough of that teen energy and joined Transfiguration as Director of Youth Ministries in 2019. Prior to that, she was the Director of Outreach Ministries at St. Andrew’s in McKinney for five years. Among the highlights of Dana’s ministry are her leadership of the BlessMobile, a mobile kitchen feeding people experiencing food insecurity, and her role as a delegate for Presiding Bishop Michael Curry at the United Nations commission on the Status of Women. With a masters degree in public management from Carnegie Mellon University, Dana’s professional background is in education and nonprofit management. Her husband, Jacques, CEO of TechFides, is from Haiti where the two have opened three libraries with over 43,000 books. They live in McKinney with two obnoxious poodles who now rule the empty nest. Click here to contact Dana.