One of the great spiritual formation challenges the church in Canada continues to engage is the effective discipleship of children. What does it take to carefully lead each child who initially engages the Christian faith? What can we do to take them successfully through their journey to young adulthood with a maturing, sustainable life in Christ?
A major survey was conducted earlier this decade, exploring the reasons why Canadian young adults are staying, leaving or returning to the Christian faith. In his executive summary of Hemorrhaging Faith, Rick Hiemstra, Director of Research at The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, identified the following trends:
- One in three Canadian young adults who attended church weekly as a child still do so today.
- One in two Canadian young adults continue to identify with the Christian tradition they were raised in.
- Three out of five young adults who stop attending church will also drop their affiliation with any Christian tradition.
The study shows that critical to a student having a vibrant, sustainable faith are ongoing, personal experiences of God and consistent, positive relationships within the Christian community.
My faith journey from age 12 to 20 was defined by personal experiences with God and relationships within the Christian community that have shaped me for life. At the core of these experiences and relationships was a vital local church.
Just after I turned 13, my parents decided to attend a recently planted church in our area of Edmonton. To them, to attend meant to be involved up to your eyeballs. They came alongside of the pastor, his wife and the church leadership in any way that was needed. When help was required for building phases 1, 2 and 3 of the church, we were there. I do mean “we,” as I proved to be very useful as a “grunt worker,” picking up after all the amateur carpenters and digging trenches where needed. Putting on the many fellowship events were always opportunities for Mom and others to jump in and do what they did best—love people through their stomachs! Running the kids’ programs, driving families to and from church, ushering, serving as treasurer, having people come to the house for a meal and some fellowship—those activities are only a start in explaining how our family was involved. Honestly, the list goes on and on.
And you know what? Contrary to what’s often said in revisionist history, it didn’t kill us! The reality is that the activities and relationships of this vital local church were the platform for my family and me to experience growth in our lives in Jesus. We had powerful moments in the Spirit and meaningful connections that shaped our faith and provided a strong sense of belonging. Our church pointed me towards growing inwardly in heart and mind, even as it propelled me outwardly on mission among my school and work friends. It also generated a heart for the bigger world, including “the North,” Quebec and Africa.
As a family we certainly were not perfect. We put the “fun” in dysfunctional. But as a teenage boy—the oldest child in a family of seven—I learned what commitment, integrity, generosity and hospitality lived out looked like. Faith was not simply about personal fulfilment; it was about experiencing the living, active presence of God and being on a mission to share His truth and life alongside those He had put in my life.
Parents, you do set an example to children and youth about what matters in life. Please demonstrate to them that they are called to a greater mission than just their own self-fulfilment. Illustrate the joy that there is when you participate as a family in a church that is focused on God’s mission.
As the Hemorrhaging Faith study points out, positive relationships within the Christian community shaped my faith. My pastors, Al and Bev Forsythe, opened their home and their lives to me as a teenager. Their example of “all in,” sacrificial leadership has stuck with me for life. They demonstrated that you could be human and be used by Jesus to build the church. And build the church they did—both figuratively and literally. I have a vivid memory of Bev stitching up a cut that Al had suffered from a rusty nail so that he could immediately get back out there and lead the work crew at the church.
Pastors and church leaders, you do set an example to those who are one or two generations younger than you. Take the time to include them in your life and ministry. Let them see what it means to pursue God’s call in our lives with all the bumps, joys, humanity and divine blessing that is entailed.
My junior and senior high years were all over the map. As a moody teen prone to outbursts of temper, I wrestled with puberty and how to relate to young women my age who seemed twice as tall and twice as smart. I would feel like a spiritual giant one moment, heavily involved in the church youth group, and leading the high school Christian club. Then in the next moment, my inconsistencies of character would become all too apparent and I’d lament the gap between who I was and who I wanted to be. I spent many Sunday nights at the altar, confessing my brokenness to God and making sure I was saved for another week!
In all of this were peers, especially older ones—university and Bible college students, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and a circle of friends. They stuck with an inconsistent, red-headed guy, who underneath it all just wanted to be like Jesus. To our faithful God who kept transforming me from the inside out, and to a circle of people who lovingly influenced me and whose names are too many to mention, I express my deep love and appreciation. From my childhood until the time that I became a young man, you imparted into my life a living faith. I am eternally grateful.
Thank you, Lord! You are the One who is faithful to each generation. You are there to help children become young women and men of maturing faith. Thank You for the people You bring into a young person’s life who demonstrate to them, every day, living faith and the unconditional love of Jesus. We pray for an ever-increasing number of disciple-making communities across Canada where students will find mentors and friends for their faith journey. For Your glory, Amen.
1. Hemorrhaging Faith. “Are Young People Leaving Your Church? A new Canadian report hears from youth and suggests ways to reverse the trend.” Accessed October 17, 2019. www.hemorrhagingfaith.com.