Fear. Risk-taking. Change. Becoming. All words in popular use right now. All words I use a lot in ministry. Words that, today, I want to put into the perspective of parenting.
I can't say my parents were the overprotective sort. As the parents of seven kids, they considered crowd control their main activity and lack of injury on any given day a bonus.
As the last of those seven, I basically flew under any radar that remained. I could have done just about anything. But I didn't. Like Binkley, I lived with a closet full of fears that didn't make a lot of sense if one examined them, but I never did.
Naturally, with that background, I followed the masses who tried to make certain no nasty beasties harmed my wonderfully special children. I covered their ears; I fought their battles; I slapped helmets on their heads and blinders on their eyes. It made sense. Then. (And bicycle helmets still make sense—let's be quite clear on that, my children.)
Now, I have children who want to skydive and take flying lessons and go on archaeological digs in the Middle East (and that's only one of them).
I have a theory. Maybe this regeneration of thrill seeking and risk taking is a result of a generation that has been trussed in bubble wrap and carefully structured from sunrise to bedtime since the day they were born. It's their rebellion against the can't-be-too-safe paranoia of their parents. I don't really blame them.
In fact, quite often I've joined them. It's been terrifyingly freeing. Honestly, you don't know what you're capable of until you're zipping down a mile-long cable over the Costa Rican canopy.
I wonder--maybe all the half-pipe skiers and shark swimmers are one big reaction to American paranoid parenting.
And now, we have studies like this one that surprise us by showing that, when we allow kids to be kids and use their common sense around risk, they actually do better. They are less bored, less violent with one another, and more engaged learners. Maybe, we were wrong to take away the slides and dodge balls.
Might I turn a corner and suggest this is also true spiritually?
With three-fourths of youth leaving our churches and not intending to return, we have to ask the reasons. And while they are complex, I wonder if one of them might not be that we focused too much on protecting said youth.
We spent too much of our time holding their little ears lest they hear a bad word and too little of our time opening their ears to the world around them and their place in it as God's person.
Young people are turning away because, according to Barna surveys, they find the church too judgmental and too ingrown. Might that be code for “You taught us to stay away from what was wrong but never told us how to make those things right? You kept us in our sanitized Sunday school rooms and homeschool classes but never accepted the messiness of honest life? You kept us safe but pointless?
(I am NOT blasting homeschooling here. Let us be clear on that. Only some of the reasons people give for doing it. I believe it's a great alternative for reasons other than protectionism.)
Our kids want to go down giant metal slides and feel the wind and yes, sometimes feel the concrete beneath. They want to get on the dodgeball court that is the real world and see if they have what it takes to play hard and long. They find our Holy Grail—safe—overrated. They are leaving the church that has told them that safe is their highest goal. I don't blame them. We lied.
I see two choices for the church and parents. We can equip them to take on their yearnings with Christ, or we can retreat and let them go at it alone. We can guide them toward the battles worth fighting and the thrills worth seeking, or we can let them jump off cliffs for their thrills, desperate for a feeling but devoid of purpose. We can smugly watch them “get it out of their systems,” or we can point them to the heart worth following, the one that took a giant risk to love us and live among us.
They will go at it. This is a generation that believes in blasting the door off the anxiety closet. If we want them back in the church, we've got to stop steering them away from the doors and instead put the light sabers in their hands.
I read another blog just today that put it well.
"If you want to push the next generation away from your church, refuse to release them to lead. They want to be trusted to fulfill the task that has been given to them. If you micro-manage them, treat them like a parent, and refuse to believe they are capable of being leaders because of their age and lack of experience, wisdom, etc., they will only be at your church for a short season. Millennials will not allow age to keep them from leading…and leading well. If you refuse to release them to lead, the next generation will quickly find another church or context where they can use their talents and gifts to their full capacity."
And honestly? If we want to be taken seriously in that, we've got to go through a couple doors ourselves.
And there's one of my terrors. Going up stairs
you can see through. Many, many stairs.
Afraid? Try ziplining somewhere. It will put you in the mood.
Setting our youth free to minister is a topic explored in Jill's book, Don't Forget to Pack the Kids: Short-term Missions for Your Whole Family.
This article previously appeared on her blog.