Recently, I made a presentation to parents in our youth ministry, entitled, “Why Kids Abandon the Church.” Two years earlier, when I made a similar presentation, called “Grace-Driven to Postmodern Teens,” the class drew five people. Not surprisingly, this terrifying title attracted a packed room of sixty parents.
In the presentation, I explained our strategy, which has been eight years in the making, to maximize the chances that students will stick with Jesus and the church after high school. Terms, such as “theological depth,” “grace-driven,” “devotional training,” and “family discipleship” flew around the room. I routinely dropped names like Kenda Creasy Dean and Christian Jones.
While I qualified the talk with the premise that we have so little control over our children’s spiritual future- only God yields fruit- the presentation did have a “business plan” feel to it. While I stand by our strategy and commend other youth ministries to focus intentionally on fostering life-long disciples of Christ, a conversation afterwards with a young adult in the audience exposed my blind spot.
He said simply, “The thing you are missing is that after they leave home kids have to claim their faith on their own; parents cannot force that to happen.” This young man grew up in a nurturing Christian home and solid church. To my knowledge, he did not consistently seek out church or campus ministry in college. Here as a young adult he is thoughtfully considering the depth in which he may or may not follow Christ. God has brought a woman into his life, and this relationship has stimulated a fresh consideration of faith. His honesty helped me contemplate discipleship of young people with a fresher balance and with the following concepts in mind.
As much as say that God’s total sovereignty and goodness is the only hope for our children, in my flesh I believe that I have control. I think if I deliver the right messages, relate in the best manner, and orchestrate certain experiences, I can effectuate real faith in my students and in my own children. The lurking fear I have, that kids for whom I care so deeply will reject Christ and the church, only exacerbates my desire to cling to my devices.
When I survey the turning points that led to my decision to walk with Christ in college and young adulthood, all of them came places that no person, except God, could control. At the National Young Leaders Conference during my sophomore year of high school, an agnostic from Maine asked me why I was a Christian. I had no answer other than subjective experiences and the beliefs of my parents. This encounter caused me to question the veracity of Christianity. Days later, the Jehovah’s Witnesses (of all people) dropped by our house and gave us an apologetics tract. I only read the section on proofs of the resurrection and fulfillment of prophecy. This tract stimulated a season of further study, which confirmed for me that, in fact, Jesus Christ is the Risen Lord.
My parents and church had built solid foundations, but only in the moments ordained by the Holy Spirit in the mundane circumstances of life did I convert from a cultural Christian to a committed follower of Jesus. It all occurred apart from the control or strategy of any person but God.
Like most Christian parents and youth pastors, I have a strong desire to see my kids walk with Jesus in college. Ideally, in their first week in college they will attend a Cru or Navigators or an RUF meeting. On their first Sunday, they will start searching for a church that teaches exegetically and preaches the Gospel of grace. Their first date will be with a solid Christian classmate. At their first party, they will say no to the keg-stand and will return home that night to talk about the balance of law and grace, as they sit around their dorm room with their new found Christian friends. Oh, the fantasies of Christian parents.
But here is reality. God does not adhere to our dreams. God has timelines that conform to his desire to be exalted in the maximum manner in the optimal season. Our children and students may find God after they receive their third DUI or while working on their PhD dissertation in evolutionary biology or at the Democratic National Convention. We must depend on the grace of God for the patience and faith to align with His timing.
An article, like this, which decries our impotence in ultimately determining the spiritual welfare of our children, often leads to fatalistic despair. This absolutely should not be the case. If anything, seeing that only God can produce fruit should drive us to the foot of the Cross and to a life of fervent prayer.
For several years, I have journeyed with a family in the discipleship of their children. These parents model family discipleship as they have taught their kids the Word, prayed with them, taken them to church, etc. Their children have wandered spiritually through high school, college and young adulthood. I have watched the mother move from panic to calm largely due to a fervent prayer life. In one of their children it appears that God- in a mystical yet palpable way- is using the random circumstances of his life to draw the kid to Himself. I feel as if I am watching the fruit of faithful prayer at work before my eyes. The Lord undoubtedly pours down grace on our children and students in response to our prayers.
I plan to continue to pursue ministry, where we preach grace and cultivate a deep, biblical belief system in students. We will help students transition to college and will equip them for a devotional life. And, it never hurts to be reminded in the midst of our best intentions that all hope centers on the generosity and sovereignty of God.
Cameron Cole serves the Director of Youth Ministries at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. He is the chairman of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Youth Ministry, which holds its next conference, Hope in a Time of Suffering, in Atlanta October 10-12, 2013.