Why is it so hard to bring community youth into the church? It’s not like there’s a stigma–there is no more razzing for attending church than doing anything else in your teens. So what is it about the church that scares young people away? In my years of youth ministry I’ve discovered the church can be its own worst enemy when it comes to taking the Gospel to the street.
Recently, I went to a local Starbucks to do some reading and ended up chatting with different teens I’ve seen around the ‘hood. Some were former youth of mine and some were street kids. I asked why they won’t come into church. The resounding answer was that they were unwanted. These kids immediately felt unwelcome when they entered different churches.
As a teenager, I remember showing up to a youth group with friends one night and being informed I was going to hell. I was told never to come back. At another church, my friend was advised not to bother bringing an outsider like me to the meetings. The churches by our high school, it seemed, spent more time chasing us off than talking to us. Even as a youth pastor, I’ve fought to keep a teen in youth group when the church wanted him out because he lived in a group home.
“I’m promiscuous.” “I live on the street.” “I might be gay.” “I stole once.” “I don’t know how to read the Bible.” “I’m a prostitute .” “I can’t pray.” “I don’t know when it is.” “I’m too poor.” “They think I’m bad.” “I have piercings.” “I have tats [tattoos].” “The door was locked when I went.”
The door was locked when I went? That comment struck me deeply. Churches, literally locked up tight, live in fear of property vandalism. But those dead bolts aren’t the only thing acting as locks on the Kingdom of God. All of those reasons kids gave for not attending church are barring the doors. Because you are pierced/gay/tattooed/illiterate, you aren’t allowed inside. You won’t be accepted.
Every night I pray for an opportunity to reach out to the community. I know, in theory, that God wants that to happen. And it’s a great theory until you add real human beings to the mix. Then the theory doesn’t always hold.
I am optimistic every once in a while. When I wonder if my church will go outwards, I look at my city–my neighbourhood alone has close to thirty churches. When my friends talk about the violence around us and question why God doesn’t do anything, I feel He is doing something. We’re here–the generation that turned away from the church in our own youth and then turned back. Now the question is: are we willing to help these kids or are we just going to keep the doors locked?
As I said, I’m hopeful. One day, I will see churches brimming with youth that would normally be on the streets–hurting, running and trying to find whatever they can to fill the void. One day, there will no longer be doubts about acceptance in church. One day, the doors will be unlocked.
Ty Ragan is the youth minister at Centennial Presbyterian Church, Calgary. He was a lay minister at a hub parish for the R.C.’s World Youth Day and has been involved for five years in street ministry @ Calgary’s Mustard Seed mustard seed
kingdom of Heaven thus likened; for phenomenal development. [N.T.: Matthew 13:31–32]
See : Growth .