A young and prosperous businessman suffered a stroke that severed the vital link between brain and tongue. A speech therapist was requested by the state to determine the seriousness of the damage. In a heartbreaking interview the man stuttered and stammered, straining to answer simple questions. The emotion built up until in desperation the man burst out, “I can’t … I want … I … Do you understand … There’s nothing wrong … I just can’t.…” His stroke had left him desperate to communicate.

Each of us finds himself in a similar predicament. We Christians do not know how to make clear the message of Christ to a disinterested generation. Helplessly we watch modern youth grow up and leave the Church. National statistics take on flesh and blood in our own congregations. We know that probably 90 per cent of those who arrive at the age of twenty-five without Christ will never be reached. We know, too, that of the more than 22,000,000 teen-agers in America, almost 70 per cent have already made up their minds to have little or nothing to do with religion in any form. Census experts estimate that by 1966 one-half of our population will be under the age of twenty-five. What a mission field! Where can we turn to discover answers to help stem the flood of youth who drop out, rebel, quit in disgust, or never even enter the doors of their local church?

In a recent survey, hundreds of typical American young people were asked to tell why they were not in church. Let us review briefly the five answers they gave. Possibly in their own complaints we shall find some clues to how we may reach them.

First, young people complained, “The Bible doesn’t touch my life in a practical way.” Youth are interested in God’s Word. They are thrilled by a pastor who can make it live from the pulpit. They say, in the words of one girl interviewed, “We don’t want to learn about how Christian people live. We want to learn about God.”

This is an age of specialization. The young person goes to his doctor or his teacher for authoritative answers. He can immediately perceive unpreparedness or superficiality in the professional man.

The pastor is a professional man. Scriptural research goes with his calling, and young people have a perfect right to demand professional excellence from him. If the pastor is not a specialist in communicating God’s Word, who is? If the pastor cannot make it live, who can? When the pastor is absorbed in a passionate search for scriptural truth, the excitement of that quest will rub off on his people, young and old. Genuine biblical research is a lost art in the Church, and youth have unwittingly placed their finger on a sorry situation. Ask young people what they would like to study in church school, and seven out of ten replies will be, “What do we believe?” It may well be time for the minister to stop asking more from his people for God’s sake and to start asking more from God and himself for his people’s sake.

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Our young people have warned us. They don’t know what they believe. If they don’t, the next generation will be ruled by others who do.

Secondly, youth complained, “The Church makes no provision for my real social needs.” Rather than rushing out to organize new baseball leagues and skating parties, let us examine this complaint on a deeper level than “fellowship” by asking, “What are youth’s basic social needs?” Nevin C. Harner in Youth Work in the Church lists these six basic needs (pp. 31–60):

1. The need for a vital Christian faith.

2. The need for self-understanding.

3. The need for Christian vocational guidance.

4. The need for Christian sex education.

5. The need for Christian social education.

6. The need for rootage in the Christian fellowship.

Obviously, the complaining young people could not isolate and identify these needs but simply knew that something was missing. The historic Church has pioneered in the most practical of social services: education, medicine, libraries, the arts. Yet youth now say the Church does not care about their social needs.

Strangely, there are ministers who believe that their task has no social dimensions. Like Time magazine, they confine religion to one page or so of life. Most of us do not want to make that mistake. Yet we think that, because each week we have only five hours of youth’s 168, we should limit our concern to “spiritual things” and let the home, school, and job take care of the rest of their lives. Thus we produce the vicious circle (as with sex education) of the parent trusting the school, the school trusting the church, and the church trusting the parent. As a result young people receive nothing but evasions and misinformation.

Needed: Confusion Control

All of us are guilty of camouflaging our social concern under a barrage of meaningless phrases, worn-out metaphors, and out-dated allegories. It is our job as communicators to come up with language pollution controls that will enable us to eliminate the smog of confusion and bring about a return to clean air and clear communications.

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One pastor had the courage to turn his Sunday evening service over to a group of articulate laymen to evaluate and criticize his morning sermon. An easier but no less painful technique is simply to ask any young person in the congregation what he received from the sermon, or from any sermon in the last year. Peter Berger asserts in Noise of Solemn Assemblies that the greatest delusion among ministers is that “what they preach on Sunday has any influence on what their listener does on Monday.”

Too many pastors are also guilty of adhering to out-dated social patterns instead of developing contemporary ones. Why not spend an evening with your young people participating in an exciting political rally, or riding through an economically depressed area, or viewing a controversial film or television program, or discussing the biblical philosophy of sex, or visiting a juvenile prison, a mission in the slums, a maternity ward, or a mortuary? Such life-sharing experiences in company with the pastor followed by times of frank, Christ-centered discussion can bring insights a thousand Sunday school classes or youth fellowship meetings could never provide.

Obviously, we must not resort to being different for difference’ sake. And the old forms are still vitally significant. Nevertheless, until some of us begin to find practical ways of providing help for the social needs of our young people, they will continue to turn away from the Church in ever-growing numbers.

Thirdly, youth accused the Church of being “uninformed about our problems.” All of us know the kind of problems young people face today. Or do we? When was the last time you read a sociological depth study of American youth and their problems? When was the last time you sincerely asked a young person to share with you the kinds of problems he and his friends might be facing?

Let us use senior high youth as an example. I still hear sermons preached by harassed pastors in youth fellowship sessions (a horrible place for sermonizing) against necking or dancing, when in reality those same young people regularly face the pressures of pre-marital sexual relations or illicit sex in forms we find difficult to believe.

The major social activity on the average senior high campus is the prom. When that important night arrives after weeks of exciting preparation, when the gym is a blaze of color, when the boys sport rented tuxedoes and the girls are radiant in carnations and new formals, Joe and Mary Christian sit at home desperately alone, or sneak away to neck in a lonely park, suffering from guilt and confusion. What provisions have we made, what responsibility do we take to help these young people mature in sex attitudes and controls? At least the school is doing all it knows to do!

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Some ministers still preach against movies, a taboo that went out the day they brought home a television set. But which of us can honestly claim to have helped our young people in developing television or theater selectivity, in interpreting and deciding quality for themselves?

What about dope addiction? Seventy-eight per cent begins during the teen years.

What about misused sex? Forty-seven per cent of America’s illegitimate babies are born to teen-agers, and there is one new case of venereal disease among teen-agers every minute around the clock.

What about honesty? The average age of a car thief in America is fifteen, and shop-lifting and cheating are common among youth.

What about alcoholism? Seventy per cent of drinkers begin during the teen years.

What about pornography? This is a multi-million-dollar industry that feeds on youth.

Whether we understand youth’s problems or not, we are often guilty of putting off practical, face-to-face encounters with our young people about these problems. Yet all the time their lives and attitudes toward the Church may depend upon what help they receive in these areas.

When The Bubble Explodes

The Church and the churches’ well-meaning families can shield their offspring only so long. What happens when young people take their places on a secular campus or on a military base? Don’t we ever wonder why so many of them never come back to the Church? Haven’t we seen enough of what can happen to them? Faith built on a false bubble of enthusiasm can explode at the first prick of a cynical professor or the first goading of a sex-ridden comrade. What have we done to equip our youth to face their world, the world of Bultmann and Barth, Darwin and Nietzsche, Salinger and Hemingway—the world of moral license and existential revelation?

Fourthly, youth complained, “There is no challenge to responsibility within the Church.” They were not complaining that we underemphasize evangelism. On the contrary, we often use all kinds of guilt and pressure techniques to force young people to be evangelistic before they are even sure of their own salvation. In fact, some of us who witness professionally are guilty of demanding more from young Christians than we demand from ourselves. We challenge youth to witness in their world when day after day we fail to witness in our own, except as professionals when and where it is expected of us.

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The Church seldom implements its challenge with a suggested course of action that is practical, exciting, and demanding enough for the challenge. Who of us have gone to the trouble of implementing the challenge of Christian witness by demonstrating realistically how it’s done through role-playing, Bible studies, films, or visitation programs? Who of us have taken the trouble to incorporate our youth into the boards or committees of the local church, thus giving them realistic places of responsibility and on-the-job training? Who of us have taken key young people into our offices to share with us a day on the job, watching the heartbreak of death, the drudgery of details, the agony of decision?

Every morning before regular classes begin, thousands of Mormon youth meet to study the mysteries of Mormonism. At this moment in West Germany there are approximately two thousand American Mormon missionaries, intelligent, well-trained, well-dressed, spreading their faith in that area. What would happen if the Protestant church gave her older youth similar training and opportunities? Do they have any less courage, less potential, less ability? Do our Christian young people have to turn to the American government for service? No! Together, we could create a Christian Service Corps (see CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 17, 1964) for short-term volunteer service through existing foreign and home missions boards. We could use the talents of hundreds of dedicated youth to provide reinforcement and assistance for the existing missions programs. Their support could come through their families, friends, or sponsor contacts; their transportation could come through the local church; their projects could be administered through the regular missions organizations.

The fifth complaint youth made was, “There is too much adult inconsistency in the Church.” What can one say to this indictment? We can only face our failure in the clear light of Scripture and, having seen it, confess it and pay the price of more disciplined Christian living.

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In the light of these five complaints of young people, nothing less than a new attitude on the part of the Church and its ministry is required. We need an attitude that will destroy any smug feeling of accomplishment when our twenty loyal young people are finally together in one place for fellowship or recreation. We must keep ever-present in our prayers, preparation, and promotion the many thousands of youth within easy reach of our urban churches who have never been touched even by the shadow of these churches. We need to work at our peak of creative and spiritual powers on a local, state, and national level to reach the youth around us. We need to want desperately to communicate with them before they, too, are far from the Church and from Him in whose name we labor.

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