The familiar reports are loud and clear. We hear it on Facebook, in our Twitter feed, and through the mainstream news. The reports confirm, at least in part, what we have known for some time: Youth ministry practices are not consistently supporting faith beyond high school graduation.

For those of us who have worked with young people for decades, this news is difficult to swallow because we see God working powerfully in the lives of teenagers. Why is there such a deep divide between our increased effort, devotion, and resources, and numbers of young people leaving the church behind?

As Andy Root and Kenda Creasy Dean argue in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, we have spent so long “justifying our ministries for their sociological, educational, or therapeutic usefulness.” In response, a movement is underway that more intentionally reflects theologically on youth ministry practices. The movement brings with it some key theological questions: What is the relationship between a young person and the community of faith? How have we understood this relationship in youth ministry practices, and how should we? And finally, how might our beliefs be shaping, maybe even causing, the worrisome reports about our youth?

People use a variety of phrases to describe their desire to invite the next generation into the Christian faith. Most commonly, church leaders and parents use the language of “passing on the faith.” I hear it everywhere. During worship gatherings, pastors pray for young people to be secure in the faith passed to them. Church leaders hire consultants to find ways to increase their effectiveness at passing the faith, and parents give time and money to ensure a son or daughter owns the faith they passed.

Certainly, the impulse to pass on our faith to young people is noble and right, not to mention called for in the Scriptures. My concern is for how this particular phrase, “passing on the faith,” functions in our context. Words can shape our experiences just as our experiences give meaning to our words. How does the language of “passing on the faith” shape how we understand and carry out youth ministries?

In the New Testament, the passing phrase is used in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “What I received I passed on to you.” Paul uses these words to connect himself to the apostles and demonstrate the authority of the message he is preaching, “Christ died for our sins.”

In Paul’s time, showing how authority was passed from one person to another validated the person (and subsequently the message). Imagine batons passed between runners in a relay race. Similarly, the words received and passed in this passage describe the literal transfer of authority from one to another. The genealogies of Genesis and Matthew have a similar function. In this sense, Christians today are still called to pass the authoritative message to others, including younger generations.

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Does the passing phrase still carry the same meaning? In our cultural context, when we talk about our desire to “pass on the faith” to young people, we often perpetuate what I call a “supportive ecclesiology.”

In our most recent history, the dominant youth ministry philosophies and practices answer the pressing question “What is a Christian’s relationship to the church?” with language that reflects supportive ecclesiology. That means the church’s primary role (in a youth context) is to support a young person’s growing faith and to build programs and offer opportunities to support individual faith. One writer takes individualization to the extreme in saying, “We absolutely must individualize, customize, and personalize our youth ministries.” Instead of people being transformed into the image of Christ, this proclamation asks Christ to transform for each person’s needs.

In our contemporary setting, then, passing and receiving seem more closely tied to the service industry than to the transfer of an authoritative message. In the context of a coffee shop, for example, the salesperson’s role is to be a service provider by passing you the product, and the customer’s role is to receive the product passed.

Applied to youth ministry, adults pass the faith, and young people receive the faith. What is a young person’s relationship with the church here? Supportive. Adults (passers) support and young people (receivers) are supported. (For the grammar geek, note the active verb attached to the adult action in the sentence and the passive verb used for the young person.)

Our greatest hope for young people is that we will invite them into an ongoing dialogue, with the Bible and our historical creeds and confessions in hand, as they seek to make sense of faith and life. But in our social context, passing language does not pose an invitation to young people and in fact, works against this hope.

Clearly, an unexamined supportive ecclesiology is contributing to the reality we presently face.

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What’s the alternative to a supportive ecclesiology, or “passing on the faith”? What I call “vital ecclesiology,” in which the relationship between a Christian and the church is vital and reciprocal. Here’s what that looks like.

Any introduction to ecclesiology will undoubtedly include a description of the Greek word ekklesia, which is commonly translated as “church” in the New Testament. When the New Testament authors use this particular word to refer to the early Christ-followers, they are expressing something very important. Using this word demonstrates they have a self-perception as a people rather than a group of individuals. The word for church literally means “the called-out ones,” and the best translation into English is “gathering” or “assembly.” In the first-century Greco-Roman world, ekklesia is often used to describe an assembly of male citizens called together to tend to local affairs. We see this usage in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41. Notice that to assemble as “citizens” also suggests a shared identity. Christ-followers are a specific, called-out group. They are a people.

Furthermore, the word translated as “church” in the New Testament also implies that they assemble by invitation, like being a guest at a wedding rather than attending a concert after purchasing a ticket. Multiple times Paul uses the phrase “church of God” and emphasizes that God initiates their assembly. The people are guests by invitation, and therefore God establishes that they belong. Paul is emphasizing that they are a people belonging to God.

In The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, theologian and professor Ellen Charry describes the greatest challenge she faces teaching ecclesiology today. Her students “cannot distinguish between the church’s belonging to us and its belonging to God.”

She says this difficulty arises out of two dominant societal models we impose on the church. The church is either a corporation like a health club, where we pay a fee and reap the benefits of membership, or we perceive the church as a democratic state where we vote, obey the law, pay our taxes, and therefore should enjoy living in a peaceable society. Charry contends that neither of these models adequately defines the church, because each relates membership with benefits that belong to us. Instead, we belong to the church. It does not belong to us.

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As Charry says, “We don’t make it. It makes us.” The early Christ-followers did not gather by sheer will or based on a shared commitment, even if these were in the mix. Belonging to God simply as an individual was inconceivable. Their essence and being were shared. To be a Christian was to be a people belonging to God.

In this contemporary moment, the vital ecclesiology of early believers offers a model for what the church needs to be—a community that calls our young adults into the body, not as passive recipients, but as active members. We believe that God’s love is personal, and Christ’s death and resurrection reaches individuals. But if we continue to follow the trajectory of our current history and connect young people to Christ without also linking them to Christ’s church, our connection to God’s larger work in history will break. Our youth need to know and experience what it means to be a people belonging to God.

Sharon Galgay Ketcham is a practical theologian at Gordon College. She is also a researcher, writer, teacher, and mentor with decades of ministry experience in local churches. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two children.

This essay was adapted from Reciprocal Church by Sharon Galgay Ketcham. Copyright (c) 2018 by Sharon Galgay Ketcham. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.