Hello SVCS Community,
I hope everyone had a great week! It’s been another exciting week on campus! Before we get to the topic of the day, a quick little personal reflection … the last two weeks, I have been knee-deep in our strategic planning process. It’s so invigorating to imagine and dream about what our school can and should be in a year or two years or five years. But sometimes, if you think too much about the future, you can become numb to the beauty of the present moment. When I used to be in the classroom full time, I would start each year with the scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where Mr. Keating takes the boys out in the hallway and gives the motivating “Carpe Diem” speech. One year, one of my students gave me a paperweight that says “Seize the Day.” I still keep it in the middle of my desk. It’s a great reminder to me to take a break from planning and just go watch our teachers and our students in action. These kids are amazing! These teachers have so much passion! So, even though we need to plan for the future and think about where we are going, today has so much to offer. Let’s seize it! I am reminded of one of my favorite verses, Matthew 6:34: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
Ok, on to the topic of the day. Last week we started to look at the topic of spiritual formation in today’s youth. We talked to Randy Smith and Garrett Rodriguez about some of the joys and challenges of trying to reach the next generation for Christ. If you haven’t watched that video, you have to go back and check it out. These two guys are incredible at what they do. I have one phrase that hopefully entices you to check out the video: Empower the taco. Trust me, it will all makes sense. (We’ve put the video at the end of this post — just click on the image to watch it.)
Today, I want to focus our discussion around an interesting and somewhat scary statistic. Depending upon the study that you read, between 60% and 70% of practicing Christians will walk away from the church at some point before the age of 23. (I am citing a couple of different studies here … one conducted by the Barna Group and another conducted by LifeWay Ministries. So, to normalize our discussion, let’s just say the number is 2/3.) And we aren’t even talking about non-Christian kids or unchurched families. Now, a couple of disclaimers here. First, walking away from the church does not necessarily mean walking away from faith in Christ. That is a much more difficult percentage to quantify. It’s easy to measure church attendance. It is much more difficult to measure the state of someone’s heart. In fact, the Barna study notes that 8 of 10 Americans claim to believe in some form of Christianity, but only 3 out of those 10 actually attend church more than once a month. That does not necessarily mean that the other 5 are squandering their inheritance on wild living. It simply means that they have chosen to not attend church. Second, it is important to realize that some of these wanderers do actually come back to the church later in life for a variety of reasons. God will always passionately pursue people and sometimes it takes some years of discovery before a young adult actually realizes that he/she misses the church. We call this passive judgment … where God gives us what we think we want so that we can ultimately realize that it wasn’t good for us.
Before we go any further, a little sidebar to point out what I hope is a common sentiment among most of us. Jesus never commanded that we be a part of a “church.” But, he spent his entire life fostering community and building relationship among a diverse group of followers. The goal of his life was to model a new way of being, while serving and training a future group of leaders who could go make a difference in the world together. The church is supposed to be our manifestation of this. It is supposed to be a community of people banding together to serve each other and the world. We have strength in numbers and we can make a greater impact as a community. I can buy a Subway sandwich for a homeless man in my neighborhood. The church can feed 300 people every Wednesday night. So, it is possibly tempting to say, “As long as I have my personal faith and my relationship with Christ intact, I am good and I don’t need the church.” But that misses the point entirely. The church needs you!
Ok, back to the statistics. We can always twist statistics to support our own conclusions or make a compelling argument. But here is the way I read these numbers. First, only 3 out of 10 kids are actually going to church more than once a month. Second, 2/3 of those kids will stop going to church by the time they are 23. Even if half of them come back at some point in life, that is still less than 20% of millennials who will actually attend church more than once a month.
So, there are a couple of ways we could go with this discussion. First, we could talk about the why behind these statistics. Why is the church seen as irrelevant? Why are people leaving? Why does this next generation seem to be “over” organized religion? (I figured that if we want to talk about them, maybe we should talk like them.) This is certainly an important discussion that causes all of us who love the church to confront ourselves, our motivations, our expressions, and our own intentional and unintentional hypocrisy. Do we actually look like Christ, or do we just look like the world with Jesus stamped on it? Please don’t take offense at this. It is just an observation and not a judgment. I am just as guilty as anyone. I am a part of the problem. But sometimes I think we, the church, trade community for coffee and cookies. And we trade heart transformation for an emotional chorus in a worship song. (If you are interested in more on this topic, I recommend Good Faith by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. They go deep into the Barna research and start to explore how the church can be different and, hopefully, start to reverse this trend.)
But today, I don’t want to focus on the why. I want to get a little more practical and a little more personal. And I want to focus on some tough realities that should lead us to think a little deeper about what we should be trying to do here at SVCS.
This year, about 60 seniors will graduate from SVCS. Of course, this is not a large sample size. But let’s just assume that the Barna data is true across our community. If so, only about 20 students in our senior class actually attend church regularly, and about 12 or 13 of these will walk away from the church sometime in the next five years. So, by 2021, there will only be 7 or 8 graduates of the class of 2017 who exhibit a thriving church life. Again, these are just generalizations. I happen to believe that, in a community such as ours, the numbers may play out a bit differently because the discipleship that takes place at home is still the most important determining factor in spiritual habit formation. Still, even if our numbers are slightly higher, this is a sobering realization.
Now I love the church. I want every student in our school to love the church. I want our local churches to be so full that we have to launch more churches. But, when confronted with this data, we also have to think realistically and maybe start to redefine our place in the landscape of ministry. In the perfect world, education would be a shared vocation of the school, the church, and the home. (In a future discussion, I would love to talk about the implications of the home environment on spiritual formation. Like I said earlier, it is the most important piece of this triangle.) But, if church is not an important piece of this triangle for whatever reason, we have two choices. We can ignore the data and the trends, and whine about how it used to be — when people used to go to church on Sunday morning and all was right in the world. Or, we can use this unique opportunity that God has given us to do something radical and potentially world-changing. We can be the light. We can redefine the way we think about the church. Jesus said that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there he is also. Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed reference our belief in a universal church — a body of believers that is not confined to a building, a location, or a day of the week. So, should there really be a line between a Christian church and a Christian school? Or, like Randy said last week in the video (seriously you have to watch it), can the church exist anywhere? And what are the implications of this for our school?
Of course, we are a school and our mission is to educate. But we can’t simply divide responsibilities among the church and the school because there is no guarantee that these kids will ever set foot in a church while they are here, and there is even less of a chance that they will go to church once they walk across the stage at graduation. But, we have them at school every single day. So if kids aren’t getting discipled at church, we disciple them here. If they aren’t serving the world with their church, then we give them opportunities to serve the world here. If they do not have a community at church, then we foster community here. If they aren’t going to hear the Gospel at church, then they need to hear the Gospel here. If they aren’t getting baptized at church, we can baptize them here.
We are the church; let’s be it!
Now, here is the good news. So much of what we do at SVCS already looks like this. We are a unique school in a lot of ways. We are accessible. We are diverse. We worship together. We go on mission trips together. We help foster a community that will exist long after graduation. We preach the Gospel. We disciple students. We baptize new believers.
These characteristics are not true of every Christian school in America. Some schools are much more exclusive … only open to the financially or academically elite. Some schools are much more legalistic … forcing families and students to prove church attendance and sign a statement claiming allegiance to a 37-point doctrinal stance. I know of schools that don’t mandate Bible class or chapel and, therefore, do not guarantee that the Gospel is ever preached within the curriculum. I know of schools that would never baptize students or serve communion for fear that their chosen expression of the sacraments would offend someone’s denominational tilt. But that is not who we are. And I see no scriptural or practical reason that would suggest that it is who we are supposed to be. Instead, I hope that we can simply be a school that looks like Christ. I hope that kids will be discipled here. I hope that we will serve our community and our world in powerful ways. I hope that we would continue to pray for each other. I hope that we keep baptizing students into the family of believers. I hope that we will be an embodiment of love and grace and truth.
And I hope that when our students are asked if they go to church, their answer will be, “Yep … every day.”
Head of Schools
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