A Youth Leader Responds to our questions concerning why young people are leaving the Church.
This piece comes from Matt Aho, a full time Salvo youth leader in WI, as a response to the discussion of Marc Solas’ blog post on why young people continue to leave the Church in America. If you haven’t yet read Why Young People Leave The Salvation Army – Part 1 or Part 2, check them out for more background on this ongoing conversation. Dave Mantel, a former Salvo youth leader also wrote a response over at his site.
I think this conversation has become larger than just talking about why young people leave the Church. I have to admit I have no idea where to start. I think this is the fourth time I’ve written my response, each time with a different topic. But I think everything I have written so far has to do with the responsibility of the Salvation Army’s Officers and its congregants. So I’ll talk about that!
I remember playing football my sophomore year of high school. I had wanted to do this ever since being told as a 9 year old by a beautiful girl that I was built to play football. Oooo la la! I never really practiced anything. I played catch with friends, but really that’s all. Sophomore year and I found myself on the varsity team; not because I was good, but because I went to a tiny high school. Not knowing anything besides how to throw a football, I soon felt really overwhelmed.
The first day was really awkward, and after warming up, everyone split off into their offensive groups–running backs, wide receivers, linemen, and the quarterback. My friend Bill went with the running backs, so I joined him. It quickly became obvious I wasn’t suited for this position, as I was the slowest at all the drills. Being a running back requires agility and quick reflexes, neither of which I possess. So the second day of practice they sent me with the wide receivers where I fared much better.
I think The SA is like a football team, but we really only have a couple of the positions that we need. You can be an officer or everybody else.
The SA is made for officers. They run everything, they have all the power, they make all the changes. I think this is a big problem. I know it isn’t all about who holds the power, or who makes the big decisions. In fact, Christ tells us that His Church is against this very idea, His Church is about serving people and making ourselves the “least” (Mark 10:35-45).
But Paul also talks about this idea of us being “coheirs with Christ” (Romans 8:14-17). And Jesus talks about abiding in Him so that we can bear much fruit, thus proving to be His disciples (John 15:5-8). This points to action on our part. I think you’ll agree that Christ did not choose us to become a part of his ministry just to shut our mouths and toil ahead. Neither did the great theologians and saints throughout our wonderful Church history! No, I believe Christ choose us to empower the powerless, give hope to the hopeless, make the weak strong, and give the world to the meek.
I feel powerless in The SA. All the major decisions of my church are being made without me. I talk with a lot of people about things I see and things they see that we do and don’t agree with. It’s not all negative, there are a lot of positive things we love about The SA. But we’re just shooting the breeze because it doesn’t matter what we say; our voices go unheard.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to be in a church where I’m not valued. I want to help The SA in any way I can. But I feel like I’m not allowed. Because I have to talk to my officers, who have to talk to DHQ, who have to talk to THQ, who have to talk to NHQ, who have to talk to IHQ, who have to talk to the General, who has to talk to IHQ, who has to talk to NHQ, who has to talk to THQ, who has to talk to DHQ, who has to talk to my officers, who forgot what I asked in the first place. Obviously I’m being ridiculous here, but that’s what it feels like.
As Dave Mantel pointed out, the Church has been worried for a long time about young people leaving. So what has been done? Where is our help? Why is it that everyone I talk to says the same thing, that we’re in big trouble unless we shape up, and yet nothing seems to happen?
I think some of it is because we keep getting cheap answers to our questions. “Keep at it!” “Don’t doubt Christ!” No duh! Scripture tells me that. But what do these things mean and look like in our individual corps? Why can’t we have less generic answers? Is moving officers a part of our problem? How can we empower our people that aren’t officers? Why are people put into positions of leadership that they can’t handle? Why do I feel so uncomfortable asking these questions?
This is what is on my heart. I’ve never heard an officer say to their congregation, “Look, this is what we need to do.” I want that. I need that. Because we just keep working away at character building, Sunday school, VBS, youth group, and junior soldiers while young adults leave and never look back.
I long for a church where meaningful conversations are held between pastor and congregation that shape our local mission and focus, and where concerns are not only voiced but addressed. I long for an institution that enforces a culture of honesty, transparency, and empowerment. I want leaders who are able to utilize every member of my church, who don’t have to leave the moment they get to know and trust people. I want congregants who feel like they are apart of their corps, not just by membership, but by having their voices heard, making meaningful decisions, and serving alongside their pastors in ministering to the needs of the Church and the surrounding community.
We need to be a church that has many different body parts, all acting in unison. and each with the ability to perform its function. So what can we do to achieve this? I think it starts by empowering our congregations, making people partners in mission instead of sheep to be lead. Start talking on Sunday morning about our needs and shortcomings, and working together to address them in Christ’s name. Stop making the corps officer do everything and delegate responsibility, even though sometimes it’s scary.
What do you think?