It intrigues and concerns me that many of our young people don’t seek out worshiping communities when they leave home, for example, to go away to college or university. Yet they readily return to worship at their home church when they are home visiting their parents. So they cut loose from family routines when they are away but revert to family routines when they are home. This is not unusual. Adolescents are in that betwixt-and-between stage of being adults on their own and still being connected to their families. As much as they like venturing out on their own, it’s hard work. Maybe it’s a relief to return to the comforts of home, friends, and familiar places as a respite from the anxieties of constantly meeting new people in new venues.
But there could also be other dynamics at work that keep our youth from worshiping when away from home. It’s not easy for anyone to go into places where one is a stranger. How do we overcome the fear and anxiety of being strangers in a strange place? (1) By being convinced that we need to be in that place and (2) by becoming sensitized to the habit of going into places where we will be strangers and doing what we need to do there.
Let me make a comparison with dining out. We take our kids to lots of restaurants when they are growing up. As they become teens they begin to venture into restaurants on their own. Perhaps they start with McDonalds and other fast food places and graduate to sit-down restaurants where they have to talk to the host/ess and give their order off of a menu to a waiter. Having practiced these skills with their families, kids learn to overcome the hurdles of reading a menu and talking with a stranger if they want something to eat.
So too children and youth need to be formed to know that on the Lord’s Day they need to assemble with a group of the Lord’s people to worship, to hear the Word, to join in common prayer for the world, and to participate in the Lord’s Supper. But this means gathering with strangers in strange places. So our youth also need to be sensitized to going into strange churches by visiting a number of them, first with their families and then on their own. Through practice they can learn what to expect when they walk through the church door. They learn the typical architectural layouts of church buildings. They learn to read the menu — that is, to look through a worship bulletin and figure out what will be happening in worship that day. Having practiced the art of worship in their home church, they can transfer those skills to this new setting.
This is what I did when I was a youth. Whether with my family or with my pastor or with my youth group, I visited other churches and I learned the church culture just as I learned the restaurant culture. The more churches I went into the easier it became to walk into a church building, to be greeted by an usher and to greet back, to receive a bulletin, find a seat, see what I would need for worship that day (for example, a book), to look up page numbers and hymns, and to be prepared to participate. Going to church with someone helps, but one can also do it on one’s own.
Finding a congregation where one feels welcomed and included is important for any young adult away from home.
Comparisons will inevitably be made with the worship and the congregation back home. Some of our youth who ventured on their own to attend worship when away from home become critics of what they experience. One year when my daughter Emily was at school in New York City she attended a big Lutheran church in Manhattan on Easter Day. The building was impressive, the choir was polished, the preacher was fine, but the congregation didn’t sing — not like Immanuel, she reported. Another year on Easter she found a small congregation in Washington Heights meeting in one of the smallest worship spaces she had ever been in, but the people were nice and the music was very professional for such a small congregation. So music and singing was important to her. For others it might be the quality of the preaching or liturgical leadership or opportunities for meeting people or hands-on social ministry activities.
Finding a congregation where one feels welcomed and included is important for any young adult away from home. There are many universities where a campus ministry is available that is attuned to the schedules and life styles of students. But the first thing that is necessary is the willingness to seek it out. And that is predicated on the assumption that it is important to congregate with a group of Christian believers.
As I see it, that’s a lesson that has to be learned well before the student goes away from home. That lesson can be learned on family vacations and even on trips to other countries. What an insight it would be for adults as well as youth to realize that although the liturgy is in another language, the music in a different style, or the people at first strangers to us, still we trust in the habits that we have learned: to gather at font and Table, to pray for the world, to forgive as we have been forgiven. There we find that, no longer strangers, the Body of Christ around the world praises the same God and receives the same grace.
Join the Conversation:
How can we help our youth develop a longing to gather together regularly as church? How might we help them grow in courage to walk through the doors of a new church and invest themselves in the community?