The Perfect Storm
Do you remember the movie "The Perfect Storm"? The film was based on the tragic events that happened in late October of 1991, when weather conditions combined to create, what some have claimed, were unimaginable 100 foot waves off the New England coast. When the movie was released sometime around 2000, one of my closest college friends refused to go see the film with us, or even be around while others attempted to discuss its merits or basic entertainment value as a white-knuckle adventure. His scrupulous behavior seemed a bit extreme, especially for a guy as laid back as Wilkie, so naturally I wanted to understand what the deal was. Now this all happened a few years after graduation, and at the time Wilkie had been working for a while at a Christian camp in Bath, Maine called Chop Point. "For me," he explained, "and for a lot of people in harbor towns around here, the story is still too raw, too real. You run into people who knew that boat - who simply can't see anything 'entertaining' about the tragedy of what happened to the Andrea Gail. The memory of the Perfect Storm is too personal, and too painful."
Okay, I thought, that makes sense. He's got a totally different perspective on this than most of the rest of the viewing public. The conundrum of Wilkie and a hard-lined conviction about something so seemingly insignificant had been satisfactorily resolved.
In my thoughts, discussions, and writings regarding young adult ministry I have often referred to the post-high school years as a sort of spiritual "Perfect Storm". Almost all the most potent ingredients for a shipwreck of faith come together in one swirling maelstrom - and the statistics are there to prove that the ensuing storm is often more than the average young adult can navigate. (I will talk about the ingredients that turn this age into a "Perfect Storm" in detail next time...)
Now I know -- we all tend to exaggerate the centrality and vital importance of whatever line of work we happen to be into. I remember a high school gym teacher who, with the most serious of expressions, did her best to convince me that she had about the most important job in the whole school. As a substitute gym teacher sharing the gym with this lady, I was distanced enough from the whole affair to remember that in the grand scheme of things we were basically there to help the kids blow off some steam and burn some hyper energy so they could get back to their studies. But, oh, the human tendency to take ourselves too seriously!
Nevertheless, I would dare to suggest that this basic human tendency isn't in play in this instance, since, rather than deciding that what I do must be very important because it is what I do, my timeline was actually reversed: I saw -- empirically, from the outside -- that the crisis of young adults walking away from their faith must be of central importance, and decided that its imperative nature demanded a response.
If you haven't considered it all before, the math is pretty simple: if we take even a conservative number and say that 50% of young adults who were brought up in a Christian home, or as part of a local youth ministry, or at the very least from a Christian tradition, walk away from the Christian faith during their 20's (I'm sure you've heard statistics more between 60 - 70%, but just for simple math - and to be kind - we will stay with the conservative number of 50%)....well, how many generations will it take before the overall Christian population has dwindled down a fraction of what it is today? Sure, evangelism is still an important thing to factor in. People who aren't brought up as Christians do come to faith in Jesus later in life. But lets remember the other statistic that's bandied about in youth ministry -- that the vast majority of people who come to Christ do so as children or teens...
So...our best "gains" in evangelism tend to happen among people under the age of 18, and the far-and-away greatest "losses" clearly happen in the age immediately following high school...?? I can't speak for everyone, but I know that when I juxtapose those two facts and look at them closely, it appears for all the world that the whole system is a wee bit broken...
Now I spent many years working with teens and in youth ministry, and I believe in it wholeheartedly. In fact I think Christian nurture at every age, from the nursery through the 12th grade, is invaluable, and irreplaceable as a solid foundation for future growth. But, if a whopping fifty percent of the time (or more), all this effort ends in young adults walking away from Christianity, doesn't something need to change? And shouldn't the best and brightest of our resources as a Church be aimed at solving this problem? Do you attend a church that pays staff members to run children's ministries and youth ministries, but doesn't give the same priority to this, the age of lasting decision making? Why do we continue to be blind to the facts???
To be continued...