Friday, February 13, 2015

The Most Effective Church Youth Program In the World

There's a common refrain among oldline congregations and evangelical nondenominational types, and it runs like this:

We just can't hold on to our kids.  This is hardest among the oldliners, where college is pretty consistently the place where our progeny go off to vanish forever from the church.  But it's a challenge for the Jesus MegaCenter brand of Christianity, too.

The answer, as we tend to pitch it, is to make ourselves ever more "relevant."  We bring in screens and apps and software.  We hire young hipster youth pastors.  We awkwardly attempt to rap in worship, or do hippity hop, or whatever it is the whippersnappers are listening to these days.  We're extreeeemee, or we were, until that wasn't part of the lingo.  We make ourselves as much like pop culture as we can, scrambling to drop references that keep pace with the choking cornucopia of consumer-culture mythmaking.  And for all of the lipstick we slap on that pig, we still bleed out.

The kids look at the permeable, seemingly irrelevant boundaries of the oldline, or the synthetic corporate falseness of market-driven faith, and they wander away.

I've wondered, of the forms of Christian faith, what church does this the best?  Who holds on to their pups?  Who sustains commitment?  Where do they stick around and remain part of the community?

Lord help us, I think I may have found it. 

I was doing due-diligence research for my novel (postapocalyptic Amish literary fiction, due out next year from Algonquin Books), and there it was.  It was a little stat, buried in Donald Kraybill's excellent, thorough sociological study of the Old Order Amish in Lancaster County, PA.  The willfully irrelevant Amish, with their beards and bonnets, buggies and barnraisings? 

Their retention rate is around 94%.

Ninety four percent.  Register that.  Only six percent of Amish young folk choose to leave the church.  This, in a community that actually encourages its young folks to get out there and sample the world as part of their process of choosing to remain, a peculiar "unconfirmation" process.  There is no less culturally connected, less cutting-edge faith group in the US, and they win the retention race.

The why of this is complex, but seems to revolve around several factors.

First, the Amish live out a radically wholistic, unprogrammed faith.  Their practice bears absolutely no resemblance to the big stadium corporate approach of AmeriChrist, Inc.  They don't divvy folks up into demographics, carefully dividing out their worship and church life by age and preference.  It's just all one thing.  But they also integrate their faith completely into every last aspect of their lives.  Why are we living this way?  Because of what we believe.  Clothing.  Housing.  Work.  All of it, manifest in the dynamics of their every day existence.  It is, as they say, "authentic."  What it is not is corporate, or driven by marketing sparkle.  The Amish are not a business.  They couldn't care less about growth.  And yet they are growing, slowly, surely, in the way that compound interest grows.

Second, the Amish create a powerful community culture. There's a clear, bright, and evident character of Amish faith.  It requires and maintains a deep level of commitment, with boundaries around the dynamics of group culture that are potent.  Their folkways present an entirely different story than the story of the world outside.  The demands on members are intense, sustained, complete.  It is, in the most profound sense of the word, countercultural.  In that sense, the Amish present a clear deliniation between participation and nonparticipation.   There is none of the oldline waffling about other ways being just as good.  This is who we are, they say.  This is not who we are.

Third, the Amish teach their young to be adult members of the community.  That is all they teach them.  If you are raised Amish, that's what you know. Kids learn, early, that they're expected to be a part of it.   Not just expected.  They are a part it.  Amish life, which revolves around faith, assumes that the young participate in every facet of youth life as soon as they are able.   Work, worship, community and home life, all engage the young.  Oh, they have youth groups, sure.  They call them "gangs."  There is no adult in charge, no youth pastor who oversees them.  They're free-ranging, organic subcommunities, self-organizing informal teen fraternities and sororities.  But even in that, they are preparing for their free-will engagement in a small, relational community.

It ain't perfect.  The Amish are quite painfully human.  The expectations they set for community participation, and around the patterns of their lives?  They'd feel oppressive to many of us, like the radical disciplines of a demanding pre-modern monastic order.  And it meshes badly with modernity, the demands of modern life, and pluralistic values.

But it works.

God help us, does it ever work.

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