As my flight climbed past thirty thousand feet, I settled into my economy seat and reflected on the past week. I had just enjoyed a visit to the church I pastored from 2002 to 2007. I was feeling grateful and encouraged.
Lots had changed in ten years. The teens were now young adults. Many of the twenty-something singles were now married with young children. Here’s the great part: Lots of these young adults are still actively engaged in the life of that church. What I found most encouraging was the teens (now twenty-somethings). They are leading kids’ ministries, outreach events, and worship teams. They are employed as the church’s youth pastor, as interns, and are even serving as overseas missionaries. How wonderfully different from other churches I have been part of where too many of the teens seem to go off to college, and you never hear from them again.
We have all seen the statistics. In his 2014 blog post “Dropouts and Disciples,” Ed Stetzer of Lifeway Research reported that “of young adults who indicated they attended church regularly for at least one year in high school,” 70 percent dropped out of church between the ages of 16 and 19. While some of these young people find their way back to church later in life, an increasing number don’t.
Why are we losing our children?
And, why is the church I had the privilege of serving those five years so different? How do they not only hold onto their young people, but raise them up to be leaders and disciples in God’s kingdom? I, of course, would like to take some of the credit. I was their pastor during their formative years. Yet, I know enough about young people to realize it takes more than good shepherding or preaching.
It takes oikos.
Oikos is the Greek word often translated household in the New Testament. New Testament oikoi (pl.) were extended families of blood and non-blood relations. They were people’s peeps, people’s gang—those they turned to for companionship, for their sense of identity, for provision, even for protection. Oikoi weren’t in any way Christian. In New Testament times, almost everyone lived in an oikos. It’s just that for believers, choosing to follow Jesus gave you a new oikos.
Experts in adolescent psychology, therapists, and youth workers recognize the importance of community for teenagers. For adolescents to thrive in today’s world, they need what these experts call ‘authoritative communities.’ These are groups of people who share stable bonds of connectedness and who hold and inculcate a positive set of beliefs and/or values (See, for example, Hardwired to Connect). Sounds a lot like oikos to me. Sounds a lot like what church is supposed to be.
Yet, teens need oikos for more than the mental health benefits it affords. They need it in order to internalize and own Christian convictions and ways of life. Growing into mature, Christ-like young adults usually takes more than a compelling youth group experience. More than regular church attendance. More than good teaching. It takes oikos—a community of spiritual grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who care about you and teach you by word and example what it looks like to follow Jesus.
Here is why: Young people’s convictions and characters are formed not only by what they know but even more by who they love and who loves them.
This is what my former church understands. As a result, they have spent years nurturing and developing oikoi and including their young people in them. What a privilege to visit them recently and to see the fruit.
Many of us in the missional movement are also seeking to create oikoi using missional communities and other ministry vehicles. There are many good missional reasons to do so. My recent trip to my former church reminded me of one more.
We should do it for the children.
Dick Wiedenheft is author of the forthcoming book The Meaning of Missional, A Beginner’s Guide to Missional Living and the Missional Church. Dick is a 3DM frontier leader and has a Doctor of Ministry in Discipleship and Mission from Northern Seminary. He pastors a church in New York where he lives with his wife and four children. For more about Dick’s forthcoming book, click here.