According to recent data, the percentage of atheists among thirteen to eighteen-year-olds is approximately double that of any other age group in the U.S. Experts suggest that this age group, known as Generation Z, might be the first to leave the Church and not come back. The Church is wondering what she can do about it.
Those who study the phenomenon have suggested a variety of steps local churches might want to take: encouraging a deeper and more vital engagement with Scripture; providing twenty-something ministry programming; and connecting young people with mentors. These steps are good, but they are rather like launching a lifeboat on a flooded river: some people may get into the boat, but the river’s current will not change direction. Still, we must reach those we can.
Mentoring people in their teens and twenties could be very helpful, but it is not enough to model the same old life young people already know, only with religious flavoring. They need mentors that demonstrate the possibility of an alternative, radically-Christian, genuinely loving way of life, devoid of malice and greed.
When I was new to the church, I was privileged to have those kinds of people in my life. One was William Mack, a nonagenarian who had pastored small churches in Western Pennsylvania when he was much younger. I was just getting out of the starting blocks and he was crossing the finish line, but I learned something from him: what a life looks like when God is the biggest thing in it.
Then there was Burton Quick, another elderly, widowed man who demonstrated the reality of a God-centered life. From William Mack and Burton Quick I learned that living large has nothing to do with income, luxury cars, or lake homes. A larger life requires a greater God, and I was beginning to see that the God of these men was more important than I had previously imagined.
I was in my twenties and pastoring a church when I first met Kenneth West. He was a big man and strongly framed, but what impressed me most was his humility. He was the most unpretentious person I’d ever known. He was obviously intelligent, but he didn’t show off his knowledge. He enjoyed meaningful conversation, but never used it to attract attention to himself. There was an unusual sense of peace about him. One had the impression that he would maintain his equanimity in a hurricane.
It was Dallas Willard’s sharp intellect that first attracted me to him, but it was the overall tenor of his life that brought me back to him again and again. Willard, more than anyone I know, understood how that tenor of life develops. He had learned how to consciously cooperate with God in the process of spiritual formation, and he demonstrated the result: a rich understanding of how life works, coupled with a gentleness of spirit rarely seen, even in the church.
These good men, Mack, Quick, West, and Willard, along with others, have been an enormous help to me. The help they rendered was not simply by the words they spoke or wrote, but by the lives they lived. They demonstrated what the good life really looks like, a life without greed or condemnation, rich in love and joy and peace. None of them knew how much they helped me – even I didn’t know at the time – but my life has been better because of them.
I do not think it a coincidence that all these people were relatively older when I came across them. The kind of life they lived took time to develop. They came into it through trials and errors, along with rugged perseverance, supported by grace. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the people the church most needs today are not those who can do something, but those who have become someone—someone who shines with the love of God.
This is the need of the hour: church people who can prove such a life – rich in love and devoid of condemnation – is possible. People are dying to see this kind of life. Will Generation Z see it before the cultural currents of futility and apathy sweep them away?
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 7/21/2018