It’s been pretty customary to hear for years this phrase, “The youth are the future of the church”. And I certainly understand and agree with the sentiments behind that statement. But it’s actually a bit misleading on two fronts.
First, the youth aren’t the future of the church…they are the church now. Since when are committed followers of Jesus not fully functional members of the church family? Being part of the church is about a decision to follow Jesus together, not about your age, stage, or whether you are out of high school or not. If you are a follower of Jesus, you are not the future of the church, you are the church. Period.
Secondly, this statement “the youth are the future of the church” is misleading in a much more subtle, and dangerous way. Because the way this phrase functions is to assume that the youth are the guarantee of the future of the church. That if we lose the youth, the church’s future is in danger. So we must pour money, time, and effort into developing the best and most current youth ministries.
But this is wrong for two reasons. First, it distances us from the youth themselves. Rather than being persons to be loved, they become a means to what we want (a church in the future). And secondly, and most dangerously, this idea is actually idolatry.
Let me be clear about why this idea of “youth being the future of the church” is idolatry. Because the future of the church is not guaranteed by getting youth to come to church, it is guaranteed by Jesus Christ. The sustaining and growing of the church is not dependent on wonderful youth ministries, but on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to his bride. And while in some ways this point can seem like semantics, it’s actually important because it’s about priorities.
If we assume that “youth are the future” of the church, we can mistakenly forget that the most important thing isn’t getting youth to come to church, but for all of us to come to Jesus. If anything supplants Jesus from the centre of our thought and practice, we will go off course. Youth ministry is absolutely important (I was a youth pastor for 8 years), but it is not primary. Jesus is at the centre and primary. And whenever anything good, like youth ministry, being missional, family ministry, or any other new thing, pushes Jesus to periphery and takes centre stage we’ve missed the point.
Bonhoeffer puts it this way.
The future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the task of youth not to reshape the church, but rather to listen to the Word of God; it is the task of the church not to capture the youth, but to teach and proclaim the Word of God.
This is what I mean by priorities. We need to first be centred first on Jesus, and not anything else. It is so easy for the desire to have a cool youth ministry, a missionally based church, or any other desire to move Jesus from the centre. This is what we must guard against, if we want to see the future of the church come to pass. Of course youth ministry, being missional, and relevant are all good things. All I’m saying is that they shouldn’t push aside the best and most important thing – a person – Jesus Christ.