The following was written by Elton Trueblood in 1971. It could have been written yesterday, today, tomorrow. It still rings true in many contexts, even as it is clearly shaped and influenced by its immediate context.
A lot was happening in the early 70s at the intersection of youth and religion. This was the era of The Way Bible (the green paperback [blue if you were Catholic] with artsy black and white photography) and the Jesus People movement; of Larry Norman, Petra, Andre Crouch, and Keith Green.
While Trueblood’s message it timelessly prophetic, please note these two things:
- Many churches today have vibrant, growing, Christ-centered youth ministries where kids are challenged, discipled, fully integrated into the life of the local church, and significantly involved in and serving their local communities. Some of my dearest friends lead those ministries, and I am humbled and awed by their dedication, passion, and commitment.
- Many parachurch youth organizations are reaching disinterested and skeptical kids, building relationships with them, loving them, and introducing them to the Savior who desperately loves them. Some of my dearest friends lead those ministries (Young Life, WyldLife, Youth for Christ, FCA and others), and I am humbled and awed by their dedication, passion, and commitment.
Even so, there is a long way to go – as there always has been, and as there always will be. As a youth worker/WyldLife leader/historian/medievalist, I can tell you that this same conversation has been happening throughout the centuries. Preachers in the 1500s, 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s were saying and asking many of the same things found in the following excerpt, i.e. how do we relate to, embrace, invite, integrate, disciple, and raise up the next generation of radically devoted and world-changing followers of Christ?
[from The Future of the Christian, by Elton Trueblood, Harper & Row, 1971]
“Young People constitute not only the greatest challenge of the church of the future, but also its greatest hope. The evidence of the probable continuance of the Church in succeeding centuries is valid, but its validity depends on the possibility of attracting a far larger proportion of young people. There is good reason to believe that this can be done, but it will not be done unless we meet the conditions. One of the conditions is an honest admission of how radically we are failing in gaining the participation of youth at the present time. There is, as anyone can see, a vast reservoir of moral idealism, a fervent eagerness to participate in liberating causes, and an almost unlimited willingness to engage in sacrifice if the cause justifies it, but, in the eyes of the majority of young people, these features of contemporary living have no connection with the church of Jesus Christ. There are of course youth programs in most congregations, and many of these are generously financed but there is little doubt that most of them are failing to do what needs to be done. The modern Church involves the very young, as it involves a fair proportion of the mature, but the failure in regard to those between these is almost total. This is what must change!
When the failure is so great, it is reasonable to look for some really serious mistake. We soon realize that such a mistake, if it exists, is probably entailed in our philosophy rather than in our methods. Actually, our methods are reasonably good. We provide excellent quarters; we establish coffee houses; we organize camps; we employ counselors. Necessary as these may be, they are grossly insufficient if we start with the wrong major premise. We begin to see how wrong our basic approach may be when we realize that most of our youth programs are set up to serve youth. The young people, of course, sense this at once. They know that others are paying for their refreshments and their entertainment. But the tragedy is that entertainment is precisely what they do not need, because it is what they already have in superabundance.
What young people need is to be needed, and to know that they are needed. If they could be convinced that the world is plagued with a sense of meaninglessness, and that they can have an answer to confusion and perplexity, their relationship to the church might be altered radically. In short, the only way to attract youth is to draw them into a ministry! They are now trying, in great numbers, to minister to physical hunger or to overcome racial discrimination, but few have been helped to see that the deepest problems of men and women are spiritual. They have not been told that the human harvest is being spoiled for lack of workers, and that they can be the workers. They have not been told of the toil in which they must engage in order to prepare their minds so that they can be effective in reaching others and particularly those of their own age, who are harassed and helpless.
The Christian faith does not need to go outside itself in order to find a principle which can produce a radical change in the attraction of young people. The principle which is effective, when seriously applied is inherent in the moral revolution which Christ came to inaugurate. There is no way to exaggerate either the theoretical or practical importance of the words, “The Son of man also came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Modern youth will not be enrolled in the Christian Cause until they are recruited as members of the servant team, ministering to the varied needs of God’s children.The motivations for this service is greater within the pattern of the church than within that of any social agency, because Christ speaks to inner as well as to outer needs. Preparation for this kind of ministry is necessarily difficult and long, but that only makes it more appealing to the best of our young people.
Though great numbers of young people are wholly outside the life of the Church at this moment, this can change rapidly, as it has changed before. In many areas the moral debacle is so great that a shift of the pendulum is almost inevitable. The obvious weakness of a permissive morality, which is ultimately self-destructive, may lead to a new Puritanism. If it is a Pruianims like that of John Milton who “was made for whatever is arduous,” that will constitute an advance of genuine magnitude. Already there are signs that this is beginning to occur, and frequently the young people are more advanced on this road than are their teachers. Some who have discovered at first hand the fact the the pseudo-gods, such as drugs and promiscuity, are fundamentally delusive, are turning, with open eyes, to the Living God.” (pp. 36-38)