PEN: A Farmer Went Out to Sow…: The Reality of the Parable
A Farmer Went Out to Sow…
The Reality of the Parable
Myth: If we leave them alone they will come home bringing their own children behind them. That probably will not happen with this generation and those to follow.The parable found in Matthew 13 (Matt. 13:1–9 NIV) is familiar. We have heard it hundreds of times. The farmer sows his seeds, but only one out of four seeds actually bears fruit. The unfortunate fact is how the parable is lived out in our midst. The sad fact is that most of the seeds of faith sown in confirmation classes will not bear fruit. In the research for their book Sticky Faith, Kara Powell and Chap Clark found that “40–50 percent of the youth involved in church as teens will fail to stick with their faith in college.”1 The problem might be even more severe if the research from the Barna Group is correct. They project that 59 percent of Christian youth will leave the church after age 15.2
Look around your own church. If your congregation is typical, you probably see a decline in participation as young people move through the high school years. And we expect to see even less of them as they move off to college. For too long, we have held to a sort of “Little Bo Peep” myth: If we leave them alone they will come home bringing their own children behind them. That probably will not happen with this generation and those to follow.
Consider some facts:
- Today’s young people are delaying marriage, often until their thirties;
- As a result they are starting their families later;
- By that time, they have fallen into a lifestyle that does not include the church.
We can add another factor. Many of them have made choices or chosen lifestyles that they know run counter to what they were taught in Sunday school and confirmation class. The guilt over those decisions might create another barrier.
How Do We Reverse the Trend?
It starts with relationships.
In their book Sticky Faith, Kara Powell and Chap Clark propose a ratio of five-to-one. Every young person who is part of a worship community needs five adults in their life to mentor them in their faith development. Those adults could be professional church workers or other members of the congregation. They could also be coaches, organizational leaders, or teachers. The vital thing is that they share the same faith and value system as the child and their family. Congregations need to be more intentional in making this happen. For too long we have compartmentalized ministry by age groups. The new model calls for encouraging relationships between older adults and youth. One possibility would be to get older adults involved in the confirmation program. Matching young confirmands with an older adult could be the beginning of a mentoring relationship. It also provides a format for senior members of the congregation to share their faith legacy.
A recent project commissioned by the Siebert Lutheran Foundation and the Kern Family Foundation focused on the relationship that millennials have with the church. Millennials are those born between roughly 1980 and 2000. While current confirmands might not fall into that social group, many of the same characteristics apply. One conclusion we can draw from the study is teens and young adults can spot a fake. In other words, Christians who are not living out their faith through their actions will be identified. When that happens, it only reinforces the opinion that many within the church are being hypocritical. Today’s teens and young adults want nothing to do with an organization they do not view as authentic. For the local church, this means providing young people with genuine examples of discipleship. Mission trips or one day projects that allow for teens and older adults to work side-by-side provide excellent opportunities for relationships to be initiated.
Acknowledge their Questions and Doubts
In the opinion of many young people, the church is not the place to ask questions or express doubts. From their perspective, when you ask a question you are: a) given a “pat answer” or b) labeled as a doubter. Neither is desirable, so in many cases questions remain unasked and the doubts persist. The questions could be moral in nature: Does God love homosexuals? Or it could be more intellectual: What do I do with the theory of evolution I am being taught in school? Unfortunately the church has been labeled as being anti homosexuality and anti science. Just saying that homosexuality is wrong and against God’s plan for creation is not enough. We need to stand beside our young people as they grapple with these issues. That also means loving them and accepting them, even if we do not agree with them. It also requires providing a format where issues can be discussed in an open and evangelical atmosphere.
Link Tradition to the Present Reality
If we think that young people do not like the traditions and rituals of the church, we might be wrong. Many of them do cherish the traditional liturgy and belief system. Where they struggle is connecting those to their everyday lives. The Sacraments are a great example. The Lord’s Supper is all about grace and forgiveness, but it is also about relationships. Jesus comes to us in the Lord’s Supper, but it is also a meal that we share with those we love and with whom we share a common faith. Congregations need to consider how they can reinforce this concept. The problem is not in the form; it is in the substance. Our worship needs to be more relational. The sharing of the peace, prior to the distribution of the Sacrament, provides an opportunity. Instead of simply, “And also with you,” allow time for people to greet and extend the message of “peace” to each other on a personal level.
I love the story of the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus has a conversation with a woman whose value system and lifestyle ran totally against that for which He stood. On top of that, she was a Samaritan. She came from a religious tradition that was rejected by all “good Jews.” Still, Jesus reaches out to her and accepts her for who she is. In the process she comes to know Him as her Savior and shares that with an entire community. As a result they all declare, “…we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42b NIV). We need to be living “grace-filled” lives. That means meeting people where they are and not where we want them to be. Without a relationship, they will never see the Jesus who lives inside of us.
- “Every young person who is part of a worship community needs five adults in their life to mentor them in their faith development.” Which adults in your congregation could you match with each youth? (Would you have to settle for a ratio more like 3:1? What is the minimum for it to be workable?)
- How would you prepare the adults (and the youth!) for this?
- How would you introduce this initiative to your congregation?
It might seem like a daunting task. It may even force us to step outside our comfort zone, but the future of the church is at stake. We are called to be missional disciples to a lost generation. Change will not happen if we continue to cling to old patterns and program models. Instead of gathering around the coffeepot after worship on Sunday to talk about the “good old days and why nobody comes anymore,” we need to be in the youth room relating to the next generation. We need to seek opportunities to share our faith legacy. We need to look for occasions where we can discuss the issues with which they struggle.
Tom Couser is a retired Director of Christian Education who now spends his time and energy helping older adults relate to young people. He has authored a number of books including Relevant: The Church as it Relates to Millennials. You can read his blog at; www.tomcouser.blogspot.com. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Tom and his wife, Barb, live in Dallas, Tex. They have three grown children and three grandsons.
1. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith, Zondervan, 2011, page 15.
This article is a reprint of Tom’s PEN article in 2016.
Photos © iStock. Center: myrrha. Clockwise from top: Maridav, Wavebreakmedia, londoneye, DRB Images, LLC, NiDerLander.
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