It seems that of late there are an awful lot of articles out there about the large number of young people leaving the church and everybody wants to jump on the bandwagon of why this is happening. Most people tend to blame and demonize the things they want to blame and demonize, be it Sunday School (the horrors!), youth groups that are too much fun, or wimpy and shallow worship.
I have no doubt that there are perhaps valid points to some of these ideas, but I think the problem goes much deeper than that. I think the problem has more to due with the fact that, more often than we want to believe or ever admit, the church isn't acting like Christ.
It seems that within so many churches children are written off as unwieldy Tasmanian devils, whose intents are forever evil and who just need a healthy case of discipline and a good and swift wallop on the backside, to bring them in line and mold them into fine upstanding citizens. The problem is, with the exception of the most compliant of children, every child is, at one point or another, going to act like a child, which isn't always pleasant. Growing up is a confusing and bizarre process in and of itself. Life is hard enough.
But some children, an alarmingly larger number than we ever care to consider, are going to struggle with so much more. Let's take the 1 in 4 females and 1 in 6 males who are sexually abused in some way before they are 18 (and that number is NOT smaller in the church) and add to it all the children who face an entire host of other challenges, either through nature and nurture, and you have a lot of kids who are going to struggle with life and it may not be pretty. They need a refuge. They need to be met with the compassion of Christ, not avoidance, indifference, impatience, or only exhortation.
No amount of discipline or catechism ever mended the broken heart of a child who just saw his father walk out the door or his mother beaten. Who has had to endure soul-crushing abuse of many kinds. Who has struggled but never fit in anywhere he went. Who can never live up to the performance of an older sibling or the expectations of a driven parent. Children feel pain just as adults do, only moreso, and what they experience can have a lifetime of consequences.
I know I sound so critical of the church, and I must admit that there are times I get terribly frustrated. I know we, as the body, are not perfect. We won't be in this life. But we can set aside our own agenda, our predisposition to be neat and tidy, our desire to see everyone pull themselves together and hit one for the team, and be what we are called to be, the eyes and mouths and arms and feet of Jesus.
Somewhere along the line the church got sidetracked. The tools that were used to train our kids became an end unto themselves so that value of a child was measured by his ability to sit still, or answer the right questions or memorize scripture or, better yet the catechism, or perform service projects or dress nicely or speak intelligently to the elderly . . . in essence, to be good little boys and girls.
But if you learn, as a child, that the church is for "good" people and that your behavior matters more than your pain, sure, it makes total sense to me that you are going to leave and never look back.
Somewhere along the line the church became about doing and not about being. About programs and not about relationships. About exhortation and not about Good News. About behavior and not about hearts. What children learn about church tells them a lot about God. Heaven forbid we ever give them reason to think God doesn't care.