Mainline denominations have only begun to recognize the alarmingly low numbers of clergy under the age of 35. In my denomination, the United Church of Christ, I am one of only 207 clergy in that age bracket—about 4 percent of total clergy.
My friend David Burke, veteran youth pastor and church consultant, met recently with leaders of a midsized congregation to help assess their youth ministry. When lunchtime rolled around, a lanky 20-something pizza delivery guy wandered into the church’s youth room with several pizzas.
New “nonnegotiable” guidelines for evangelism at Young Life ministries has led to the closing of a North Carolina office of the group and the claim by a national expert on youth and religion that the organization is moving in a fundamentalist and authoritarian direction.
Riding a bus full of rowdy, screaming teenagers can be hazardous and should be attempted only by trained professionals. Since I am a youth pastor, I am often blessed with this ministry opportunity, which usually involves walking through the bus to keep the conversation to a dull roar. I usually learn something about my students in the process. On one of these trips, for example, a student asked me, “Why do you do this?” “Well,” I said slowly, “when you were a baby, your parents brought you before the whole congregation to be baptized. On that day, we made a promise to you and to God.”
What is missing from the camp portrayed in Jesus Camp, or at least from the film account of it, is the fun. In my church camp days, I enticed non-Christian friends to go to my camp by telling them how much fun it would be. My counselors taught me how to canoe, how to fake fart, how to belay up a rope and how to flirt with girls. The counselors were college kids who were “on fire for Jesus,” but they loved me for myself—not as a future foot soldier in the jihad for America. That’s why I accepted their faith. If it was faith in Jesus that made them love me and others and allowed—no, encouraged—an unbridled pursuit of fun, I wanted in and I wanted to tell others about it. I still do.
Cramming more than 50 high school students into a small room for a Bible study is challenging, but getting them to talk about sex is not. When the hand of one 15-year-old boy shot up in the back of the room, I braced myself. “Is masturbation a sin?—I really gotta know.” I was proud of him—using a word like sin is hard for a teenager.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton have conducted the most comprehensive and reliable research ever done on youth and religion. For the next 50 years writers on the topic will be referring to their book.