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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Halting the Youth Exodus from Church: Spiritual Formation as Instruction and Participation

Published Monday, November 8, 2021 By Joshua Pauling

Denominations across the spectrum are facing the reality of youth attrition. Findings from Pew Research Center suggest that upwards of three-quarters of today’s religious “nones” were “raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood.” Historically, at least a portion of those who left the church would return when they started families. But such a pattern for today’s youth no longer holds as church was not formative in their own lives to begin with, and as young adults are less likely to marry and have children. Ryan Burge warns: “The data is speaking a clear message: the assumptions that undergirded church growth from two decades ago no longer apply. If churches are sitting back and just waiting for all their young people to flood back in as they move into their 30s, they are likely in for a rude awakening.”

A common approach to this problem is to focus on improving instruction for youth: strengthening their Christian worldview; fixing their biblical illiteracy; debunking their Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Of course, these are all vital tasks. But without accompanying participation in the life of the church and countering the formative cultural influences on teens’ lives with a stronger formation and habituation, I wonder if it will last. Yes, we Christians know very well that ideas matter, but habits matter too.

I’m reminded here of a quote from Ivan Illich in his provocative and prophetic 1971 book Deschooling Society, where he claims that modern schooling causes students “to confuse process with substance.” As Illich sees it, “most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.” Considering Illich’s point in relation to catechesis and church practice is illuminating. Do catechesis efforts in the church mimic modern schooling and confuse “process with substance” by focusing exclusively on instruction and neglecting participation and formation? Certainly, catechesis must include instruction; the word itself means to “re-sound” or “teach by word of mouth” and Christianity will always be creedal, consisting of essential truth claims. But if there is even an element of truth in Illich’s argument that most learning is “the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting,” catechetical instruction should be situated in a broader context of habits, practices, and formative influences in which one participates. Below I consider this further and offer some questions for deeper reflection upon catechesis and church practice.

Catechesis: Instruction towards Memorization and Meditation

Thomas Korcok explores the relationship between instruction and participation in his book Lutheran Education: From Wittenberg to the Future. He writes, “in the 16th century, Lutheran…catechetical training…used the Small Catechism as the basis for developing a devotional life” (160). However, by the early 19th century, for many confessional Lutherans, including the migrants to America who eventually formed the LCMS, the catechism was coming to be viewed as a “systematic compendium of Christian doctrine” that was “not so much to be prayed as…to be memorized and followed” (153).

In Korcok’s words, this, “reveals a stark divergence from Luther’s thought whose understanding of catechesis was much more spiritually oriented.…Thus Luther talked about ‘praying’ the catechism, with the belief that, as one meditated upon the words, God would work through the word to teach the catechumen divine truth” (212). In the 19th century, the catechism was portrayed more frequently “as an abbreviated dogmatic textbook designed to supply the catechumen with a correct understanding of pure doctrine…with emphasis placed on the correct memorization…[and] intellectual assent to right doctrine” (213). The catechism was shifting from something primarily for meditation to something for memorization. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive and both are important. But if one is focused on to the exclusion of the other, Christianity is crippled.

I’m sure each denominational tradition can map a similar cycle, with the relationship between instruction in the teachings of the faith and participation in the life of faith shifting with cultural changes and historical contexts. Consider the following questions about the balance between instruction and participation.

  • Is catechesis an intellectual exercise to ensure mental assent to correct doctrine—replete with cramming, memorizing, and taking notes?
  • Is catechesis primarily a replica of school or educational classes that one needs to take to get credit, or graduate?
  • Does catechesis include not only instruction, but also aspects of formation, habituation, and participation in the sacramental life of faith?

Certainly, memorizing, note-taking, and the like are helpful auxiliaries to learning. But how is such instruction situated in a broader picture of the life of faith? If participation in the life of faith doesn’t play a role, and the approach is solely cognitive and instructional, Alan Noble suggests, “we shouldn’t be surprised when people stop showing up to church once they feel they’ve learned everything.” Noble calls this an “excarnational” approach to the Christian life, which makes “communion with God a thing that happens inside our heads, not with our whole selves, including our bodies” (130-131).

Not only does excarnation tend to isolate the life of faith in our heads, it also can isolate us from one another. Being present with the whole corporate body of the church helps resist this temptation, and plays a key role in spiritual formation. Contemplate the following:

  • Have we separated out youth from the life of the church by age-segregating every church activity and educational opportunity?
  • How can our youth even get to know or see those of different age groups and their engagement in the life of faith if they’re always separated?
  • Do we provide opportunities to forge intergenerational relationships through learning together, working together, and worshipping together?

While attempts to cater to youth or make things relevant are good-hearted, such efforts catechize young people into the idea that church is marketed to them, thus not challenging their basic self-understanding as consumers or self-made individuals. And when youth age out of that targeted demographic, many of them age out of the church too.

Church Practice: Participation in Life’s Sacramental Rhythm

When catechesis combines instruction in doctrine with participation in the life of faith, the transition to lifelong church practice comes more naturally. Life takes on a sacramental and sacred rhythm, which strengthens our ultimate identity in Christ.

Life in Christ has a daily baptismal rhythm as “the Old Adam in us,” Luther’s Small Catechism explains, “should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” (Romans 6:1-14)

So too, life in Christ has a weekly eucharistic rhythm as we return to Word and Supper which all strengthen and confirm our identity in Christ as our real and lasting identity. As the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, that “especially on the festive day of rest” we are to “diligently attend the assembly of God’s people, to learn what God’s Word teaches,to participate in the sacraments, to pray to God publicly, and to bring Christian offerings for the poor….and so begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.” (Acts 2:42)

A yearly redemptive rhythm also takes shape around Christ’s historical life, recounted in the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord (Christmas), and in Holy Week. Sacred time overshadows secular time, as our routines are interrupted with events of Christ’s life, the history of salvation, and the history of the church.

Together all of this forms a lifelong sacred rhythm, that frames the passage of life as structured by the Church and marked by the milestones of God’s work in Word and Sacrament. The rites and ceremonies connected to such things become the standing stones, memorials, and reminders of who we really are—reminders that should be stronger than our memories of graduating from kindergarten or getting our driver’s license. Here are some questions worth pondering.

  • Do our bodily actions and worship practices in church communicate that Christ himself is really present with us in the preached Word and visible Word?
  • Is our practice of communion viewed as the high point of the service, or something tacked on from time to time?
  • Is communion delayed until late teen years, withheld until a test is passed, or graduation is achieved? Does this push kids away from the means of grace that could strengthen their faith in the hard years of puberty?

Which raises a related topic: how such occasions are marked and remembered.

  • Are baptisms accompanied with joyous celebration and attention? Do we even know the date of our own baptism, let alone recognize it each year?
  • Are we moving youth with excitement to reception of the Lord’s Supper? Is it marked with any special rite of passage, memorializing it for the holy occasion that it is?
  • Do our kids have more memories of celebrating end of the season sports awards and birthday parties, than of their first communion or confirmation?
  • How do we mark the journey from baptism to communion? And, if practiced, from communion to confirmation? And then, from confirmation to the estate of holy matrimony, and finally to the rite of Christian burial?

These are the rites of passage and identity-makers of the Christian life that we can strengthen and fortify, so that Christian identity is stronger than the identity found in so many other places today. The pattern and rhythm of God’s working through the means of grace in the Church is made even stronger when it resonates with the rhythms of the home through using Scripture, the hymnal, the prayers, and historic liturgies of the Church as a family.

Just as much as we should celebrate such occasions, we should also provide ample room for the free expression of lament for death, sickness, and suffering. Gregory Schulz argues in LOGIA Journal, that if we don’t practice lament in the Church, we “undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.” Here are some questions to consider in relation to lament:

  • Have youth ever gone on a homebound visit with the pastor?
  • Have youth ever encountered a dead body at a funeral and participated in the rite of Christian burial?
  • Do our churches rightly sorrow and mourn at death as a part of the brokenness of the post-Fall world, or paper over it with celebrations of life that treat it like a natural part of the cycle of life?
  • Have our young women ever humbly prepared the funeral pall that proclaims Christ’s victory over our greatest enemy of death?
  • Have our young men ever carried a casket and placed it in the ground?

Instruction and Participation in the Christian Story

The question of what happens after youth group, confirmation, catechesis, or communion is not going away. Our instructional efforts to address this issue must also be accompanied by participation in life’s sacred reality—the deeper pattern and structure of time and history that is found most fully and truly in the Church. Clear, strong, biblical instruction is needed for youth. But so too is participation, or incorporation into the Church’s life and story. This is the essence of koinonia: participation “in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5), “with the Father” (I John 1:3,6), “with one another” (I John 1:7), and “in the blood …[and] the body of Christ” (I Cor. 10:16).

God doesn’t reveal himself to us in a Bible just filled with instruction and propositions about his attributes—or a compendium of doctrine for memorization. He reveals himself within a story, both true and beautiful. Its rhythms become our rhythms. It’s songs, become our songs. It’s story, becomes our story. It is a real, historical story, of unsurpassed artistry and truth, that speaks to humanity’s universal experience of fallenness and the common desire for restoration and forgiveness. Even more, it presents a living person, Jesus Christ, the God who has taken on flesh, overcome death, and reversed our Fall by the indestructible power of his life.

When catechesis is both instruction and participation in this story, formed and strengthened by the sacramental rhythms of the Church and echoed in the home, we stack the deck a bit more in favor of youth remaining in the faith. Such practice and formation continually announce to us our true identity and make it so as Christ’s work is ours through Word and sacrament. By means of this union with Christ, our identity is sure and firm, enabling us to face the sting of death and whatever may come—whether we are young or old.

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo MagazineFront Porch RepublicMere OrthodoxyPublic DiscourseQuillette MagazineSalvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Joshua Pauling

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