Below is an article written by my sometime editor (and the first man to pay me for writing - thanks, Warren!), Warren Smith of World Newspaper Publishing. Here Warren wrestles with the very different approach to 'youth ministry' one finds among the Amish and Mennonite Communities, in light of the recent tragic shootings of several Amish children. 'Different,' that is, from the manifestly failed system in most evangelical churches. Historical note: the Amish are the descendents (spiritual and lineal) of the Anabaptists, who first came to prominence as part of the 'Radical Reformation,' which believed that Luther and the other magisterial Reformers did not go far enough in purging the church of heresy and immorality. Some, like Thomas Müntzer, were radical and revolutionary, while the Amish and Mennonites, of course, are peaceful. Warren's article is excellent and right on target. Each Christian father and mother, especially those of us idenitifiable within the broader 'Evangelical' community, should take these words to heart.
Learning From The Amish
By Warren Smith
COMMENTARY--Since World War II, the evangelical church has spent a lot of time, money, and energy on activities designed to grow the church – from bus ministries in the 1960s to rock music in the 70s and 80s to direct mail campaigns today. Individual churches have grown dramatically, but the truth is that there are more people and fewer churches in America than at any time in the last half-century. And the influence of the church in this country is perhaps at an all-time low.
A couple of items in the headlines this week provide a hint as to why things have become this way. The first item that caught my eye was a "New York Times" article from Oct. 6 titled "Evangelicals Fear The Loss Of Their Teenagers." The article quoted a Barna survey saying that most evangelical teenagers leave their faith when they reach adulthood. The article also quoted Ron Luce, who leads a ministry called Teen Mania. Luce told the "Times," "We’ve become post-Christian America, like post-Christian Europe. We’ve been working as hard as we know how to work — everyone in youth ministry is working hard — but we’re losing."
Of course, I think a case could be made – and this is one of the ironies here -- that the REASON we’re losing our teens is because we have "outsourced" the discipleship of our children to ministries such as Teen Mania. It’s much harder to talk with our children about Jesus than to send them to someone who does that for a living. And as long as their friends are there, and you keep the program moving along, the kids don’t seem to notice that they’re not getting the best of their parents.
In short, we lose our teens because they eventually grow up and wise up at least enough to realize they’ve been cheated by their parents and by the church.
By the way, Teen Mania does about $25-million a year in revenue, mostly from product sales and conference registrations. Maybe my journalistic cynicism has gotten the better of me, but I’m growing weary of millionaire ministers telling me how bad things are so I will send them money – money they will use with good intentions, but which is actually -- clear-headed analysis shows -- making things worse.
Compare that approach to "youth ministry" to what we saw from the Amish this week. I learned more about Jesus from the Amish grandfather who forgave the killer of his grandchildren than I have learned from many a seminar or survey. The families of the victims embraced the family of the killer, even inviting them to the funeral and setting up a fund for the killer’s wife and children.
This week I interviewed Dr. Donald Kraybill, one of the nation’s leading experts on the Amish and Mennonite cultures, and he told me that the Amish don’t have the problem that evangelicals are wringing their hands over, this problem of their kids leaving their faith. In fact, more than 90 percent of their children embrace their parents’ religion when they reach adulthood. And it’s not because these Amish fathers and grandfathers are trying to be "relevant." Just the opposite. These Amish kids embrace their parents’ faith because they spend time with them, and know their hearts, and ultimately discover that the faith of their fathers is the real deal.
I’m not quite ready to give my car away and join the Amish or the Old Order Mennonites, but you’ve got to admit that they’re doing something right. The tragic shooting of 10 Amish children in Pennsylvania clearly demonstrates that you can’t fully insulate yourself from the evils of the world, but one of the reasons this story has become an international sensation is precisely because it happens so rarely in such communities, and when it did happen, we learned how genuine and deep the faith of these people really is.
As evangelicals we’ve got to remember that the Great Commission tells us not to make converts, but to make disciples. Jesus said to teach all things I’ve commanded. We evangelicals – and I include myself in that number – have become too enamored with what I call body count evangelism. How many people walked the aisle this week? How many people showed up at our conferences? How much money are we taking in and spending? What we should be concerned about is how many of us are still standing firm for Jesus when the times get hard.
For the people in Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania, the times got very hard indeed this week. But from what I can see, they also have a faith that will see them through. A faith about which many of us – even those of us who call ourselves committed, evangelical Christians – still have a lot to learn.
Warren Smith is the publisher of the Evangelical Press News Service. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org