I’m working through the book Sticky Faith with my Youth Discipleship students right now. Reading it always draws me back to the story of the “Prodigal Son.”
The central premise of our textbook is this: a large majority of students who embrace Christianity during their teenage years and follow the traditional “youth group” experience walk away from their faith in the early years of college and/or young adulthood. In an effort to create a faith that is more “sticky,” the authors encourage churches, parents, and youth ministers to build deep and diverse relationships with teens even as they help them ask real, deep, and complex questions about their faith.
I think about the story of the Prodigal Son in this mix because it is about two young men. One is the stay-at-home do-gooder. The other lives the wild life. Yet at the end of the story, the one with the better relationship with his father is the son who left to explore the “far country.” The faithful, stay-at-home child has, it turns out, a somewhat stunted view of what it means to be a son.
In some ways the story from Luke 15 supports the complexifying of faith that the Sticky Faith people urge.* For instance, while making us contented youth ministers in the here and now, having a group of students who are seemingly “safe” and apparently obedient at all times (like the elder son) should not be our goal. Yet the implications of the biblical story are more haunting then that. The younger son doesn’t just consider tough questions about his relationship with his father. He actually leaves it behind. Only after he discovers the bankruptcy of life outside his family does he return.
The implications of this for modern youth ministry are…unsettling. Amongst the Amish, after all, some young people roam free in the wide world before entry into religious adulthood. Most of them choose to take their place back home after their time in the world.
Am I suggesting we encourage students to roam free and deny themselves no worldly experience because maybe it will make them holy? I don’t think so…but there is the possibility that this approach could be more beneficial than operating a youth ministry out of fear just to keep students safe. As it turns out, staying at home didn’t mean the elder son knew what it was all about. Being a “good” youth group student doesn’t guarantee lasting faith either.
While the answers are-as usual-probably somewhere more towards the middle, I believe strongly that students and young adults must ultimately make their own decisions. Hopefully we will have prepared them to think through things with godly wisdom, but the choices they make in their lives must be theirs. We cannot force them to make the right decision every single time. To do so is ultimately foolish, for it is both an untenable practice and accomplishes nothing but rigid adherence to a set of external rules. Authentic personhood and authentic Christianity requires more.
Sticky Faith and approaches like it are pushing us in the right direction. We just need to have the courage to let students-mentored and guided by loving parents, teachers, friends, and ministers-begin to make decisions on their own.
Even if sometimes they are the wrong ones.
*My good friend and colleague Will Cosnett has offered some helpful exegetical points about the passage in question (see comments section), and I’ve edited the post in response. I still think there are some ways that it may connect with the main theme here.