Who Do You Think You Are?
The global church needs to ground youth in their true, deepest identity.
About a year ago, Kenya exploded in post-election riots that resulted in a thousand deaths. Many of the killers were unemployed young people who were "hanging out and feeling people were looking down on them," says Muhia Karianjahi, the Nairobi-based director of Tanari International, an international youth outreach ministry.
This basic storyline repeats itself around the world, and is arguably to blame for much ethnic violence in other 2008 hotspots such as Jos, Nigeria, and eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
One sobering reality in these conflicts is that they are happening in very Christianized regions. Kenya is, like the U.S., about 80 percent Christian. The DRC is 95 percent Christian.
"There are churches all over the place, and Bible schools, and everything else; and planted right on top is this horrific conflict," says Wheaton College professor Paul Robinson, who grew up in eastern DRC. "Christianity doesn't make a difference—that's not your primary loyalty. Christian leaders need to ask: Isn't there a higher, deeper loyalty?"
For many young people raised in the worldwide church, the answer is no. Ethnicity is their default identity. Karianjahi says Kenya's "kids are frustrated that life is not working out." When their options fail, so does their allegiance to Christian principles. A similar dynamic seems to be at work in the U.S. Recent Barna Group research found that a majority of American youth raised in the church have left it by age 29. The issue for American Christians is less about rioting youth and more about a rising generation whose commitment to Christ may not stand when shaken. And it doesn't take much to shake it before they abandon Christ for lesser loyalties.
While we know that not all who are in the pews are in Christ, we should be concerned enough to take a second look at how we go about making disciples within the church.
Throughout Christian history, this task has been known as catechesis, the Greek term for systematic religious instruction. David Kinnaman, president and strategic leader of the Barna Group, says, "Leaders are realizing that it's not just that we need more catechism for youth but a different kind." He says more personalized, intergenerational teaching for youth is in order, to avoid giving them the impression that theology is unrelated to life outside the church.
Many young adults have gotten past questions of morality and now need answers from the church about Christian identity, how to follow their calling no matter the challenge, and how to have a positive impact on the world. The church has answers to these questions, but teaching them to the next generation is not easy.
Karianjahi has wracked his brains over this issue, and has developed a ministry to begin addressing it. Tanari International uses church-based rites of passage, based on tribal rituals, to help young people journey into the fullness of Christian faith.
At Kenya's Moi University, Emily Choge, an ethics professor and a John Stott Ministries Scholar, is doing something similar. "Instead of teaching the traditional African values or the values that separated one community from another, [we] are now using that time to instill Christian values," she says. They use ceremonies to tell youth what they are to become (in this case, full members of the church), set out expectations, and give them the community's affirmation.
While personalized teaching and rites of passage can help many young adults, it will take more than a program to develop a commitment to Christ. The church needs to reaffirm regularly in its teaching, preaching, and example that loyalty to God and identity in Christ leave all other allegiances in the dust.
This was originally published as a CT editorial and is available online.