In the second presentation, then, we saw that we can attribute most of the attrition that we’ve experienced among the young people who’ve left to what we could call spiritual discouragement. By that, if encouragement is to add courage and discouragement is to take it away, we use the term encouragement as a term to define what causes people to take action. So what would cause someone to take action to become a part of the church? Or discouraged enough to leave it? We saw that there are four biological systems of encouragement that are wired into the human brain. And we believe that if we focus on these four things, we will be in sync with the way God designed us and that we can more easily encourage people to become interested in God and spiritual things, and perhaps even to come back to the church.
Those four things, by the way, are belonging…. Before people will be encouraged enough to be a part of any group, they need to feel a part of it. They need to feel a sense of belonging. They also need to feel a sense of mastery. They have to have something that they can contribute that adds to the group. The third thing is autonomy. A man mentioned to me once that maybe they leave because they need to grow up – because there’s been so much control that a lot of times our young people don’t get to make any decisions about spiritual things. So we know God has engineered into our minds the need for autonomy and decision-making. So if we can provide that, perhaps that will help. The fourth thing is service out of a generous heart – not to be seen, but to help. So people who are involved that way are encouraged. I saw that in spades with my own eyes at Camp Outreach this summer. I saw how the young people responded to the opportunity to help people who couldn’t help themselves as a part of their church.
In the sermon today we’re going to begin fleshing out a plan to create a congregation that causes the young people in it to feel spiritually encouraged and to hold out hope of encouragement to those who are on the outside of it and who are looking in. This approach that I’ve just detailed constitutes a change in my plan for this series. I originally thought that these four biological systems of encouragement could be covered in one sermon. Silly me. Each of the four points is rich with meaning and I intend to spend an entire sermon on each one. So to do our lost children justice, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. In this sermon we will have some thoughts on how to create a sense of belonging among young people, which is the first of the biological systems that I mentioned. Doesn’t it make sense, if you’re trying to figure out how to help people come back, that you work according to nature and what God has created? So that’s what we’re going to do.
I’ll begin by saying that if you are able to talk to a number of young adults who have left their church, and ask them about the critical incident that preceded their departure, you would hear from each one of them a story that includes a breech of trust. The various splits that have taken place in the organizations. The abuse of their parents by those in authority. The inability of congregations to include them. The bad examples set by their peers and by various adults, including the ministry. And all the double standards that have been set in our behavior. I was talking to the daughter of a minister recently. He had been expelled from his pastorate. And she was explaining to me how the organization disapproved of his style of pastoring. And yet he was much loved by the people in his congregation because he served them and was a good shepherd. In an effort to dislodge him – because they didn’t really have any concrete, legitimate reason to get rid of him – they began to actively seek tale-bearers and false witnesses to come forward so they could build a case against him. She realized that this was all politically motivated and had nothing to do with his character. So it embittered her toward those who attacked her father and destroyed her trust in the organization – and maybe in all organized religion. The sad thing about that is, her story is not unique. There are lots of stories like that that people can tell about church. And so it is here that we need to focus our efforts and our thinking – about how to rebuild trust with those who’ve lost faith – lost trust in us and in the church.
People feel a sense of belonging when they trust that they will be accepted into the group – that they have a place and that they’re going to be cared about and cared for. I recently had an experience that underscored the depths of our impoverishment in this area.
I went to visit some young adults I know. And I really love and respect these people – two young couples. When we were just starting up LifeResource Ministries they were very supportive of us. In the intervening time since we’ve started, I’ve called them a number of times. And I noticed that one of these couples – in calling or emailing them – that they seldom responded to me. I’d call. I’d get their machine. I’d leave a message. I’d email them. Nothing would come back. While I was with them some time ago, we all went out to dinner and I picked up the check. They wanted to know why I was doing that. And I told them that I appreciated the support they’d given Elaine and me, and that they had done that when we needed it most and I hadn’t forgotten that, and that as I’d gotten to know them better I’d also grown to love and respect them very much. Later one of the young women thanked me for saying what I had said to them at dinner, and she said to me, “You’ve emailed us and you’ve called us and we haven’t responded to you with any consistency. And I think we haven’t because we didn’t expect a minister to love us or to take notice of us.” Isn’t that a sad story? That is a sad testimonial to their experience at church through their early lives. I mean, these people are in their early thirties. So there’s no trust that their needs are going to be met in their experience with the church. And that’s been discouraging to them. Somehow they’re hanging in there with God, even though they haven’t been able to hang in there with an organization. But things are starting to look a little better in that department – in fact, a lot better. And that’s encouraging to me.
To understand how to rebuild trust, I think it’s good to go to the roots of that. In the earliest relationship that a human has as an infant, they can easily learn how to trust if mother and father become attuned to the needs of that infant. It’s all about meeting the infant’s needs. You know, they’ve studied this “six ways from Sunday.” It’s not about how long the mother holds the baby, or if we make sure that the temperature of the milk in the bottle is just right. It’s how attuned the mother and father are to the needs of the infant. Becoming attuned means that parents are concerned with all the needs of the child , instead of being concerned with the behavior only. It has to do with their needs .
Now this kind of focus causes parents to become acutely aware of their child’s inner state and to respond accordingly. When infants are cared for in this way, they learn that they will be taken care of and that they are worthy of that kind of care. That’s the message they receive. When they’ve learned those two things, they’ve learned to trust. They know they belong with their parents. Then later, we know that this feeling is generalized to all of life. We also know that this feeling is carried with them all the rest of their lives and affects, in a very positive way, all the other relationships that they have, including their relationship with God.
So people who carry this feeling with them through life have an easy time connecting to God. They feel encouraged to take part in the church, to express themselves, to be productive, to serve. I just returned from a very large activity with teens and adults. We had a youth Bible study. And at this Bible study, among the others there, there was a seventeen-year-old girl who had obviously thought a lot about spiritual issues such as baptism and her relationship with God. As I encouraged the group to talk about their thoughts, she was completely eager to express herself and lay out for us her feelings and her thoughts on it. And I could see some of the other people her age just kind of hanging back, afraid of what others might think or whatever – maybe afraid that they would look foolish or thought less of if they commented. But this girl didn’t have any of those feelings. She just sort of knew that she was going to be accepted and she just laid it out there. She’s an example of somebody who has a very secure attachment to her mother and her father.
There’s a large movement today among some Christian people toward putting infants on strict feeding schedules – you know, when they are just infants – a few days old – and building a structure into their lives. That’s the idea – they need structure. Well, all that’s great once that secure base is built in the beginning. There has to be first, though, before there is structure, that secure base. And if you’ll think about it, that’s exactly how God works with all of us. You think about how He worked with ancient Israel. Do you remember when He started to take Israel out of Egypt? Remember the very first thing that happened? He said, “I have heard your complaints about the Egyptians.” Remember that? He didn’t start making the rules until later. The first thing that happened was, God paid attention! He was attuned to their needs.
So I worry about the people that are going to bring up infants under that system that seems to be gaining some momentum in this country, because it flies in the face of all the studying that has been done about what infants really need. Do you know how a little baby will, when somebody comes to visit that’s unusual, …. I’ve seen this hundreds of times because I used to go, as a stranger, into people’s homes and talk about the church. And there’d be a young mother there with a toddler. The toddler would be up on mom’s lap, you know, just molding into her. But after a while, curiosity would get the better of the infant, and it would get down and kind of cruise by and then go back to mom to get another tankful. Then it would venture out a little further. And if I played my cards right and didn’t make too big a deal of it, sometimes that baby would crawl up in my lap – for a while, and then it would have to go back to mom. That’s where you have a baby that knows that mother is a secure base of support from which to venture forward into life. That’s a picture of that kind of attachment that’s needed. That doesn’t come from putting them on a strict feeding schedule when they are a week old. It comes from being attuned to their needs as an infant.
They’ve discovered that babies that are treated that way – whose parents are attuned to them – by the time they are a year old, they cry much less than other babies and they’re much more cooperative, because they’re secure within themselves. People used to think that babies need to learn to cry and that they can’t have everything they want right when they want it, and be tough and all that sort of thing. We know, for a fact now, that that just isn’t the way God designed babies. Babies who are cared in an attuned way tend to, when they grow up, be much more secure people.
While all this learning is going on in an infant’s brain, certain parts of the brain are being wired so that the child is going to feel a sense of attachment always. And as that child grows older and becomes a teenager, she seeks further attachment to those outside the family. She’s looking for adults she can idolize and look up to. The same places in the brain start firing again as fired in infancy when that child was learning attachment. Some people call this the second attachment that takes place. And it happens with those outside the family. Almost everybody can tell a story in high school about some teacher or coach that impacted their life in a positive way. That’s because they’re hard-wired to find those kind of attachments.
Certainly church should be a place where those things can happen to us. And if a congregation does not provide attachment points while the brain is hungering for it, it’s a lot like an infant that’s not receiving its primary attachment that it needs. So a hole in the life in the young person develops – a hole in the area where spirituality is to be developed. That’s one of the reasons why we have a huge population of young adults who have left us – because we have not concentrated on being attuned to them. We’ve concentrated on being attuned to those who are in charge, and on accumulating power and status for ourselves, and on being right and things like that. We have left off taking care of people and serving one another. So these people have left us because, in large part, we failed to take care of their spiritual need. We failed to provide the secure spiritual attachment that they needed.
You know, you can talk to them – if you know some of them – and they will tell you they feel uncomfortable when they go to church. They remember all of that feeling of not being able to fit in anywhere. They know that as they grew up, it feels to them like their parents and others weren’t truthful with them about the church. They thought the people in the church were righteous, and then they found out that they were just human. And it was a big disappointment. They thought they would have to be perfect and they know that they never could be, so that was discouraging to them. So it just seemed like there was no way to connect to us.
So what do we do about that? How do we fix what’s been broken for so long? Well, if we want to keep the ones we have, and win back those who have left, we’ve got to start making some changes in the way we think and the way we do church. Programs are not going to fix this problem – because they are personal problems. They are eyeball-to-eyeball, face-to-face, heart-to-heart problems. And that is the only way they’re going to be solved. We have got to stop thinking about a programmatic approach to solving problems and start thinking about helping people one at a time – each one of us doing what we can with the people that come across our path every day.
Since many of our young people don’t trust the church or the people in it, and since trust is first developed in infancy, it helps if we think about the concept of re-parenting . What is that? What is re-parenting? Well, re-parenting is the way to help people rebuild trust. Now, does that mean, by using that term, that all parents of all those who’ve left have been failures and that’s why their children need to be re-parented? No. I’m not using the term that way. It’s not my purpose to place blame here. That doesn’t do any good. We’re talking about how to fix the problem, not how to blame somebody for it. What we want to do is learn how to help people who are younger – and older, for that matter – to return to the faith. And since we can see that they don’t trust, and since trust is first learned in infancy, and since we need to help them rebuild trust, principles of re-parenting are some of the things that we can think about that will be helpful.
Re-parenting does not necessarily imply someone older having an affect on someone who is younger. People can re-parent themselves. You know, when somebody comes out of an alcohol program, they have been re-parented, because a lot of the reasons why people have addiction problems is because of their family background. And a lot of people that come out of those programs have had to think their way through what they lost, and they’ve had to work at rebuilding that in their own lives. So people can re-parent themselves and peers can re-parent peers. The whole idea of it is to simply rebuild trust. It can give parents a new start by teaching them a new way to rebuild trust with children. And it can help congregations become a trusted part of an extended family.
Okay, now I want to stop right here for a minute and ask you a question. I’ve brought into the mix this concept of re-parenting. Is that something that has any Biblical basis? Or is it just some principle of psychology – some psycho-babble term that I pulled out a book some place to fill up time and notes on a page? Well, actually the concept of re-parenting is a very old and very well-known principle of psychology, but it’s also Biblical. Let’s turn to I Thessalonians 2, and verse 7. This is a passage where Paul is talking to a congregation. Some had come among them and criticized Paul while he was not there. That’s usually the way it works. And some apparently believed those who’d criticized. And so a breach had occurred in the relationship between Paul and the Thessalonians. I want you to notice what he says in an effort to restore trust.
I Thess. 2:7 – But we were gentle among you . “We didn’t establish any feeding schedules. We didn’t tell you how the “cow ate the cabbage.” We didn’t start bossing you around.” We were gentle among you, just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children. See that tells us how mothers should rear their children, doesn’t it? They should be gentle and cherish them. When we cherish someone we’re very much attuned to what’s going on with them, aren’t we? We notice everything about them. So affectionately longing for you, we were well pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God, but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us. Wow! You know, I wonder if my friends that I was just telling you about felt like they were every dear to any adults outside of their family in the church? I wonder if any adults outside of the church, when they went off to camp, or off to college, affectionately longed for them and missed them while they were gone? I wonder if any of the people that were in their lives in the congregation cherished them and looked forward to seeing them every Sabbath when they got there?
I’m having an amazing opportunity to meet a lot of young people around the country as I travel. And I’ve been working at building connections with them so that they’ll know at least one minister – and I hope they know others – that pays attention to them – that cares about them. And sometimes I’ll call them up and tell them that I’m lonesome for them, and that I wish I could see them and I want to talk to them. And they respond well to that. That’s the kind of relationship that encourages people. And that’s the kind of relationship that the Apostle Paul used to rebuild trust among people in whom trust had been destroyed. And he uses the example of a nursing mother. You see, back then, they didn’t think about feeding schedules and stuff like that. They thought about taking care of, and cherishing, and loving and being gentle with their children. And he compares his own behavior toward them to a parent – a mother, as she gently attends to the needs of an infant child. And he says his love for them went way beyond simply imparting information about the gospel to them. He gave of himself to them. He loved them. He gave them his love and his care and his attention. He was attuned to them just like a loving mother would. And when he was absent from them, he longed to be with them. He liked them. He liked to be around them.
In our efforts to reclaim those who’ve left us, we would do well to follow the example of this apostle as he works to rebuild his relationship with these alienated people. You remember the story of the lost son, don’t you? How he left in a huff, took the money? You remember who saw him coming back first? It was his father. He hadn’t forgotten. He was still looking for him. He still loved him. He still cherished him. He hadn’t written him off – hadn’t given up on him. That is the model for us – if we hope to reclaim those who have left.
Now God is the one who orchestrates all of that, but we are supposed to be sharp instruments in His hands. And we’re supposed to study our Bibles so we know what to do. We need to be gently taking care of them, and seeking them out, and meeting their spiritual needs, focusing our attention and love on them, and cherishing them and praying for them.
Let’s get away from generalities now and turn toward some specific things we can do to make a gentle connection to those who have left. In that, we’re going to be talking about rebuilding trust and a connection of belonging.
First of all – the first point I want to make about this – is that in any endeavor like this, we cannot sit back and wait for them to come to us. We have to make the first move. When people have lost trust, when they are alienated, they’re not going to make the first move. They’ve been turned away. So we’re going to have to be the ones to reach out. If we think about how God deals with us, we can clearly see that. Humankind has gone way off from God and He wishes to restore the relationship, so His Son sacrificed His life for us, and then God reaches out to us and calls us through that sacrifice. That’s not just sitting back and waiting on us to make the first move, is it?
Now what would that look like in our world? We’ve already seen one example of it, actually. In the first sermon of this series, we saw the example of a young woman who reached out periodically to a friend who had stopped attending church. She would call him every few weeks or so – just to talk about nothing in particular, but to let him know that she had not forgotten him. Of course, he knew that she was still going to church. So she didn’t have to say anything about that, did she? As far as he was concerned, she was the church calling. And she just wanted him to know that she hadn’t forgotten him. And when she would come home from college on break, she would look him up. That didn’t happen very often, because she was gone a lot. It didn’t have to happen a lot. We know from the story that he’s now back at church. Do you know somebody who’s left that you care about? What could you do to reach out to that person and let them know that you still value them as a person? What could you do to take the initiative to reestablish connection in a non-threatening, kind of low-level? Think about helping them to feel valued as a person, rather than haranguing them about religion right away. What could you do? The fact that they know you still obey God is always very powerful, so we don’t have to say anything about those things at first. If we reach out to people, we’re speaking to that part of the brain that causes us to be encouraged. When we are included, we consequently feel like we belong. So that’s a first step, isn’t it? To just take the first step – to reach out to people and make some kind of human contact with them. You don’t have to talk about church at first, because church is all wrapped up in you and they know it.
The second thing to think about is to use activities as a connecting point. I’ve been talking to three young married couples, who’ve begun home fellowships. When they get together in their different fellowships, they study the Bible together, or they listen to a sermon on tape and then they have a discussion about it afterwards. They eat together. They sing together. I believe some of them pray together. I was listening to the excitement in their voices as they explained how much fun church was for them now and how much they were learning. Rather than that artificial, boring, irrelevant experience they’d had at services as children and teenagers, church was now exciting and spiritually enriching to them. They were excited, in part, I think, because they had been very much discouraged in the past about their own ability to find spirituality in church. Everybody went there, week after week, and seemed to be getting something out of it, and yet they didn’t. So how does that make you feel when that happens to you? It makes you think that you’re the odd man out – that you don’t belong, that you don’t fit. And I’m sure, that in the past, they wondered what was wrong with them? Why they couldn’t get anything from services? And I’m sure that that was discouraging to them. But now they were finding a way to respond to God on the Sabbath that was interesting and strengthening to them. You could hear the encouragement in their voices. They were very encouraged in a very powerful way.
As they were talking, I was wondering what their friends who had left years ago might find if they were to be invited into such a warm, meaningful, caring environment. And I wondered if they would be encouraged to find that church could be a positive, enriching experience for them, too. And I know that’s a leap for some of them. There are some people I can think about that would probably be ripe for that, and then there are others I can think of that wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. But if we don’t think about those we hope to see back at services and who couldn’t tolerate a home fellowship, perhaps an invitation to do something together – a picnic, or coming to dinner, or out to lunch, or maybe even just a cup of coffee at a coffee shop – anything to get face-to-face, to make eye contact, to smile at them – to let them know that we care about them. Remember, the relationship that’s been transmitted from generation to generation – the relationship with God – always goes through relationships. So this might be another way we can help people understand that they have a place – if we show some interest in them.
You know, you try that and it’s not accepted right away, and you keep trying it. You try it for a couple of years – three, four years, maybe – and you just maintain that low-level relationship. What if they never come back? What have you lost? Nothing. And of course, we know there’s something further down the road than just tomorrow for us anyway – and for them!
The third thing to think about – we need to be mindful of taking care of them, even though they’re not with us anymore. If we were to march through the gospels and read every interaction that Jesus had with people, we would be surprised, I think, to see how much effort He spent taking care of people – healing people, helping them understand things, asking them questions to get them to think. People asked him some pretty insulting questions and He never got upset with them. He did have a way of drilling them pretty well. But it was always in a friendly way. I think we need to start thinking about that as a spiritual quality, rather than being in charge and being right all the time. We need to start thinking about doing it the way He did it and doing what we can to take care of people. We need to think about those people who have left and what they need spiritually to rebuild trust and to feel comfortable with us as people, and eventually with us at church.
It’s not been our focus to do this – to take care of each other relationally. Because we’ve been so spiritually impoverished in this area of our Christian lives, we’ve paid a big price for that in the losses we’ve suffered. Many have left seeking to find a way to meet their own spiritual needs and their own relational needs. So, if we want to turn that around, we’re going to have to begin working to help those who have left and to help them experience a sense of belonging once again. And that comes first through a relationship.
The fourth thing I want to mention is, that we need to seek to understand their story and their experience. Once we establish a relationship with people who have left, they may be open to talking about why. I don’t think we want to talk about that in the beginning, but at some point, that will come up, because they all have a story to tell about what happened to them – that caused them to leave. And it’s not going to be a pretty picture. If that time should come, we need to understand how important it is for them to be able to talk about it, and someone to hear it. Not someone, who every time they say something, reminds them of what happened to them , and then they launch into their story about what happened. But someone to listen to their story – not to tell their own.
If you hold in your mind the faces of some of the people that you know have left, every one of those people whose faces you can see has a story. And if we ask them to tell us the key event that led to their departure, they’re going to be able to tell a very specific hurtful event that caused them to leave. The telling of that story to somebody who cares for them is the beginning of their spiritual return and their healing. Once that narrative is given a voice, that narrative will start to change in their mind and new chapters will be added to it. And those chapters will be about the return. That’s also a principle of psychology. But I think you’ll see that it’s also a Biblical principle as well. I think if they’re allowed to continue that story with someone who cares about them – who’s interested to hear it – the outcome of that narrative is going to be a lot better.
Now I think we need to be careful about this – not to press. But make no mistake, until they’ve told their story and moved past it to a better place, they’re still going to be stuck. So if we’re interested in helping people, we need to know that that’s coming at some point, and we need to be ready to listen to it with all of our hearts and our ears fully attuned to them. Have you ever noticed when a little kid scrapes its knee, and he comes running to mom, what soothes it the most? It’s not slapping a Band-Aid on it right away. It’s pulling the child up and giving it a hug and listening while the child tells what happened. That’s what soothes them. We’re not really that much different when we get older than when we were very much younger.
Now, a note for all those, who by nature want to fix everything, answer every question, solve every problem, make everyone well. Just listen. Don’t talk. It’s their story. You have a chance to tell yours somewhere else. Now it’s their turn. Let them do that.
Well, that wraps up our thoughts on this aspect of re-parenting – restoring a sense of belonging by building a sense of trust. And I hope we’re all encouraged that there are things that we can do if we will only begin thinking about them – being mindful of them. God will put the opportunities in front of us as we are ready for them. More than that, dropping off all those things that aren’t spiritually important and focusing on the same thing that Jesus focused on. He said He came to seek and to save that which was lost, not to appoint a bunch of people to big positions, and accumulate a lot of money, and make sure everybody stayed on the track doctrinally right down to the end. That hasn’t happened. I’m sure it could have if He wanted that, but that hasn’t happened. But He did say that He came to seek and to save that which was lost. And we are to follow His example. So let’s start thinking about that. Let’s change our spiritual values and make that something of a priority. The question to us is, “Will we leave off the doctrinal wrangling, the control and the politics and begin to value people and reach out to those who need help and don’t know it?”
The next time we’ll focus on another of these four pillars of encouragement – that of helping those who have left to rebuild some spiritual competence. And that is a potent relational tool.