Explaining the hope, by Ben Jeapes
The last time she saw me, I was a youth leader. It’s obviously something that weighs on her heart. This elderly lady, way past retirement age and with no Christian children of her own, can see with her own eyes that young people just aren’t coming to her church. She fears for the future. What was our church doing right that hers wasn’t, she wanted to know?
Well, the demographics are completely different, for a start. She’s in a sleepy Dorset village. I’m in a bustling Oxford dormitory town with a business park and a science park of its own. We just have more young people around.
But still, we don’t just take them for granted. Don’t think that just because you take your kids to church every Sunday, it all magically rubs off somehow. So I ran through the things we do to gain, tame, train and retain them. We talked about youth pastors, youth clubs, outreach into schools, taking assemblies, prayer spaces - all things that our local group of churches do very well, but which sadly probably won’t be happening in her town.
But to me these are all outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible truth, which is that ultimately it comes down to explanation. Whether your kids are born into the church or whether they are brought in, they won’t stay unless it makes sense.
I’ve never been very good at accepting things are as they are “because they are”. I’m a firm believer that God and his actions makes sense. There is a reason behind every “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”. We may translate his commandments into dogma, but that can miss the point of what he intended, and why, in giving those commandments in the first place. Whenever I led a Bible study with teenagers I tried to get to the bottom of why it said what it did, and “because God likes/doesn’t like it” was not a sufficient answer. It is perfectly in order to seek explanations, and no Christian should be afraid of engaging in a debate to do so.
And these explanations come from …?
It may be the story of someone’s life that you see lived out with your own eyes. It may be recounted to you orally. And of course, you may read it. Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler was the first hint I received as a child that God still does work in people’s lives today. But fictitious stories also work. A fictitious character whose life makes sense can still be a witness because the reader puts the book down, gets on with their life - and meanwhile little seeds are sprouting at the back of their mind, planted by the words you’ve been reading.
None of which necessarily helps my friend down in Dorset, but I hope it’s a start. We tell our stories and we get our testimony out there.