When a child or adult is baptised in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) the congregation is usually asked a question in addition to the parents or individual. While the exact words may change, the gist of the question is whether or not the members of the congregation will help teach the individual about their faith and encourage them as they walk with God so they can continue to grow and believe.
Despite churches’ best intentions to guide young people into lifelong faith, studies show that monthly religious attendance in Canada has fallen from 42 percent in 1986 to 23 percent in 2015 (Angus Reid). Furthermore, a poll by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) found 45 percent of young adults attend church less than they did when they were teenagers. It can feel like we are failing to pass along the story of God’s works to the next generation so they too may praise God (Psalm 102:18).
KEEPING THE FAITH
Even so, the Christian faith is not destined to die out in Canada. That same study by EFC noticed that while many young adults are stepping back from church attendance and church affiliation, the number who choose to stay is increasing. In 2011, 47 percent of Catholic teens and 36 percent of mainline Protestant teens stayed affiliated with the church. In 2018, those numbers increased to 55 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
These teenagers are realizing that their faith and their church community play an important role in their lives. Because of this knowledge, they are choosing to immerse themselves in youth programs that help them wrestle with the hard questions of life within a community that loves them wholeheartedly, lives life alongside them and listens to their struggles.
Churches are rising to the challenge. Many congregations across Canada are working hard to teach, to love and to walk with the teenagers in their midst. One way to do this is through the creation of mentorship programs.
CALVIN CRC, OTTAWA
When the teens at Calvin CRC in Ottawa, Ontario were asked what their favourite part of youth group was, the resounding answer was “TACO Tuesdays!” Kendra Jaspers-Fayer, a teen from Calvin CRC, explains that this is the night roughly once a month when “we each pair up with an adult from the congregation to hang out, do activities, sports, or all sorts of things. We get to really connect with the adults of our church community.”
While tacos might seem like a symbolic representation for one of the activities the teens and mentors do when they hang out – eating – it’s actually an acronym. TACO stands for Take a CIA Member Out, and CIA, which means Christians In Action, is the acronym used for the church’s youth ministry. TACO began six years ago after the Calvin CRC Youth and Congregational Life Pastor, Ron Hosmar, attended a soul care retreat for youth leaders and pastors. While there, he learned about teen mentorship programs. The concept spoke to him and Hosmar brought the program home.
“It’s important to me because research has shown that young people who have multiple contact points in a church community – [who are] not their immediate family – tend to continue in a church community once they move away from home,” explained Hosmar.
While research says it’s important for teens to be connected to more than one person at their church, the teens of Calvin CRC live out this benefit.
“I think [having a mentor] is really cool, because this age is an age where you have a lot of questions. And you need a person to help you along and be a friend,” said Ella Brinkman.
“To talk about what’s going on in our lives,” added Nisse Anonby.
It can be easy to fall into the belief that to attract young people to our churches the services and events need to be flashy and exciting. But, when I asked the teens of Calvin what else they liked besides TACO Tuesdays, I was met with silence.
After a minute or so, a few started speaking up about different things they do: Bible studies, mission night and fun things. However, the fun activities were not the draw. As Anonby explains, “last year we only did fun things. But this year, there’s been a good mix [of different activities].”
“It’s cool to reach out and go beyond the church doors or Starbucks [for TACO nights],” adds Brinkman.
IMMANUEL CRC, LANGLEY
The appeal of the mentor is not a surprise to Kevin Lobert, the Youth Pastor at Langley Immanuel CRC. He explained, “you can’t out entertain the world. It’ll lead to failure if you try.”
Like Hosmar, Lobert deeply believes in the importance of connecting the teens in his church with adults who will love them and guide them. “Youth need relationships,” said Lobert.
He believes it’s the church’s responsibility to connect the teenagers in their church congregations with adults who will live life with them. These adults truly do live life with these young people. As Lobert points out, “this is not a once a week thing, it’s a five-year journey to walk alongside the youth.”
IT'S ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS
At Calvin CRC, it’s a four-year commitment. Although, as Judy McDowall, one of the mentors, points out, their relationship with the teens rarely ends when the teen graduates. She continues to pray for and talk to her former mentees as they move on from the youth group to university or wherever their life takes them next.
While neither church has 100 percent of their teens keeping their faith after graduation, 15 of the 17 mentors at Langley Immanuel CRC are former youth group members and many others are involved in the worship services and children’s ministries.
“It’s the importance of plugging in and getting involved,” said Lobert. Loneliness is an epidemic. It is wreaking havoc across Canada. More and more people are saying they don’t feel like they fit in with the people they spend time with, or they don’t feel like they get the support or sense of togetherness they need. By actively connecting with others in the congregation, both the mentors and mentees are able to combat this deep longing for someone who hears and sees them.
Deciding who should serve as a mentor is a bit of an art form. It may seem simple to ask the teenagers who they want to be their mentor, but neither Langley Immanuel nor Calvin does that. Lobert started out 11 years ago, he spent time getting to know the young adults in the church and drew his mentors from them. Hosmar and his team prayerfully consider the different adults in their congregation to see who they think might be a good match based on different neutral commonalities like having the same spiritual gift.
Despite the long-term commitment these volunteers make, neither church has had trouble finding people to give of their time in their way. In fact, the only reason Hosmar has ever had someone say “no,” was that they weren’t able to meetup with the teenager on Tuesdays.
As churches reach out to walk alongside the teens in our midst, mentorship programs can help bridge gaps, fill the connection void and wade through the uncertainty of the teenage years. Then these teens will be able to move forward in their faith and their lives knowing they have people behind them who are praying for them and loving them every step of the way.
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