13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
In the short vignette from the gospel of Mark chapter 10, the disciples of Jesus want to hinder children from coming to Jesus. They want to turn them away.
Why, you ask. Well, you need to consider that we live in a different day and age, a day and age where children are treated special, lovingly, and exalted. This is a very kid-centric time we live in, in most ways anyway, and rightly so. But in Jesus’ times, kids were not seen as special or exalted. For families struggling to get by and survive, children were expensive, first of all. And infant mortality was high. In other words, for most families, living hand to mouth and without modern medicine, having another kid meant many more worries. There were no gender-reveal parties in Jesus’ day.
And in public, children were to be seen but not heard. Children were often seen as nuisances when it came to adult concerns. Adults in public, men especially, didn’t want to be bothered by children.
Thankfully, Jesus was different. Jesus when it came to children was moderner in an ancient time. He treated children special, lovingly, and exalted them, as he does in our scripture reading.
But I want to focus on the disciples hindering young people from coming to Jesus. and yes, I am expanding things from children to young people. The disciples weren’t successful. However, to apply the story to us, when it comes to us hindering young people, we are much more successful, granted, unconsciously so.
There is this thing called retention. When it comes to retaining our young people, the Congregationalist-UCC tradition is very poor. According to a huge survey on religion in America from a few years ago, only 70% at most remain Congregationalists or UCC into their adulthood. We are turning our children away somehow, hindering them from coming to the Jesus we know and love.
How, is the question. What are we as a denomination doing or not doing unconsciously – and I highlight unconsciously – that influence our children to leave the UCC when they become adults?
To answer that, we ought to do a deeper dive into the numbers. So, according to Pew Research’s Religious Landscape Study from 2015, Congregationalists, which is predominately UCC, see 31% of their kids continue to identify with the denomination they were brought up in. So, 31% continue as UCCers. 36% join other Christian denominations, 6% join another religion altogether, and 28% become unaffiliated. Congregationalists are at the very bottom when it comes to retention. At the top? At the top of the retention rate list are non-Christian traditions, namely Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. First is Hinduism with 80% remaining Hindu into adulthood. Then there is Islam and Judaism, at 77% and 75% respectively remaining Muslim and Jewish. The Christian group that does the best when it comes to retaining their youth is the Black Protestant church with 70% remaining apart of that tradition into adulthood. The Evangelical tradition follows with 65% remaining Evangelical into adulthood. Catholics retain 59% of their youth. And mainline Protestantism, just 45%.
So, the UCC problem with retention is a mainline Protestant problem. Compared to non-Christian traditions, Evangelical traditions and the Catholic tradition, mainline churches do much worse when it comes to retaining their kids. And among mainline churches, the UCC does the worst of all with 31% of young people continuing as UCC into adulthood.
Here are my thoughts in the how and why we do so poorly as a denomination. And let me just say here that this is not a personal thing. I am not personal critiquing anyone here. Lord knows how we as parents struggle and fail. Nor do I want anyone to feel any kind of guilt. No "shoulda-coulda-wouldas." Regret is wasted energy. All we can do is start where we are and seek to improve. That’s it.
Let me also say that the Christian Education program here at CCP is top-notch. Nicole, Rex, and Cheryl do a wonderful job. CE is not, let me repeat, not the problem. It just isn’t enough! Nor is confirmation.
That said, I give some thoughts about some things our denomination and our collective body might do to improve our retention rate.
When considering those that do better in retaining their young, these seem to be the common denominator:
1.) personal, applicable connection to one’s live between Monday and Sunday.
For the non-Christian religions I mentioned, this personal connection is seen in the daily devotional practices that Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism require. Hinduism, for example, requires daily worship practice called puja as well as frequent religious festivals through the year. Islam, five times daily prayer. Judaism, regular prayer and a kosher diet.
In the Black church and the Evangelical traditions, the personal connection is a bit different but just as pervasive in one’s life. The personal connection to one’s life comes in the form of a personal relationship with Jesus that is a daily thing. “A daily walk with Jesus,” is what is often called, and this daily walk in turn influences regular spiritual practices such as Bible study, prayer time, and attending multiple church services throughout the week. That personal connection to Jesus is key. It is a heart thing, a relationship that is focused on and fostered.
2.) a deep sense of community experienced throughout the week
Whether a Hindu or a Black Christian, community is central. In these spiritual communities, folks not only worship together, but they eat together, celebrate together, and simply come together throughout the week. As a communities, these religious groups are more like a close cousin to kids than distant uncle or aunt.
So, a personal connection to divinity, in our case to Jesus, and devotional practices throughout the week, and coming together in community as much as possible with fellow sojourners – this, I would say, correlates to retaining young people.
In other words, a more than just Sunday morning approach to the spiritual life that includes a deep sense of community, this seems to enhance young people wanting to remain in the faith.
So, as I come to a close, what are some things we can do to enhance a deeper connection to Jesus? Is there a regular spiritual practice done throughout the week we can gather around here at Plainville Congregational? And lastly what can we do to enhance a deep sense of community throughout the week?
These are some of the questions I am asking myself. I am asking knowing as a parent I am far, far from having it figured out.
Jesus said to his disciples, do not hinder the young from coming to me. Let them come and sit with me and be blessed. And Jesus embraced their presence and their personhood, and they experienced connection to the divine. They experienced some kind of spiritual transformation. They experienced community with Jesus and his people. And I’d like to think those young people who shared that moment with Jesus became part of the Jesus movement that we call the church.
That is what we are aiming for still. Let us make it so in the ways we can.