The Lutheran young people of today are experiencing a crisis of sorts. For the majority of history, Christian youth were raised in families with five or more children on the average. This typically equated to a total youth population in congregations of triple the current population. It is simply a matter of fact that we have fewer young people in our midst than we did in previous decades. Birth rates are a major component in this dynamic. However, regardless of the causative factors, many churches now contend with challenges which result from much smaller youth groups.
Small numbers are particularly difficult when it comes to youth social activities. The very nature of the early years of adolescence and adulthood by necessity includes difficulty socializing with peers who do not share your interests. Only once we get married and have kids does the playing field of social interaction seem to all level out. While sin certainly plays a part in this behavior, there is also an aspect of this sociology which is simply utilitarian and natural. People gravitate toward those who share similar interests, which leads to associations which are functional and fruitful (especially those that lead to marriage!). Forcing young people with disparate temperaments to behave as close friends is no more fruitful than forcing a marriage between two people who share little in common.
There are aspects of Christian fellowship among our young people which are independent of such social similitude. Worship, joint prayer, and catechesis, are easily shared by people from all walks of life, as long as they are of the same confession. Social activities, however, cannot be limited to these universally shared activities. It is inevitable that young people will group themselves at least somewhat according to common interests. To deny this fact is to ignore an unavoidable fact of life, even though sin surely plays a part in this partial segregation. This tendency should not automatically be labeled as cliquish or antisocial behavior. It's simply a matter of practical necessity that young people seek out the company of those who share their interests and values.
What activities are necessary for our our unmarried young people, and what purposes do they serve? Why do we want them to have church-related activities outside of those which we married adults typically participate in (church work, worship, and bible study)? Well, I think we all would agree that the influence of peers affects teens more than adults. Young people are often not as firmly set in their beliefs and convictions as older adults. The unmarried typically have a great deal more time on their hands than we married adults do. And, for good or bad, that time is most often spent in the company of other young people.
What is the effect when this social activity is mostly in the presence of those who, though they share secular interests, do not share the same religious convictions? Does the company our teens keep have any influence on who they may find to be a lifelong companion in marriage? I would argue a strong affirmative. We offer little competition to the societal lures of our culture (dances, sports, extracurricular activities, etc.) and then we wonder why we are losing our youth to other churches and even unbelief.
In addition, I'd like to point out that when we segregate our youth activities too much by age, we limit the interaction of those at the fringes (such as high school seniors and college freshmen, or high schoolers and those in Junior High) who would benefit from frequent social interaction. If these social activities are to foster potential introduction of marital prospects (yes, that's a valid and important reason for these activities), we must remember that we put young ladies at a disadvantage when we segregate them into a group where they are among the oldest. Our young men also are at a disadvantage when they graduate to the next segregated age group, being the youngest of the bunch. Just ask them!
In times past, organizations such as the "Walther League" fostered positive social activity and support among young Lutherans. While these times have come and gone, such regional gatherings are possibly more needed today than ever. Why? Because congregations today often have too few young people to allow for adequate association between those who share common interests. During the baby-boom, each church had its own "Walther League" of sorts. It is probably less of an issue in larger congregations as well.
Today we see some of our youth desiring to bring their non-Lutheran friends to youth activities. Otherwise they would feel alone and without adequate social interaction in such activities. While there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, the main point I'm making here is that today's circumstances call for a different approach. To gain the numbers necessary for effective youth activities, I believe smaller congregations with an increasingly dwindling youth population must now think regionally rather than locally. While Higher Things and our Synod provide opportunities for annual national youth gatherings and one or two regional retreats, this still leaves a huge hole for the rest of the year for those seeking edifying associations for their unmarried Lutheran young people.
Today's parish youth groups think nothing of meeting at the church and then traveling a half-hour to an hour (and sometimes much more) to some activity. Why not have those from several regional churches gather at a convenient location and then share a common Bible study, fellowship, meal, and activities? This would provide our young people a greater possibility of finding those with shared interests among fellow Lutherans with whom they can enjoy the companionship of more than once yearly - or even more often than this new group I'm talking about would meet! It would foster fellowship amongst all our teens and the parents of neighboring parishes. This fellowship would approach the value which used to be enjoyed in the day when we were blessed with the presence of many young people in our congregations.
Let me jump to the chase. I have proposes to some area LCMS pastors the formation of a regional "Luther League" (or whatever you want to call it). One which I have humbly volunteered to chair. I suggest the organization of at least two formal educational youth retreats per year, and additional monthly youth gatherings for Bible study and fun activities to be shared between those of the one true faith. I propose that these activities be open to ALL unmarried young people who wish to participate, mainly between confirmation-class age and recent college graduates. Some activities would be geared toward older youth, some toward younger youth, and some of interest to all.
Some of these activities could be coordinated with "Higher Things," but having organized a youth retreat with HT last year, I can tell you from experience that doing all of what I propose under the umbrella of HT would be problematic. They have a specific well-tailored mission. They are more focused on national events and national projects, as well as "Christ on Campus" programs. They are working on developing some regional "retreats" like the one we hosted last year, and perhaps we could organize one or two of these a year for our churches. But as you can see, what I am talking about is a bit more local. I do plan on running this all past Pr. Klemet Preus and others I know at Higher Things.
The region open to taking advantage of this proposed regional organization could be limitless -- as far as someone would be willing to travel for this fellowship. Why would we exclude any Lutherans who share our confession and who wish to travel the distance for this opportunity? However, it obviously would usually work out to be more for neighboring parishes for the more frequent activities, practically speaking. We should, however, plan activities in different areas of our region -- depending on how broad the interest is.
Parents would also be welcome to chaperone and/or possibly participate in adjunct social activities planned for them. Training in proper chaperoning could be provided (I recommend this), policies and guidelines would be set, and I'd suggest that those who chaperone would be required to take advantage of this training and agree to the policies of this youth organization. The risks of bringing younger and older youth of both sexes together would be offset by a strict code of conduct and more than adequate chaperoning by qualified and dedicated parents who have been trained to do so, and who would be role models for the youth to emulate.
There were many Lutherans who met their spouses at Walther League activities. Wouldn't it be gratifying in the future to hear that people met and came to know their spouses at these regional Lutheran youth activities I suggest?
So, I throw it out to all you here on L & C as well. What do you think??? Do you have small numbers in your youth activities? I'm looking for as much input into this as possible.