Our own rumspringa

Rumspringa (derived form the German term “Rond Springen” or “running around”) generally refers to a period of adolescence for some members of the Amish, that begins around the age of sixteen and ends when a youth chooses baptism within the Amish church or instead leaves the community.  (wikipedia) In one of our upperclassman small groups a student made a passing comment that I have been wrestling with for the past couple of days.  She simply observed that their once full table of students during small group time has withered over the the last couple of years.  Where a once a robust small group of 15 was, now a consistent remnant of 6 remain.

As my wife and I talked, we could account for almost every student that has faded away from our student ministry.  And for almost every student there was an explanation.  Most of them were a small changes in priorities that resulted with them being less connected and ended up with them being M.I.A.

For the last 15 years I have wrestled with the continual transition of our student ministry population.   Our ministry is made up of a relatively small core of students with a bunch of students filtering in and out based on friendship connections, sports and play responsibilities, etc.  But I wonder if there is something else that might be happening in the hearts of our students.  What if our students genuinely need their own Rumspringa?

In my context it is taboo to even consider an intentional separation from the church community while they figure out if they are really in or not.  But this is basically what is happening both experientially and confirmed with some of the writing out there on student ministry.

  1. Students need to develop a faith separate from their families: There has been so much writing about the process of individuation.  Chap Clark has done some of the best research and clear writing on this in his book Hurt and Starting Right.  Basically, students must figure out who they are and what they believe.  And if their families are super connected to your church, there will naturally be a season where students will have to wrestle with their place in your community.  Sometimes this results in them having to leave and be a part of another ministry or church, or wandering away all together.
  2. Students need space to identify what they actually believe: Most student ministries do a great job at painting a compelling picture of a life connected to Jesus.  As this happens we (or maybe just me) make assumptions that everyone is on board.  And when we don’t give any space for disagreement then we are asking students to assent to things they don’t yet own.  If there is not space to disagree, then their only option is to flee.  I would rather have a student who is not on board and wrestling through issues, then bail completely and have to opportunity for relationship.
  3. Students may not want to be followers of Christ: This is the most brutal option.  It is in our blood as youth to win students and collect a wide variety of them from every walk of life.  We take pride in the diversity of our ministry.  But as students get older and start to really understand what we are talking about, they may actually not want this life of faith that we talk about every week.  This reality shouldn’t shock us.  It is reality.  A friendship with a youth leader is not going to be enough to keep them connected if their is no concern for the faith we talk about.
  4. Students need to be released with a clear and open path to return: It is normal and natural for students to walk away from their faith, or to never develop a personal faith at all.  And when students figure this out and walk away from our student ministries (and the church) we must create an ethos of love and grace. If we hold on too tight, give ultimatums, and use scare tactics, we only further alienate them from the family of God.  Our job is to graciously allow them to Rumspringa or run around, and communicate with them that, if they want, they will always be welcome home.

This is exactly the heart of the prodigal’s father.  The son had all the freedom in the world to run around.  And we get to be the brokenhearted father on the edge of our property longing for, and praying for our kids’ safe and quick return.  And whether or not we get to experience that joy, we will continue to gather students, share the love and grace of Jesus Christ, and help them make their faith their own.  And for the students who need to explore other options, we send them off with just as much love and grace.

Lord, please continue to woo the hearts of our many prodigal kids out there!