our own rumspringa

February 4, 2011 — 14 Comments

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!

14 responses to our own rumspringa

  1. Thank you. It’s a sad and difficult process to let kids grow up, even my own kids in my house too. This is a worthy discussion of holding too tightly vs leading with grace. Well worthy of conversation.

  2. Wow! This is a hard-to-read article but very I resonate with seeing students that slowly drift away from the ministry. I love the connection that as youth pastors, we have to be in the role of the father. This post really has me thinking. Thanks!

  3. I loved my rumspringa i tried the sex and something call meth it was fun at first then made me loose and my teeth fall out after about 3 years i went back to the church and chose baptism. i am glad to have had the chance to let it all hand out. big love to ricky and them over at the G-hut.

    • misti, thank you so much for sharing your rumspringa story. i am totally interested in these stories and this process.

  4. I came across your article while researching rumspringa and I’m really glad I did. I think you have hit the nail right on the head. I had to go through my own period of rumspringa, as you have put it, myself when I was younger. I was brought up in church and my parents were highly involved. There came that point of… why do I believe this? Just because my parents drag me here every Sunday? I felt as if people looked at me like I was supposed to live up to what my parents were in the church. It was too much for me to handle and thus began my own rumspringa. My parents constantly fought with me over my lack of attendance at church and threatened to kick me out etc. etc. This did nothing but turn me away even more from the church. I eventually found myself and my beliefs and realized that I needed a relationship with Christ. I didn’t go wild and crazy during my rumspringa like others; no drugs or sex, but I did turn my back on God and that was enough. Thankfully the wonderful thing about Grace is, while never deserved, it’s freely given no matter what has been done. Just wanted to maybe encourage parents out there that things do get better. Keep praying for your children/friends and be ready to embrace them when they return. Thank you for your article Benjamin!

    • benjaminkerns June 22, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      rebecca, thank you so much for sharing your story. it means a lot to me. and i am so glad that you found your way back into the family of god, and hopefully it was to a god, church, and family who were waiting anxiously for your returrn. blessings.

  5. I love this post. As a youth worker, I’ve learned that effective youth ministry is about allowing students to have ownership of their beliefs, to the point that they adhere to those beliefs after they leave the “fold” of the youth program. There was a time, where I approached youth ministry from the standpoint of making sure the churched kids were solidified in the beliefs of their parents. Now, my goal is to see them have a sustainable faith, which may or may not be a seamless transition from the childhood teachings of their parents. I think it’s important, even if they are informal and maybe not intentional, that students have the opportunity to fail, and to decide for themselves, because holding on to the faith of their parents or their youth leaders will not sustain them in difficult times. Thanks for giving us freedom to allow students that chance to leave, if only for a while, and the freedom to return, rather than berating them for leaving in the first place. I loved this post.

  6. As one of my favorite people ever once said, “One of the needs a Youth Ministry program can fulfill is to give students a something to rebel against.” I think he was on to something.

  7. This is by far one of the best youth ministry blog posts I’ve ever read. Thanks for your effort, thought and boldness to share!

  8. Ben,
    Great post. Great idea to give kids space. This might actually be a better strategy than scare tactics, etc. I also love the example of the prodigal at the end. That story Jesus told was told particularly to the Pharisees for them to open their heart to the rebellious brother on his Rumspringa. So we as the Church can take this story and train our people on how to be gracious and loving when they return and when they don’t.

What do you think?

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