In the beginning there were children and adults. But then, around 1900, cultural shifts in American education, industrialization, and the law led to a new stage of life—youth. At first youth were a high priority to parents and culture. The majority had their most basic needs met in stable families.
During the social upheaval of the late 1960s, a critical mass of Americans began to reject a relationship with God and obedience to His Word. America quickly moved toward becoming a post-Christian nation. Since people always must have a god, many Americans replaced the God of the Bible with the trinitarian gods of personal happiness, peace of mind, and prosperity.
Turning from God always has consequences (Rom. 1:28). Many adults became self-absorbed, incapable of lasting relationships, and generally living on the edge of chaos and breakdown. What was once a relatively healthy adult community that highly valued the young became filled with many chaotic adults seeking their own survival.
On a national level this has led many of the structures of society to abandon youth. On a family level, parents just trying to survive have lost focus on the most basic emotional and spiritual needs of their children. In addition, many family members are missing due to death, incarceration, divorce, or constant moving. Abandonment has become the most pervasive characteristic of teenagers.
In his book Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture, culture expert Walt Mueller says: “We need the security of a place to live with and be loved by others: home. Today’s emerging generations are no different. They long for a place to belong and to call home. For many, their yearning is amplified by the fact that broken family situations and the lack of healthy peer relationships have left them with a huge relational void. They want connections, relationships, and community.”
Teenagers need adults as they struggle to become adults, and when adults are not present and involved in their lives, they are forced to figure out how to survive life on their own. Along the way some find their way to church—alone.
I praise God for the movement among God’s people to legally adopt orphans, including international children, special-needs children, and unwanted children and teenagers. But I also pray for another movement, a movement in churches to warmly adopt spiritual “orphans”—those who attend alone.
Scripture often refers to the body of Christ as a family (Gal. 6:10; Heb. 2:11). We absolutely must restore the reality of that concept in our day.
Scott Wilcher has a clear voice on this issue. In The Orphaned Generation he says: “The Church is not supposed to be ‘like a family’; it is a family. Rather than acting like a family, we would do well to grasp the reality that we are a family. . . . If your congregation is going to keep its young people, the Church must see itself as a family and begin to conduct itself in that way, offering close, nurturing relationships across generations.”
The goal is a web of relationships around every teenager, especially around those who attend alone. To reach this goal, senior adults, disciplers, and intact families deserve special consideration.
On the way to church, I wish every senior adult would quote Psalm 71:17–18: “O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come” (ESV).
If Scott Wilcher were standing in front of your senior adults, this is what he would say: “(Teenagers) are not animals or aliens. They need us! They hope for us, and we are much more than the inadequate bumblers we perceive ourselves to be. We were designed, prepared, and called to go toward them as a dim reflection of Jesus. In that humble movement, we carry with us His Spirit to resurrect, to adopt, and to empower them.”
Older adults are hungry for relationships, and they want to matter in the world. Teenagers are lonely and want to be loved. If you will just help break the ice between the two, then I believe relationships that matter will emerge.
Disciplers also have a valuable role with spiritual orphans. Every teenager needs a heart connection with his or her discipler. That is doubly true of those who attend alone. They need extra doses of encouragement, wisdom, listening, and gentle care.
But that degree of personal investment takes time—time that is in short supply when disciplers also have jobs and families. That is why we must press to get discipling ratios from something like one to eight down closer to one to three. Senior pastors and those who lead adult small groups need to help champion the calling out of more adults who will connect with teenagers.
I am thrilled that an increasing number of youth leaders are shifting some of their programming to include families. We are going to see wonderful impact from family retreats, family mission trips, family service projects, and so on.
I believe we can move in this direction without harming those who attend church alone. The key is to gently nudge intact families to draw in and include spiritual orphans. I do not believe you can program or try to orchestrate these relationships. Instead, you raise the issue, and then you allow families to create relationships that are warm, genuine, and safe.
Scott Wilcher adds: “Young people around you are orphans, separated from their Father, hoping to be heroes, but not knowing how to connect to that Father or how to be that hero. They are scared and alone, longing to know the full love and blessing of their Father, to find a community that feels like family, a purpose that focuses their lives, and a destiny worth living for.”
Most spiritual orphans who only connect with peers at church will not walk in faith in adulthood. Spiritual orphans who spend their teenage years with multiple heart connections with believers of all ages probably will.