Christian affiliation, let alone church attendance, is in free-fall. Cultural observers note the root issue is identity. A secular-saturated society, with its associated values and pursuits, does not identify with the Church or her message. All too often, the values of humanitarianism and Christianity are indistinguishable, with the once-potent identity-making rites of the Church fading in the light of modern identity-makers, namely socio-economic status, identity politics, intersectionality, and virtue signaling. In response, pastors would do well to forge a sacramental culture. It begins with preaching, providing, and celebrating the Sacraments as fundamental identity-makers and being unrelenting about it.
A Pew Research Center study released on September 13, 2022, projected the religious complexion of the United States in just two generations. The results are being received with alarm. Pew reports that those in 1971 who identified as “Christian” constituted almost 90% of the population. Today, that number has fallen to 64%. If rates remain constant, then by 2060 Christians will be a minority. In 2070, a hundred years after the high-water mark of American Evangelicalism in 1971, the percentages will be halved, or worse, sitting between 39-46%. Meanwhile, non-Christian religions should more than double from 6% to 13%. The largest projected increase, however, will be among the “none’s” (no religious affiliation). This group, who have disassociated principally from Christianity and identify as “secular,” will soar from 30% today, to 45% or as much as a 52% majority.
The Lutheran Church has not been immune to the evisceration of believers either. It has witnessed the free-fall of infant baptisms and confirmations since the 1960’s. Confirmations have become almost extinct. They have little cultural role within families. They are not anticipated, rarely discussed, and quickly fade as a distant, never-to-be-spoken-of-again occasion. When confirmations do happen, they are hardly a big deal for the parents, much less for the children. Simply put, it is not inculcated or extolled as a fundamental identity-maker: Confirmed Lutheran. The same can be said concerning parish celebrations of people’s first communions. They are an afterthought. At the same time that there are fewer baptisms and confirmations, Sunday School has collapsed. Outside of the diminishing number of parochial schools, the Church has lost almost all contact with children and teenagers, save for the noble efforts of Higher Things and a couple other endeavors. When Lutheran parochial schools are chosen, it is frequently for the quality education they offer, not necessarily for the Christian worldview and certainly not for the identity-making potency of the host church.
With the collapse of church culture for children, the Church takes blame for being irrelevant, and rightly so. The Church, in large part, has brought this dilemma upon herself. Rather than adorning and lauding the fixtures which distinguish the Church from everything else (specifically, celebrating the Sacraments), the Church too often has mimicked consumer society’s entertainment culture.
Rather than adorning and lauding the fixtures which distinguish the Church from everything else (specifically, celebrating the Sacraments), the Church too often has mimicked consumer society’s entertainment culture.
It does not take a prophet to remind the Church that it is the Sacraments and the other adjoining practices of the community of faith which give our young people their rites of passage: baptism, confession, absolution, communion, confirmation, marriage, and the like. The Lord with His Church has given these as mile-markers and anchors for our personal identity to transition His people from childhood into adulthood. These durable monuments of the Church signal maturation from comparative irresponsibility to responsibility, from consumption to stewardship, conferring upon their recipients a sense of belonging, security, and assurance. Now, however, the identity-markers seem to be “my first iPhone,” launching an Instagram account, getting a driver license, and attaining the drinking age. This is what children and teenagers look forward to. This is what they discuss with their family and friends. This is what they celebrate because there is a culture already formed around it, while in the Church there is a weak, unremarkable sacramental culture. Okay, perhaps not on paper (i.e., The Book of Concord), but as an existential reality. The ho-hum, perfunctory administration of the Sacraments, along with Confirmation, have been so muted that their identity-conferring, identity-confirming potency goes squandered in an age which needs them more acutely than previous centuries.
Meanwhile the polling data has evidenced the fact that throwing programs at youth is ineffective. There is no indication the decline in baptisms, church attendance, and confirmations have abated in recent years even with a gush of youth pastors into parishes, pumping the pipeline with programs galore. This model is weak and ineffective. It does not work, and it cannot work because without a “youth program” being driven by and toward monumental identity-making, identity-confirming sacraments, children and teenagers will find their sense of belonging (or not-belonging) in competing subcultures, most of which are antithetical to our holy faith. Simply put, the Lord Jesus has made no promises regarding pilgrimages to Six Flags® or lock-ins in the way He has done so with the Sacraments.
I was a youth leader for a couple of years and watched a huge youth group consume chips and hot dogs, surf camps and Sprite, and yet never receive a minute of catechesis toward confirmation, never receive instruction toward having their first communion. There were no God-given rites of passage. There were no Christ-instituted sacraments which defined and secured the constantly buffeted identity of kids and teens. What I did see was a church give them exactly what they wanted to consume, fun, genuine fun. Any potentially heavy or serious moment, any substantive doctrine or discussion was translated into categories of “cool” and “quick.” There was no Good Friday Tenebrae Service, no Triduum, and certainly no Easter Vigil. The working motto was keep it light and keep it trite to keep their attention. It turns out I actually indoctrinated them. I taught them what to expect from the Church: “Faith” your way, on your terms, and on your schedule. As a youth leader, I was given to the same principles and values as the service industry. What is more, I was expected on Sundays to do the “youth thing” during the “worship service” too, where the kids were separated from parents, isolated from the wisdom pool of seniors, and unaffiliated with the worship of the corporate body. Indeed, they were taught well. The Sacraments did not mean anything to them because they were religious addendum, banished to the periphery of their Christian experience, and therefore the fringes of their identity. When it was time to “get serious” about their faith, that is, when they graduated high school, they simply left Christianity because they did not recognize the seriousness of it. They could choose their identity with markers which came with more fanfare and relevance to their daily lives: iPhone, Instagram, driver license, premarital sex, and the drinking age. This is not an isolated story. “Pew” notes a full 80% of church attending teens disassociate from Christianity after graduating high school.
Meanwhile, parents stood on the catechetical sidelines calling in plays to the youth pastor who, quite frankly, was too busy trying to keep their kids amused and non-rebellious. No, programs do not work.
This is why pastors should see their role not to entertain children, but to baptize them, to commune them, to catechize them, to confirm them, and to enjoin them in healthy marriages. This role, though momentous, should be minor to that of parents. The priest serves as a catalyst or culmination for what parents engender within their children at home. Christ our Lord intends for the home to be the catechetical epicenter, monumentalizing baptism and steering their child’s fundamental identity as the baptized to the landmark sacramental rites of passage, which are themselves but deeper confirmations of their baptismal identity.
Christ our Lord intends for the home to be the catechetical epicenter, monumentalizing baptism and steering their child’s fundamental identity as the baptized to the landmark sacramental rites of passage, which are themselves but deeper confirmations of their baptismal identity.
Children and teens do not need me as their crazy best-friend youth pastor. They need their parents to anchor their identity in the great, enduring monuments given to them by Christ Jesus. The Sacraments will weather the storms of life and convey their sense of belonging in this world within the Church. The sacramental practices of life in the body of Christ will stabilize their identity amidst the enticing allurements of secularism and subcultures. They need dad and mom to extol and embrace for themselves the importance and necessity of spiritual formation and knowledge, practice and service, and to bring their children along this way of truth and righteousness by consciously directing them from one Christian mile-marker to the next and (here is the critical part) celebrating them as more significant than the prom or high school graduation. They need parents to make a big deal about their baptism, about their communing with the flesh and blood of Christ, and about markers like their being confirmed. They need parents to have expectations, generate a sense of anticipation, to talk about it around the dinner table and reference them throughout their young lives. It begins with intentional pastors cultivating this climate in their parish. Celebrate! Celebrate with celebrations that eclipse the Roman Catholic Church, in which their sacramental mile-markers anchor that communion and their culture, albeit without the pure teaching of the Lutheran Confessions.
Once children are confirmed, they need parents to bring them to adult Bible studies with them. Actually, I recommend supplanting youth groups for more family togetherness like “Family Youth Events” such as bonfires together, beach days together, hikes together, and Advent decorating together with the family’s pastor leading devotion or liturgical instruction or acolyte/crucifer training. Families should be learning together in the Church because catechesis is about what is done in the home.
By making a big deal of every baptism, of every confirmation, of every rite of matrimony, the Church takes a stand against the intrusion of consumerism, secularism, identity politics, subversive subcultures, gender dysphoria, and the like. Hereby, pastors aid parents for the good of a child’s soul: By setting holy rites of passage before families to anchor their identities, their lives, their hope, and their help in the world. Pastors with parents are charged by Christ to forge a different culture. This culture should not lose hold of the centrality of the Gospel Sacraments which make us the alternative to consumerist society and humanitarian ideology. Kids need to hear that and youth should expect it from the Church.
I am grieved as a pastor to see the once-baptized living unchurched. Such are unfamiliar with the Eucharist, strangers to the customs of the Church and her calendar, forgetful of the Lord’s Prayer, and ignorant of the great hymns of our holy faith that constantly call to memory the identity-conferring monumental Sacraments. It pains me to see their baptism has made little difference in the life they are experiencing. For many, Christianity is a free-floating and abstract phenomenon that bears no discernible relation to anything tangible in their everyday lives. Most will not recall their baptisms, may never have received a climatic first communion, and were not confirmed in their youth, and never sensing they missed out on anything either. Their experience of the Church as small children occurred in a way which only appealed to a small child. It is no wonder so many grow out of Christianity at the same time they grow out of Santa Claus. The celebration of the gift-consuming holidays is done with far more celebratory planning and purpose than the confirmation of our children. The Church must raise expectations and elevate anticipation of these sacramental rites of passage and engender more sustained conversation about them within the parish. How is this done? Celebrations. Celebrate these moments like the miracles that they are.
The Church must raise expectations and elevate anticipation of these sacramental rites of passage and engender more sustained conversation about them within the parish.
But when parents do not perceive the Church as a priority (and the Church has not made itself a necessary priority in the lives of families in this way), then the Church will not be a priority in the lives of their children. It is that simple. It has always been that simple.
In some ways, the answer is just as simple: Forging a sacramental culture. And it can be done. Baptism, confession and absolution (both communal and private), first communion, confirmation, and matrimony are not merely special events to be enjoyed within a consumer culture or just a wonderful day for the family with no wider or enduring significance. All of these events within the home should be constantly referenced, frequently revisited, and used as guiding lights for instruction, encouragement, and even discipline of children. Remind them of the virtues put into them. Bless them with the knowledge that they are of immense value to the Lord and objects of His love. Extol the reality that Christ is self-giving in the Sacraments. What they should not think is these holy markers exist in their lives as one of a variety of extracurricular youth activities along with soccer, gymnastics, and the circus. The celebration of the Sacraments and a sacramental cultural identity provides a line of demarcation.
What confessional Lutherans could and should do (in a more conscious and concerted way) is celebrate, making use of fellowship halls and courtyards, outdoor spaces, and public celebrations. It can be done. The celebrations require intentionality and consideration, just like the actual administration of the Sacraments. Memorable celebrations are like every memorable worship service: They are undertaken with joy and striving for excellence. Employ decorations, form a committee, and allow for celebratory features such as singing, music band, cake, champagne, balloons, jumpy-house, waterslide, and/or whatever is appropriate in your parish’s setting. Some of my four children’s fondest memories are of the celebrations after these sacramental moments, perhaps none more than the bashes to which the entire church was invited, following the baptism of their siblings, first communions, and confirmations. Next up, marriage and it is talked about all the time around our table along with the baptisms of their future children. It is family culture, a culture they bring into every parish in which we have found ourselves. But that sacramental culture started in the parish of their youth. The Church provided for them a sacramental identity which cannot be separated from their family culture and personal character.
Pastors, let me encourage you to render the administration of the Sacraments beautifully, dignified, and ceremonial. Minimalist celebrations beget minimalist expectations. Break the cycle of perfunctory minimalism and monumentalize them for the sake of the next generation of Christians.
Bring the talk of the sacramental life into the home. The Lord purchased and saved our children and grandchildren with His blood, with His very life, so they might have life and have it more abundantly. Extol their status of being justified. Praise their being baptized. Honor their participation in Communion. Make a big deal that they have been dutiful in their studies and service as a confirmand and do so in a way in which you yourselves have come to appreciate how these truths are more enduring, more powerful identity-makers than the school they attend or will attend. Allow them the freedom to enjoy being self-identified as Christians, basking in their justification and redemption by Jesus Christ. We have a culture. It is a sacramental culture, a community which revolves around the Sacraments of Christ and the ancient customs of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. This heritage is their rightful heritage. This identity is their identity. This history is their history. These people are their people.