I'm spending this week at confirmation camp. For those who aren't culturally Lutheran, confirmation camp is where middle school students spend a week at summer camp with middle school students from other congregations. Tangentially, I would take some time to compare and contrast Lutheran confirmation camp with other types of summer camps, but this is the only thing I know; so if you want to compare and contrast your experience with mine, I'd be glad to do so, but I need to know more about your experience.
Anyway, the young people from my congregation are having a good experience at confirmation camp. They're singing songs, playing games, making friends, studying the bible, and all the other things you should do at a summer camp in the Rocky Mountains. And, despite the reality that it may not seem like it sometimes (you know how middle schoolers can be), I believe they're faith is growing. I believe they are being led by Holy Spirit into a deeper relationship with the Divine.
The faith they are growing in to is immature. Since by and large these students are just beginning to be able to think abstractly, they are not able to think about faith in ways that are complex and nuanced and in-depth. For 11- to 14-year-old people, immature faith seems pretty appropriate.
However, at least in the cultural Lutheran world where I find myself, it seems like this is where faith stops maturing for most people. See, in the cultural Lutheran world, what seems to be typical is that we learn about our faith in Sunday School when we're young; in middle school, we spend some time (two or three years) of more intense study, after which we are confirmed (we affirm our baptism). Then, beginning in high school (and having been confirmed), we are given the choice about whether or not to continue to participate in the life of our community of faith. Many of us choose to not do so. And many of us don't ever choose to return to church. Some, though, do return when we begin having children. We want our kids to have a church and faith foundation, and so we return to the community of faith. However, we find that we rely way more than we ought to on the church institution to pass on the faith, since many of us are stuck with a faith that hasn't matured beyond middle school.
This is a failing on the part of parents, though to a very small degree. It is a much bigger failing on the part of the church. We seem reluctant to challenge people, reluctant to wrestle with the difficult aspects of our tradition, reluctant to point out elements of our life together that aren't biblical. We give teenagers a choice whether or not to be part of a faith community, which is the same choice that adults reserve for themselves. I wonder if we as church leaders are scared to challenge people too much for fear that they'll make the choice to stop attending worship, or to join a different congregation, or to stop giving money ~ any of which would lead to congregational budgetary problems. Or maybe challenging people just makes us uncomfortable.
What we need is a church that people want to be part of. Many people recognize this; unfortunately, though, most people deal with this by turning to marketing- and presentation-oriented solutions. Advertise better, or make the worship and programming flashier, and people will be attracted. And it seems to work, at least to a certain degree. People will come, but when they do they'll expect to be entertained instead of challenged.
What we need is to challenge each other, and support one another as we struggle together. When individuals' faith and a congregation's faith are mature, it is obvious ~ lives and communities are changed for the better. And people are attracted to change.
At camp, young people find themselves spiritually vulnerable ~ the good camps take advantage of that vulnerability for the benefit of the campers' faith. If the church doesn't do the same, doesn't challenge people beyond their comfort zones into places of faithful vulnerability, we will not mature, and the church will become nothing but a self-serving club concerned only with its own existence.