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Youth, Olympics, and the Church

Gabrielle Douglas of the U.S. competes in the women's gymnastics balance beam final in the North Greenwich Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games (Credit: Reuters / Mike Blake)The Olympics have overtaken my world the past few weeks. Other than NBC's sometimes questionable programming decisions (shouldn't the Olympics be free for everyone to watch?) and inclusion of Ryan Seacrest as a commentator, I'm enjoying watching all the athletes and countries compete. The nightly bevy of different sports keeps things interesting, and even the semi-bizarre sports are fun to watch because Olympic medals are at stake.

One of the things I've been noticing from the first few weeks of events is how young many of the athletes are. Swimming and gymnastics dominated the first week or so of Olympic programming, and these two sports value youth to a stunning degree. I think we all flinch a little when we hear Rowdy Gaines, NBC's aptly named swimming commentator, talk about a swimmer in their late 20's being on the downside of their careers. I mean, if you didn't know anything about Michael Phelps and only listened to Rowdy talk about him, you'd think Phelps was an aging veteran pushing 40. In reality, he's only 27. Yet he is "old" by athletic terms.

Or take Missy Franklin and Gabby Douglas. Both have excelled in their respective sports, but Missy is only 17 and Gabby 16. We'll be sure to see Missy at the next Olympics, but it would be rare to see Gabby competing in Rio in 4 years. Gymnastics is a very difficult sport to stay at an elite level over many years.

What's interesting to me about all the youth excelling in the Olympics is how it highlights the difference the sporting world and most churches in America take regarding the training of young people. It's no secret that young people are leaving church in droves. New research indicates, in fact, that 70% of 18-23 year olds who went to church for at least a year in high school will take a break from the church. It is absolutely stunning to me what a dichotomy there is between the sporting world and the church in this regard.

Athletics attract young people for reasons well beyond the immediate fun of playing. Athletics give structure, give a clearly defined goal, and give an outlet for energy. Athletics draws the competitor into a world bigger than their immediate world and gives them a new identity, that of athlete. If what I am saying doesn't register, simply watch any Under Armor, Nike, or Adidas ad. They are selling more than shoes and equipment, they are selling an identity.

One of the reasons why the church is losing so many young people in America is that we place the bar so low for our youth. We don't take a serious approach to training, nurturing, and discipling youth to be ready for adult life. We largely offer an entertainment driven model of Christianity to youth, built around becoming good moral people rather than understanding God's call on the entire life. And youth see right through our poor offerings.

What they want and need is a place where they are taken seriously rather than treated as consumers, a place where they can find true community that provides support and guidance, and a place where they can be challenged. If you don't think youth want to be challenged, just look at the Gabby Douglasses and Missy Franklins who pour their entire lives into the challenge of competition. We in the church have settled for too long with youth programs aimed at keeping kids out of trouble instead of discipling, encouraging, and engaging them to find their identity solely in Christ. We have treated our youth as if they can only handle the shallow end of the pool, when they are desperate to dive into the deep end of a passionate relationship with the God who is passionately in love with them and with the world.

I have people in my life that are younger than me and need encouragement, support, and guidance. So do you. We all have people in our lives who are younger than we are and who need to be shown how to live the Christian life. It's what the writer of Hebrews termed the "cloud of witnesses". We are not islands to ourselves, and the New Testament gives an expansive view of how Christian community encourages and supports one another.

Here's the place to start: take young people seriously. As C.S. Lewis famously said, "there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal." People don't have souls. They are souls. And young people more than ever need to be reminded and told daily that God loves them and has a plan for their lives. They need to be encouraged to seek Christ with their entire lives, and they need to be shown how to walk with Christ through the difficult seasons of life. They are ready to be discipled. Are we ready to step out and help?

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