A major issue affecting the Christian community is the decline of young people attending church, coupled with a rise in gang recruitment. Several months ago USA Today featured a cover story with the title "Young adults less devoted to faith." According to a survey, most young people don't pray, worship or read the Bible; 72 percent say they are "really more spiritual than religious." Some observers argue that if the trend continues, more churches will close.
At the same time, we are seeing an increase in gang involvement among young people. According to the most recent Department of Justice report, gangs are expanding across the country and recruiting young men and women of all races and classes. What was once considered a problem in the inner city amongst the poor is now a problem that affects children from all economic strata.
It appears that young people are choosing gang life as an alternative to church. When I visit communities of faith across the country, some have vibrant youth ministries while others struggle to find creative ways to draw young people into their membership. For those of us who are concerned about the plight of young people in our communities and want to do our part to offer alternatives, we have to ask the question: what are gangs doing to recruit young people and what makes their efforts so successful?
Gangs are dangerous and unhealthy environments for young people. What they find appealing on the outside evades them once they join; and what they end up finding are the harsh realities of violence, sexual promiscuity, drugs, and crime. But once in, it is very difficult to get out. Many young people continue to endure gang life simply because they have nowhere else to go. In contrast, some churches have found creative ways to make worship more dynamic in order to reach youth. Many have incorporated alternative music and involve young people in the leadership of the church. These efforts have proven successful to some degree, but they still have not been enough to stem the tide of gangs and gang activity.
What can churches learn from how gangs reach young people? Gangs are very visible in the community. They congregate on corners and outdoors to make their presence known. For gangs, visibility in the community is critical. They tag, or mark their territory, so that people see signs of their presence even if they don't see the members. Leaders pay attention to what is happening on the streets and look for young people that appear vulnerable, those who are being bullied, and even young people who exhibit confidence and talent. For the vulnerable and bullied, they offer safety and protection; for the confident and talented, they offer encouragement and support.
For a gang to maintain a viable presence in the community it is important that they are visible regularly, if not daily. If a gang were to only come together once or twice a week and congregate in doors away from the community, its ability to sustain its presence would be threatened by other gangs seeking new territory and members. The traditional paradigm for communities of faith is to engage in most of their activities inside the church. Most, if not all, church recruitment happens amongst those who enter their doors on Sunday mornings and try to get current members to invite outsiders and family members.
There is a lot that churches and others seeking to reach young people can learn from how gangs recruit and maintain a strong presence in the community. We know that gangs offer a false sense of protection, family, community, encouragement and support. Communities of faith can and have proven able to meet these needs for both young and old. As the church seeks to be relevant in the world, leaders must pay attention to what is happening around them and take not of what children are drawn to, in order to meet their personal needs for wholeness.
If communities of faith want to reach young people, they might want to consider using some of the same tactics being implemented by gangs: be visible in the community as often as possible, find creative ways to maintain visibility throughout the community, find ways to let the church (not merely the building but the people) be a safe haven for vulnerable and bullied kids, spend time in places where young people gather to observe their talents and encourage them to keep striving for success.
Even with the rise in gang activity across the country, communities of faith have the ability to curb the influence of gangs by reaching a greater number of young people and changing lives for the better. Reversing current trends requires new and creative models for reaching our youth where they are, instead of expecting them to meet us where we are. It does not require that we change who we are as a community, but it does mean that we must continue to evolve and embrace new ways to reach young people if we are to remain relevant in the community. This is what the Apostle Paul meant by becoming all things to all men in order to win them. To reach young people involved in gangs and offer them an alternative, we must be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves if we are going to help them find their true purpose in life.