By Dr Rowan Lewis, 

Perhaps you are familiar with the parable of Jesus we often call “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32). Of course, that particular title might cause some to miss the fact that it is a story of two sons who are both prodigal in their own way.

Both sons are struggling with their relationship to the father: one travels to a foreign land in a bid to see what else is out there; the other stays put but is potentially as far away from home, relationally speaking, as the one who actually left. But further still, this title may also misdirect readers because, as the parable plays out, it becomes clear that the most ‘prodigal’ of the three characters is in fact the father. For it is the father who contravenes all manner of Jewish social custom, religious law and established disciplinary procedure in the effort to restore his relationship with both his sons.

So, there is a lot of prodigal action going on in this parable! The reason that I mention this parable, however, is not to discuss its proper title. Rather it is to invite you to consider how this text may inform our ministry to younger people (and perhaps even ministry in general). Let me say, from the outset, I wonder if this text points to an aspect of ministry that is close to God’s heart, and perhaps one that we have missed.

Let me explain.

Broadly speaking we can think of ministry as a fulfilling one of two priorities: mission or discipleship.

In very simple terms, discipleship is ministry oriented to ‘insiders’ to the faith while Mission is ministry oriented to ‘outsiders’ (although I really don’t like the language of insiders and outsiders). Youth ministries and churches can be evaluated by their relative priority upon discipleship or mission. Some ministries appear to be more oriented to those who already identify with Christ and so emphasise matters of discipleship. Other ministries orient themselves towards mission and structure their efforts to reach those who are yet to be transformed by the gospel. Of course, it’s not an either/or choice, many ministries try to run a balance of discipleship and mission especially as mission is often understood as a key component of discipleship.

However, over the last 10 to 15 years new research has highlighted a very challenging problem facing youth ministry and perhaps even the future of the church. While rates of evangelism and conversion have remained relatively steady across the decades, ministry oriented to those already part of the church appears to be facing significant challenges.

To state it plainly, our churches are haemorrhaging young people.

Research in this area estimate that at least half and as much as three quarters of young people who have been active in their faith through the teen years will disidentify with the Christian faith and/or disengage with the church by the time they reach their mid-to-late 20s.

I don’t know about you, but I find that quite disheartening. Half to three-quarters of our young people will be gone before they are 30.

When we think about the two ‘prodigal’ sons in the parable, we observe that both of them have grown up in the father’s house. They are ‘insiders.’ These young men have their father’s love, all that he owns he freely gives them. Even so, there is something wrong. Despite growing up inside the faith (so to speak), neither son is on the same page as their father. One needs to go and explore while the other one stays around but represses their protest and keeps quiet. Both are part of the family yet both need their relationship with their father redeemed and restored.

Research by the Barna Group, Fuller Youth Institute as well as the Templeton Foundation all point out that “prodigal ministry” is quite different to traditional forms of discipleship and mission.

Ministry to ‘Younger-Son Prodigals’ – and I do not use the word Prodigal here in any kind of negative sense – is ministry to people who have been a part of the Christian story, who are familiar with many of its ins and outs, and yet cannot find a home within it. Many experience this as a kind of exile because they want to believe but find that they cannot authentically do so in ways that are acceptable to their home church or youth ministry. As such, they feel forced out and must explore foreign lands.

Ministry to ‘Older-Son Prodigals’ entails a kind of permission giving that allows them to express their concerns, questions and complaints before the Father. When ministry nurtures such expression and exploration it authenticates it as a legitimate practice of faith.

It presents Christian Faith and the father heart of God as a spacious and generous place; a place that welcomes their questions and is big enough and tough enough to handle their protest.

It is unfortunate that some churches and ministries simply write-off these young people as backsliders who have been ‘seduced by the world’ and, as a result, pay them no further attention. When this happens, we not only render these young people a great disservice, we make ourselves unavailable to God’s Spirit who may be seeking to welcome them home again.

The image of God that Jesus gives us in this parable is of a father who remains ever vigilant, ever welcoming, and never condemning of his sons. In the same way, this parable invites us to consider our own churches and youth ministries and evaluate to what measure they are ‘prodigal friendly’ ministries. Do young people have the opportunity to question, doubt and even protest their faith in the context of their youth ministry? Are our ministries ever vigilant for questions and concerns arising in young people and do they feel safe enough to give them voice?

Do we have relational structures and means to stay in contact with young people who journey to foreign lands? Will such young people still be able to process their experiences with caring others in order to make sense of them in the light of the Christian tradition?Make no mistake – prodigal ministry is messy and challenging. But where else would we expect to find Jesus?

Dr Rowan Lewis is ACOM’s Academic Coordinator (Pastoral Theology)