A Gathering Voices post by Lara Blackwood Pickrel
One of the questions of the age seems to be: How do we get young people to come to church?
It is a question so common that it has come up literally EVERY time I've led a workshop or conference resource group on any topic reasonably resembling youth or young adult ministry, and a question that, when typed into the Google search bar, has nearly 30 million results.
Church folk are asking this question A LOT.
More often than not, the question is really just the most positively-veiled way of asking a number of other questions:
- How do we keep young people from leaving the church?
- How do we get young people to stay in church?
- How do we get young people who have left church to come back?
- How do we become what young people are looking for?
- How do we convince young people that they need what we have to offer?
- What's wrong with us that young people don't want to be here? -or, more often:
- What's wrong with young people that they don't want to be here?
I don’t believe that there is any one magic-bullet answer to the question. But I do believe that a fruitful way of addressing the question involves digging into the other questions in the list. When we begin to ask ourselves those questions, the ones hiding under the surface, we start to wrestle with our own fears and assumptions (about culture, generations, the Gospel and what it means to be a thriving church in our particular time and place) and that kind of wrestling tills the soil so that we can grow.
I know that’s not really an “answer” to the question – at least not an answer in the form of an easy-to-follow list of “how tos”. I also know that studying a set of questions can be used as a diversionary tactic: as long as we are wrestling with the questions, we don’t have to stick our necks out and take any risks. So, in an attempt to avoid this pitfall (and satisfy those who genuinely function best with lists) here’s a list that might be helpful as you wrestle:
Suggestions Regarding Ministry with Young People:
- DO check out the blog post “How to Get More Young People in Church” that was put out by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona last November. This list of best practices was created by Tamie Fields Harkins, a campus minister in the Episcopal Church and, in my opinion, is spot-on largely because the list deals with those larger questions of church and culture and faith (rather than how to decorate a youth lounge or what kind of coffee will bring in the young adults).
- DO notice the young people who are ALREADY present at your church. Nothing is more disheartening (to me or to the young people being discussed) than hearing church leaders say something like: “We’ve only got ten kids in our youth group and three active young adults.” Jumping Jehoshaphat! That means you’ve got thirteen active young people in your congregation! Love them. Engage them. Listen to them. Help them find ways to serve, and then get out of the way! If young people are encouraged to serve and thrive instead of feeling badly about their group size, amazing things can start happening.
- DON’T ever utter the phrase: “Youth are the Church of the Future”. EVER. Strike it from your vocabulary. Despite all good intentions, this phrase translates as: “Now is our time, not yours.” More often than not, it is received as: “Take a number” or “Come back later.” And as we know, most who leave don’t come back.
- DO start early. Encourage children to sit in worship and to wonder about what they see, hear and experience. What do the colors mean? What pictures are in the stained glass or other artwork? Why did those stories get picked? Children who are encouraged to question and marvel are more likely to grow into teens and young adults for whom the Church is a safe place, both for faith and for doubt.
How is your congregation engaging young people in/with the Gospel? What assumptions and fears have you discovered as you've wrestled with these questions? What would you add to the list?
Additional Resources from www.TheThoughtfulChristian.com
- Go Deep: Spiritual Practices for Youth Ministry, by Doris Kizinna
- Making Worship Real: A Resource for Youth and Their Leaders, by Aimee Wallis Buchanan, Bill Buchanan, and Jodi B. Martin
- "Helping Your Teen Connect to Their Church Community," by Sue Washburn (Parenting Study)
- "What Community Will You Seek?" by Martha Miller (Youth Study)