I get asked two questions a lot. Firstly, how can we attract more young people to church and, secondly, how can we help young people to stay within the church and grow into a mature faith. In this blog post, I want us to focus on the second question. How do we enable young people within the church to develop a mature, personal faith in Jesus? A faith that will stay with them for life as they emerge into adulthood and into the workplace.
As a Christian parent, it is our biggest hope that our children will discover a personal faith in Jesus for themselves and want to be part of his body, the church. But it can also be our biggest disappointment, when we see our children choosing to walk away from the fellowship and faith that we have.
Why do young people leave the church?
What can we do to reduce the likelihood of them leaving?
We need to ensure that they encounter Jesus for themselves and we don’t rely on how attractive and entertaining we are as a church or youth group, to be the primary factor for their engagement.
There has been significant research done into why young people choose to walk away from church over recent years and I want to focus on three particular areas that stand out:
1. Cross-generational relationships
Too much of our youth ministry can be marginalised by age group. We send the young people out of the adult service with the implication that they would have much more fun on their own, in their own room, than they would if they stayed with the adults. This communicates that what we as adults do is boring or too grown up for young people, something which as emerging adults, teenagers can’t comprehend.
Whilst there is a place for age specific discipleship, we need to ensure that young people are building relationships across the ages in church. It is one of the many distinguishing characteristics of Jesus’ body, that we are all age.
Young people need to know that they are valued, that they matter. We need to make sure that each young person and child in our church is loved individually. This means more than just those who have to love them, or who have signed up to support them. It means more than their parents and youth leaders, vital though both are.
I think it’s helpful to consider the 5:1 ratio for this. We often talk in safeguarding terms about how we need one adult for every five or so children. What if we turned this around and had five adults investing in each child? Not from a safeguarding perspective, but from an intentional discipleship viewpoint?
This means that each young person has five Christian adults who are intentionally looking out for them, praying for them, welcoming them and helping them to belong within the church. It is something that everyone can do. Every adult in the church should be looking out for at least one child or young person.
It isn’t difficult either. You just need to say hello to them when you see them; to ask how their week has gone; to see what you can pray for and to send them, perhaps, a birthday card each year.
As we build these relationships it helps the young person see how being a Christian affects different lives and helps them to wrestle with the questions of faith they have.
As a dad, I have been intentional about trying to find Christians who will invest in my children. For each one, my wife and I have approached individuals to mentor them, to pray for them and to look out for them. Of course, I want to be there for my children and for them to feel they can talk to us about anything they want to, but we also recognise that they are gradually ‘fleeing the nest’ and so need to have support from outside the family as well.
2. Authentic worship
Young people can see hypocrisy a mile off. If they experience adults worshipping in church who then go and act in a non-Christian manner afterwards, they realise the two don’t balance. They want to see a life of authenticity, where our worship matches our lifestyle and vice versa.
This isn’t a challenge to our style of worship, but to our authenticity. In our services, do we allow God’s Holy Spirit to transform us, are we worshipping with our hearts as well as our mouths, and does the teaching impact how we choose to live?
Young people are less inclined to ask whether God exists. They are happy to believe he does without him making any impact on their lives. They are much more likely to ask what difference belief in God makes. ‘Does it work’ is the more crucial question to this age group. We need to enable them to encounter God for themselves and to experience authentic worship.
3. Chance to contribute
Finally, the third area we need to explore is how we can help each young person learn that God has given them gifts to build the church. We need to help them move away from consuming what goes on and to become contributors to the life of the church.
It is all too easy for many of us to view church in a consumerist way. We turn up each week, receive what we need, enjoy meeting friends and then leave. When we start to find the services boring, or we get irritated by individuals, there is the temptation to find another church to belong to. This is consumerism. Young people are the ultimate consumers. We need to guard our youth work against encouraging consumerism. Yes we need to put on exciting, relevant and inspiring sessions for them. We also need to give them plenty of opportunities to serve.
We need to raise their expectations that following Jesus is about a life of service.
This doesn’t mean simply finding rota gaps on our music, welcome or flower rotas. It does mean taking each individual and exploring the talents and gifts God is growing in them and helping them to use them within the church, in whatever way is appropriate.
We may find some young people get involved in what already goes on. We may also find that new areas of ministry start as a result of what God is wanting to do through the young people. How exciting!
These are just three simple ways we can help young people to grow into a mature faith within the church. There are many more. Perhaps it might be worth discussing these with your church leadership, or as parents, or as a whole church, so that together we take responsibility to invest in each and every child and young person that God has given us stewardship of at this moment in time. Go for it!