There is a lot of concern about kids dropping out of church. This is justified, as the statistics are terrifying. Still, there are plenty of success stories. Fortunately, most of us have moved past looking at problems (why they leave) and begun studying what makes for success (why they stay). After all, your focus changes what you see and how you act, so a positive focus is essential.
The trends of youth retention are clear (examples of sources are found at the end of the article).
- Personal experience and knowledge of Jesus
- Deeply spiritual parents and role models
- Strong, connected Godly communities
In probably the best study of this kind, entitled Growing Young, Kara Powell et. al. from Fuller Youth Research Institute identified 6 key characteristics which help young people engage, grow and own their faith. The 6 characteristics were;
This is certainly worth unpacking a little more, as it answers most of the complaints I have heard and observed. It is especially true if used to create Godly families not just Godly communities (eg. church communities).
Young people want to feel the warmth of safe, secure, loving and supportive communities. We all know what this means. We have all visited a new church and found it cold and uninviting. We have hopefully also visited churches that felt like coming home. The difference? Warmth. You can’t fabricate warmth. It is or it isn’t. You can foster warmth. You can grow warmth. Because warmth comes from a deep and genuine place of kindness, friendliness and concern for others, it cannot be manufactured. It must be real, or it fails. The tragedy comes when we consider the gospel of Jesus which teaches us to love as Christ loves us, to be joyful, to bear one another’s burdens, and more. If we reflect Jesus, if Jesus lives in and through us, we will be warm people.
Self-review – Do you feel your church is warm? If so, who did you speak to this week that you had not spoken to before? Warmth is not you feeling comfortable in your friendship circle, it’s everyone feeling comfortable in the wider church family. Really, we must ask “Am I a warm, friendly person?”
“Key chain” leadership
While the idea of key chains is an “Americanism” the image is clear, we need to hand over the keys of authority and freedom to our young people instead of locking down the culture and clinging to control tightly. I love the illustration of teaching someone to drive. You don’t throw them the car keys and tell them to have fun, not if you love them anyway. Nor do you lock the keys up in a safe and tell them to get their hands off your car. No. What we would all do is take them in the car and demonstrate driving, talk about the road rules and signs, and any hazards you might encounter. Then, in a controlled environment, you switch seats. They take the wheel with your presence to guide and support. As they ability increases you give greater responsibility over time. Then the day comes where you choose to step out of the car. Even when they have their full license, as a less experienced driver you may choose to drive one day if they are tired or the weather is really bad, but otherwise, they are independent with the confidence of you backing them. If they have a question or concern, you are there to call or fall back on. This is how we need to be empowering our young people. Not throwing them in the deep end, or keeping them out, but lovingly empowering and supporting. This includes ministry, leadership, nurture, teaching, and all other aspects of the Godly life in our faith communities.
Self-review – How do young people transition into leadership in your church? Are they held back, or pushed into roles nobody else will do? Are they support, nurtured and transitioned into responsibility? What role do you take in this process? Are you walking with young people on their leadership journey?
Empathy is so important. Different generations have always clashed. But consider how much the world changed in the last 30 years. We went from just having landline phones with an analogue dial and newspapers (paper copies) to computers, mobile phones, internet, apps, Wi-Fi, and so much more. The way we communicate, work, think and ‘do life’ is completely different. This is not wrong, and we must stop accusing our kids of being addicted to technology. To be more accurate, they are tech dependant. But then we all became quickly dependant on technology, it is just for some it was the telegram, others the telephone, still others the typewriter or word processor (just compare your handwriting to your parents and grandparents!), and we were all criticised by the previous generation for it.
What we need is empathy. It is true, we are different. So, we need people, young and old, who are willing to sit down and ask others what life is like for them, how they see things differently and most importantly, why. No judging. No criticising. Just a genuine desire to know and understand another person so we can value them. We can connect as we empathetically seeking to understand, or we can push people away by critical judgementalism. I want to understand my kids and have them feel supported and loved, so I chose empathy.
Self-review – how open am I to people who are different to me? When confronted with a different idea, do I think others are wrong, or am I curious why they think what they think? Am I able to respect someone who has a different perspective to me?
Take Jesus’ message seriously
Christianity is not a club, it is a counter-cultural, counter-intuitive and completely revolutionary world view. It defies human nature and calls for people to be transformed and radically different. Alas, statistics show this is not always the case. When comparing churched and unchurched rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and more, we see a tragic degree of similarity. This cannot be. Our young people know when people are different, and the rail against hypocrisy. Unless young people can see and experience the difference Jesus makes in the lives of their community and the individuals they respect, they will conclude it is powerless and therefore worthless. Young people are idealists, taking Christianity seriously. They will either be strengthened in their faith by those around them, or it will be eroded. Indefinitely, kids will assume your values and live them with less restrain to you, weather you have strong faith or little faith. So be who you want your kids to become.
Self-review – Would I be proud if my child had my faith, or do I want more for them? How can I help them see Jesus more clearly? How can I be humble about some of my failings to encourage them to grow past these and have a stronger faith than I have?
Prioritise young people families everywhere
For a community to transform young people, families must be prioritised in all areas of community life. Whether it is church services or serving the community, it must be done is a way that makes families central. Everyone is part of a family, so when we focus specifically on prioritising families, ensuring that families can connect and that all members of families are growing, we ensure everyone is valued and special.
We cannot just focus on our kids. Nor can we just focus on our adults or youth. A warm, healthy, Godly community will see, appreciate and love each person. Their age should not have anything to do with it, just like their gender, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status and more should not be an influence in how we treat them. You cannot love or prioritise someone because they are a young person if you want them to feel valued, you must value them for who they are as an individual. We must prioritise families, seek multigenerational engagement from all parts of our community so that each person is welcomed, seen, apricated and special for who they are.
Self-review – does my church always separate into groups of similar age, or do we do things together, more function as a family? Do you know and have regard for people from different generations, and do they know you? How are you making efforts to connect with people that are not like you?
Be the best neighbours
As noted earlier, young people are idealists. They want to change the world. Christianity has a core goal of transforming the world, so young people are the best aligned with Christianity’s core philosophy. The problem is, as we get older we get distracted and our priorities get “more complex”. The idealistic passion of young people gets messy, so we try to water it down a little. But this is like pouring cold water on a fire. This quest for stability or civility or comfort disillusions our kids and makes our churches irrelevant.
Our communities need to be the best neighbours as taught and illustrated by Jesus; both for our communities and for our young people. Being the best neighbours means loving our neighbours as Jesus taught – loving them completely. It means caring for them practically (e.g. serving the elderly, feeding the hungry), but also spiritually (seeking the lost) and emotionally (e.g. overcoming loneliness with community). We must love and care holistically with a passion for transforming our world as Jesus did. This is where our young people can best lead because they are best equipped to. We can all learn a lot from their optimism and idealism in this vital contribution. Remember Jesus words, unless you become a little child, you cannot enter the kingdom. Time for some childish faith and optimism that Jesus is going to do something powerful!
Self-review – What did you do to serve your community this last week? Do you feel Jesus wants you making a difference to your world? Do you feel more comfortable meeting peoples physical, emotional, or spiritual needs? Why are all three important? Which do you feel Jesus is most concerned about?
Our young people remain in the church when their spiritual community and family are warm, empathetic, inviting places that take Jesus seriously, live out his values practically, and empower others to do so also. As church leaders, parents or role models, you can create this environment for your young people. As you do, we will find we are part of a more biblical community, that we walk together in Godly relationships that disciple each other, and God will be unleashed to do something great in your life, family and community. I can’t wait to see this!
Further Comments on why kids remain in church
There are various suggestions as to why kids remain in the church. Some examples are below. Note the common themes of a personal, genuine encounter with Jesus, and the support of Godly family which is ideally parents, but also the wider church family.
- They are converted
- They are equipped not entertained
- Their parents preached the gospel to them
Jon Neilson, author of Faith That Lasts: Raising Kids That Don’t Leave the Church
- They have a genuine, personal relationship with Jesus Christ
- They are grounded by sound biblical and doctrinal understandings
- They have the security of supportive friends
- They are surrounded by great role models
- They see no viable alternative after experiencing personally that Jesus as the Way, the only One worth being with.
Dr. Joe McKeever, senior pastor/author/blogger for 55 years
- They had spiritually alive parents
- They had a relationship with the larger congregation outside of specialized ministry (ie, youth of kids min)
- They experienced “Bible-drenched age-appropriate ministry” that helps youth live out their faith in the world today.
Dr Richard Ross, author of Youth ministry that lasts a lifetime