The future is always on my mind. I literally can’t stop thinking about the future of the church, our society, our nation, and our world. Everything around us is changing at a continually accelerating pace. And to be honest, things look bleak. It all seems to be falling apart. The church is in decline, our country is divided, the world is in disarray, and I frankly hate chaos. Our only comfort is in the sovereignty of God: our Creator, Redeemer, and Lord.
Yet tomorrow is always a new day that brings hope. Lamentations 3:22-23 gives us comfort and confidence.
The steadfast love of the LORD
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
As we think about the future, it should occur to us that the answer is literally under our noses. The hope of the Church and our society is right there, and we overlook it. Well known sociologist George Barna has concluded after decades of studying the Church that the primary focus of ministry should be… children. That’s not the answer we expected.
We have a history in our diocese that we ought to learn from in order to shape the future. Youth Ministry was a subset of Faith Formation until 30 years ago when Bishop Salmon pulled it out and lifted it up as a mission field. His thinking was that if we reach teens, we reach families. Our diocese went from one or two congregations employing Youth Ministers to dozens. The boom in youth ministries led to a lot of church growth. The premise was very true in the 90’s but not today.
If we had followed the same logic, then somewhere in the early 2000’s we should have pulled Children’s Ministry out of the Faith Formation catalogue and given it a mission status. Many mega churches did just this and experienced continued growth. The truth is that teens in the community are very difficult to reach in the 21st century. Children’s ministry is a far more potentially fruitful harvest field. Children are more open to being taught the Bible and hearing the Gospel. Parents are more likely to follow their children to church.
In missions we speak of reaching the most unreached people groups. If we apply that criteria to segments of the population, students are the least reached people group in America. By that I mean children, youth, and college students. Only 2% of college students are being reached by any campus ministry today. Youth ministries across the country are reaching fewer teens than they did a few decades ago. Younger generations need to be a priority focus of the Church!
British Author & speaker Krish Kandiah made the following observation in Christianity Today magazine. (January 10, 2020)
“For many years, the Barna Group has been analyzing generational engagement with churches. In his book, Faith for Exiles, David Kinnaman states that in 2011, 59 percent of young Americans who grew up Christian had stopped attending their churches. Less than a decade later, the number has now increased to 64 percent. Despite numerous initiatives to try and reverse the trend, we have not managed to sufficiently engage young adults with Christianity.
This speaks to a major challenge to the mission of the Church: for all the evangelistic initiatives, for all the church planting, for all the populist fears of immigration diluting the Christian population’s majority, the biggest challenge to the Christian church is our inability to disciple our own children and help them transition from childhood faith to adult belief.”
How do we address this challenge? What I am about to suggest is very simple. That is not to say it will be easy.
First, we need to bear in mind that every church has what is needed to engage younger generations! It’s not about programs and resources. It’s about people passing the faith to the next generation. There really are only two resources needed to do this: people and the Bible. Engaging younger generations can take place in homes, in the community, and in church. It can happen in families, amongst friends, and in the church family.
Second, consider what would happen if our congregations were to focus intently on praying for younger generations? When we pray for others our hearts are moved and we want to know and interact with them. Making prayer for younger generations a high priority leads us to seek God’s intervention and opens up the reality that God will use us to shape those generations. What we pray for we care deeply about. A good resource to look into is the Pray For Me Campaign (prayformecampaign.com). In just five years over 540 churches from 41 states and six foreign countries have gotten involved in this. Over 43,000 intergenerational relationships have been created in these churches through the campaign.
A congregation that prays for the next generation becomes a congregation volunteering to serve/lead the next generation. This is investing in students. It is a relational investment of time and love. Through these we can share the gospel, teach the Bible, pray together and worship the Lord. Whether you call it mentoring or discipleship, it is merely a relationship through which we pass the faith from one generation to the next. It is doing Psalm 78:1-4.
George Barna in a recent livestream (https://vimeo.com/432717370) gave the following advice to church pastors… “Children are the most important group that you are going to affect. Look at everything you are doing in light of how it is going to affect children. Are we using our resources effectively to reach those children?”
Barna emphasized throughout that webinar how worldviews are mostly formed by age 13 and after then it is very difficult to reach and influence people. He stated “America has a profound spiritual deficiency and what that has done is produce a worldview crisis which is responsible for the ongoing cultural demise in the United States.”
By Dave Wright, Diocesan Coordinator for Youth Ministry