If you attend a small church, you have likely heard the panicked question, “How do we attract more young people?!” In this post, I’ll explore that issue. For the record, I’m 26-years-old and have attended church on and off most of my life (mostly on, but you know how college kids are). Also, I’m engaged and childless; hence, my perspective lacks the input of a young wife/mother.
I should note that people may refer to different age ranges with the phrase “young person/people.” Some people literally mean youth and children (18 and under), while others broaden the definition to include people about my age and below; still others think of people in their 30’s-40’s as young. Since the average age for members of most small churches is 65+, the term “young” can be applied liberally.
Times have changed, and many struggle to keep up. Some rack their brains, attempting to come up with events and other (often superficial) ways to reach young people, while others have given up and resorted to lamenting “what the world is coming to.” Believe it or not, attracting young people isn’t actually insurmountable…but it requires leaving our comfort zones.
Over 50 years ago, Dr. MLK Jr. wrote about who the church was in the past vs. at that time. The church used to be a group of passionate Jesus followers who were truly counter-cultural; they spread truth and love and also stood for justice. By the 1950’s, they’d become a state institution that stood with the status quo instead of challenging it. Young people, King wrote, were beginning to disdain the church’s hypocrisy and complacency. If it refused to return to its roots, the church as we know it would be deemed “an irrelevant social club.”
Eerie, isn’t it? “Prophetic” is more like it. The problem has gotten worse instead of better. Surprise, surprise: small churches are in danger of dying out, literally. This predicament brings the book of Jeremiah to mind. Chapter upon chapter deals with God’s impending wrath; it’s disturbing and frightening. But, in chapter 22, God throws out a plea deal: “This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jeremiah 22:3, NIV). The passage goes on to assure that God will make their home “a desolation” if they do not obey. The warnings went unheeded, so the Babylonian Exile happened. But this gives me hope that, just as God offered the Hebrews mercy, it’s not too late to repent of our apathy and disobedience; it’s not too late to return to our roots.
Sorry not sorry for the long intro–y’all know I have a lot to say. 😉 Okay, let’s get into it. Like I said earlier, it’s not that complicated…BUT it is hard.
Provide opportunities to genuinely make a difference
I attended a *peaceful* protest last week for educational purposes and to express compassion for others’ pain (that’s me in the far left photo, recording a video). Upon learning this, a family member mockingly said I must feel “SO VIRTUOUS.” Do I believe my gathering in a group, holding signs, marching up the street, and later returning to my quaint life in the suburbs will really make a difference to anyone who experiences poverty, racism, police brutality, or mass incarceration? No. But, dang, it felt good just to DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!
I’m not totally naive; I realize now is the best time to be alive–for human rights, for technology, for medicine, for access to information, etc. Still, there are so many effed up things in this world from how we mistreat people who make our cheap clothes to how we exploit God’s creation. We young people are energized and compassionate, but we don’t know how to make this world a better place.
The church can provide those opportunities to be the hands and feet of Jesus through outreach and social action. As we wait for the pandemic to subside, let’s use this time to dream big. I have been fervently praying to God that we, His servants, would be anointed with creativity, visions, boldness, and unity. Join me in this prayer and in planning ways to make Kingdom-shaped differences in our communities. Let’s be willing to try new ideas, take our ministry outside the church walls, and have uncomfortable conversations and experiences. Let’s trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us if we step out in faith.
Help them encounter Jesus and be transformed
Jesus is the one who started transforming my heart at age 23. As I pursue Him, the scales fall from my eyes. I see my neighbors clearly and love them deeply; I feel compelled to help them. For me, meeting Jesus was the first step, with action following. But if we are ministering to young people who don’t attend church, the walk will have to come before the talk, if that makes sense. Show them how Jesus has changed you–by loving your neighbor–then introduce them to Jesus (love is an action verb here).
When I met Jesus–when I dove into the Living Word and God drew me near–I got baptized with the Holy Spirit and an unquenchable fire. It’d be fair to ask, “Hey, wait–I thought you said young people are already hungry to make a difference–so why is Jesus needed?” Allow me to clarify.
We young people want to make a difference…but when Jesus is the motivation, one’s mindset changes. I want to stand for justice, but I also want to be a peacemaker; I want to be bold, but I also want to be gentle. I pray for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s families to have peace and comfort, but I also pray the officers would repent and receive God’s mercy.
Most of those attending the protest I went to were fueled by other things–anger, desperation, fear, despair. Several chants started with the word “F*ck.” Young people are emotionally exhausted because they don’t want to succumb to hopelessness, yet they often feel powerless.
Praise God, there is hope in Jesus Christ; young people and the world as a whole need it. We need Jesus, along with God and the Holy Spirit, to help us return to the mindset of the early church.
Young people do not need a social club. We need Jesus, and we need avenues to ACT as the hands and feet of Jesus. Are our churches social clubs, or are we ready to partner with Jesus and transform the world? (referencing the 1 Cor. greeting & the Great Commission)
Thanks for reading! Two cents welcome. ♥ I myself attend a small church with the same “young people” issue. Maybe God has anointed me with these revelations so I can start laying groundwork to eventually bring more young people into my church. Asking people to step outside their comfort zones feels intimidating to the point of impossible. Perhaps Satan is trying to immobilize me. Ugh, swimming against a current is tough stuff. Words of encouragement also welcome!