As I travel around Atlantic Canada I’ve been gathering a list of what churches that are growing have in common. Inevitably these churches are not just growing, but they are also growing younger as they engage children, youth, young adults and families. I have not been looking for just growth in numbers, but growth in depth, being rooted in Christ. Some of the best examples I’ve seen have been in smaller, rural churches. In these growing younger churches I have not seen a “lowering of the bar”, instead I’ve seen churches that are inviting all ages, and specifically the young among them, to find a place to belong, explore Jesus and be challenged to align their whole lives with Christ.
So this list is simply some observations from around Atlantic Canada. I will continue to tweak and change this list as I observe more and discern. I’d very much appreciate your feedback on what I’ve missed, what you think is just a passing trend, what is most important etc.
Each of these 10 things could be a blog post on their own. I’ll just try to highlight them briefly for all of us to think about in our own contexts.
Churches that are growing younger have these 10 things in common.
1. Children’s and youth ministry is not just a program, it is the centre of who they are.
When you walk into a church you can actually quite quickly get a feel for whether children and youth are a “program” off in the own little corner, or children and youth are a vital part of the church family. Growing churches intentionally work to include all ages together in the church family – by doing things like incorporating all ages in the worship time on a regular basis, finding ways for different ages to worship together and serve together, talking about what God is doing in different age groups regularly, mixing the different generation together during programs and in building connections. One story – I heard of a church that pairs each child with an adopted grandparent on Sunday mornings. The child can choose to enjoy the Sunday service by sitting with their “grandparent” or by taking their “grandparent” to a Bible program that they do together. It is very clear this is a church that values children and puts them at the centre of their community! Growing churches work hard at making children and teens valued at the core of their family, not just as a program.
2. Growing, younger churches are willing for it to be messy.
I like picturing the scene in Mark 10 where Jesus urges His disciples to not hinder the children from coming to Him and then He takes time to talk to each child and bless them. I’m a type A person. I like to picture it as Jesus having all the children lining-up in single file and in turn coming to Him, sitting on his knee like Santa Claus and Jesus blessing each of them in turn. In reality, I imagine it was much messier, one kid picking his nose and trying to bless Jesus with that, one kid trying to get Peter to give him a piggy-back ride, one kid hiding behind his Mom not wanting to participate. Churches that are growing are willing for it to be messy for the sake of the younger generation. Is it messier to include children and teens in a joint all-age worship time? You bet. Is it messier to have your children or teens lead the congregation some Sunday mornings? You bet. Is it messier to have time with children/teens that lets them creatively respond to God’s activity in their life? You bet. Is it messier to try an inter-generational event for the first time? You bet. Is it messier to have the children/teens teach a sermon to the adults through drama, songs and testimonies? You bet. It is messier, but it’s also worth it, so that children and youth are given the opportunity to lead us all closer to the Kingdom. Growing churches are willing for it to be messy.
3. Growing churches recognize influence goes beyond the child in two ways, children influence their parents and parents influence their children.
a. Children influence their parents - Children are bringing their parents to God. Children influence their parents all the time – what they buy at the grocery store, what movies they watch, how they spend their free time, what they spend their money on… Children also influence the faith of their parents, where parents go to church, whether they talk about faith at home, asking questions, leading prayer in their home… More and more I’m hearing stories of kids or youth bringing their parents to church. One morning when I showed up at church and said to a single Mom “It’s great to see you”, she explained to me, we had to come. I have not had the kids on a weekend for a while so I planned fun outings this morning - going for breakfast out and then to the zoo. However, my daughter cried, “but Mom, we can’t miss church. I want to go to church.” More and more children are leading their families in their faith journey. Growing churches are empowering kids and teens to lead others closer to Christ. They are giving teens/kids the tools and push they need to practice their faith on their own and be an example to the rest of the family/friends.
b. Growing churches recognize influence goes beyond the child. Parents influence their children. Growing churches recognize parents need help. They, more than anything, want the best for their children but they need help. These parents are connecting with your church, your ministry so they are at least in some ways saying, I want my child/teen to know about God, experience God. The trouble is, the other 167 hours of the week, when they are not in your ministry, this parent often has NO IDEA how to help their child experience God. Growing churches are finding ways to equip parents – whether that’s by finding ways to include parents in ministry programs, putting on equipping events for parents, teaching them how to do devos or giving take-home activities for families to do together. Growing churches recognize their role in influencing parents.
4. Growing churches magnify and respect the voice of children and teens
Do kids/teens get greeted and chatted to just as much before/after services and programs? In growing churches kids/teens are both seen and heard. Kids/teens opinions are invited into decisions. They are consulted about changes and regularly considered by asking what will make it easier for them to discover Christ. Kids/teens are given real authority to lead - in places like small groups, from the front, during worship, in prayer… What God is doing in the lives of kids/teens is magnified and celebrated by the whole church family. In growing churches adults making decisions regularly consider and magnify the needs of the kids/teens instead of their own needs. It is beautiful to watch this sacrifice for the sake of a generation encountering Christ.
5. Growing churches trust children/teens hear and respond to God themselves
It is clear it is not about entertaining kids/teens or having something for the children to do while the adults do their thing. It’s about knowing God loves kids and speaks to kids NOW. It is trusting God absolutely does and is speaking to kids. God’s Spirit is stirring and leading kids. And kids/teens are able to respond to God’s nudges in their own lives. The Children’s Pastor at my church is the best at this. She gives time for kids to listen and respond to God’s voice for themselves. It looks different each time – it might be giving them time to turn around and put their head down in their chair, so they can tell God what’s on their mind or to just listen for what God is saying, it might be an invitation to various stations to creatively respond to what God is highlighting to you. Also, on more than one occasion a child or teen has taught me significant lessons about my relationship with Christ. Their strength of faith is an example to us now. God is using them now to draw us closer to the Kingdom. Growing churches allow kids and teens space to experience God for themselves. It is not simply about passing on information.
6. Growing churches are constantly tweaking
Growing churches are constantly asking, how can we do a better job of engaging and reaching this generation for Christ? They are not saying “We’ve got it figured out”, “We’ll just keep doing this”. Each week they are asking, what could we do better to help people experience Christ, respond to Christ, and live Christ? They’re tweaking how they lead the small group, so the person that was dis-interested this week, will be fully engaged next time. They are experimenting with technology, so they can stay relevant. They are willing to tweak and try different things. They are married to the Gospel, but are not married to a method/program/curriculum. When I see this working best it is not just the Pastors and key leaders that are constantly tweaking, it’s everyone, all the volunteers. It is a culture that says, whatever I’m doing, big or small, for my contribution, it matters and I will keep seeking how I can make it better for the sake of the Kingdom.
7. Growing churches know who is in their community
God has placed you in your community. Step one is figuring out who is your community. I heard a story of a church that was really struggling, actually that’s an understatement, they were close to deaths door and were trying to see how God might turn things around. They asked for some help from an outside leader. When this outside leader asked about children in their community they said “Oh no, there are no children in our community.” When they looked at the Statistics Canada demographics for their community it told them a very different story. Your blind spots to your community may not be quite as severe, but do you know your community? Who is your community? What are their needs? Their joys? How do you start building bridges and being relevant? It greatly helps your application to sermons, devotions and lessons if you know who you are speaking to and what is relevant in their world. It greatly helps you train your kids, youth and people to be missionaries in your community, when you know who is in your community.
8. Growing churches go beyond the walls of their own church
This generation desperately wants to know if faith actually makes any difference. They are asking “So, what?” You believe in Jesus, you go to church – so what? What difference does it make? They want to see a faith that actually makes a difference in our broken world. They hear the words, they hear what media says about Christianity, they see more than ever before the brokenness in our world – they need to see God’s Gospel of reconciliation and restoration in action. Growing churches are finding ways to invite children and teens into overflowing with God’s heart for their town/city. They are inviting children and teens to join in being the hands and feet of Jesus in our world. I know a children’s ministry that is learning about HIV and Aids in order to raise awareness and support for Kamp Tumaini, a camp for kids in Kenya. I know a children’s ministry that made little bags out of material and put road salt in them to give to each senior in their church. The seniors use them to sprinkle on icy patches when they are walking in winter. I know youth ministries that are raising awareness and funds for the SheMatters campaign. I know teens engaged in freeing others from the sex trade (eXpendable). I know ministries that are intentionally getting to know their neighbours and neighbourhoods - building partnerships with schools, community centres, food banks and shining Christ there. Growing churches are helping kids/teens live out God’s heart for justice.
9. Growing churches create a clear atmosphere of welcome for the younger generation
I’ve discovered when I walk into a church I can actually tell pretty quickly whether the younger generation is welcomed. In a small, country church I walked into one Sunday right away I saw packets for children by the door with crayons, play-doh and activities, then I saw at the back of the sanctuary a beautiful corner with mats, rocking chairs and pillows which I was told was for nursing moms. I looked around and said “Oh wonderful, so where are the kids right now?” They said “we don’t have any at the moment, but we are ready for them!” There was something to that we can all learn. It was clear that they had created an atmosphere of welcome for young families and were ready for them. Does your atmosphere and set-up communicate that you are ready for infants, for children, for teens?
10. Growing churches clearly support the younger generations (Yup, this is where you need to put money and people where your mouth is.)
Growing churches give priority to God’s work among the younger generation in their budget, through the focus of the prayers, in staffing and in resourcing. Staffing is key, whether it is paid staff or a key volunteer – if you want an area to grow it needs someone that can give it more dedicated attention. It needs a champion. If a leader has eight things on their list of responsibilities and say, for example, the toddlers are getting very little attention, someone else needs to be put in a position to dream creatively, support and build the ministry with toddlers. If you want an area to grow it needs a champion.
There you have it folks, as I look around Atlantic Canada those are the 10 things I’m seeing in the churches that are growing younger. Where is your church/ministry doing well on these 10 things? Which one of these needs your attention?
I’d appreciate your feedback on this list – what did I get wrong, what did I miss etc? I’ll keep tweaking it.