It’s one of the most common mistakes I see churches make.
The “problem” is always the same—we don’t have enough young people, we want to attract young families, we need to bring in more kids and teens. And the solution is equally the same—make a bigger splash, add more bells and whistles, make Sunday School hour “the best hour of the week” and make your youth group the most fun, the most outrageous, trendiest spot on the block.
I recently had a conversation with a group of church members who are, well, aging. During the conversation, they began reminiscing about the “good old days.” They spoke with fondness and nostalgia about the days when their youth group was the biggest and their children’s ministry was booming.
I listened quietly for a while but then I spoke up. “Where are they now?” I asked. “Oh, well, they grew up!” was the reply. “But where are they?” I asked. “Did they all move away? Are all of those kids and teens no longer in the area?” It didn’t take long before their faces fell. Because the answer was that while a few had moved away, most had just moved on. Moved on from church. Moved on from the community. Moved on from their faith.
The mistake I see churches making is simple: They try to compete. Not just with each other but with the rest of society. They try to be cool, to be fun, to be the place to be and try to attract people to their programs and activities. But here’s the inconvenient truth: no matter how cool or fun we think we are, we can’t compete with places and programs who sole purpose is FUN. They are better funded, better resourced, and better equipped to be fun. They have entire budgets dedicated to advertising and marketing.
There’s no competition. And also…there is NO competition.
The fact that we engage as though there is a competition is a problem. Our purpose, our goal, and our existence is innately and completely different than those who exist to entertain and amuse. We are called to make disciples. The church is meant to be the body of Christ. Our community is called to love God and love others. That is our goal and our purpose.
So even if we try to compete and we do grow our programs for a little while and make a big splash in a little pond, if we have not grown disciples and if we have not put in place the relationships necessary for lifelong faith formation, we have not won. We’ve lost.
And we have lost. Self-identified Christians make up 63% of U.S. population in 2021, down from 75% a decade ago (Source). We know all the numbers; we hear them all the time.
But what about those who stay? Is it because of our bells-and-whistles? Is it because we “won” the competition?
On the contrary, it is because of the places and ways where we were true to who we are and what we are called to be. Research shows us that young people who stay in church do so for things like genuine relationships not just with peers but with the larger church community (older people!), deep theology not surface level teaching and fun games, service and purpose with mission as the goal, honest discussions and a sense of belonging to a family (Source).