The truth is that we dont know the answer to the question- ‘how do we keep young people in the church?’

Over the weekend i shared on Facebook the following article:

It is not an uncommon type of format, this one tried to answer the question of ‘why cant we keep young people in the church’ by saying that if children and young people are included in the church services then they are more likely to stay, doing so with a range of Biblical verses to back it up. The fact that when Jesus when talking about children and faith, was talking about children and faith and not necessarily the church as an organisation and children and faith was largely missed. Yet the ideal way is the Jesus way. (of course) But these articles tend to have a similar focus. They go along the lines;

  1. We know children and young people are leaving the church
  2. What are churches doing wrong
  3. What should churches do differently and back this up with Bible passages, or an example.
  4. Problem solved.

And suggestions for numbers 2 and 3 come thick and fast. So, starting with the above article, heres a few:

a) Keep them in services

b) employ a professional youthworkers/gap year ppl/ kids worker

c) dont employ youthworkers – train volunteers

d)employ family workers

e) hmm, dont employ family workers

f) Take young people to big crazy youth services

g) dont take young people to these

h)give them responsibility & roles

i) Use ___________ resources to make the youth group trendy/relevent/sick*

j) Develop one to one work

k) Develop group work

and the list goes on…. But dont you see the pattern., and yes i know ive written a few myself… (oh the shame)

Everyone and yet no one seems to know the answer – or at least thinks that answer is something straightforward, and is universal. During the process the current practice of church gets a bashing, which, sometimes it needs, and needs to be self critical, but other times the ‘new’ idea is no better, or more effective, just a new idea, or an obvious thing that seems oddly common sense.

But it isnt straightforward is it?

But a simple answer might be easier to sell, especially if there is a ‘ministry’ to purchase, or an event to pay for. But a universal, off the shelf answer isnt going to be the answer, the answer to that question is ‘who is benefitting from that resource or event being purchased’.Or even clicks on a blog page and all that advertising (ouch) The only universal response to that most common of questions is the one that forces us all in churches and in youth ministries to think local and specific and, is the following question:

The only universal response to that most common of questions is the one that forces us all in churches and in youth ministries to think local and specific and, is the following question:

What will be the best way of discipling the young people who are currently in this church?

by the way this isnt the question – what was the best way I was discipled?, because for obvious reasons you are not they. Though if you are asking that question it does mean you are something of a success story – you are still in the church – so something must’ve worked for you…. but you are not the same as the young people you are ministering to/with/for. 

The answer to this question lies in being found in the conversations and listening you have with the young people, in finding out about them, their gifts and abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, their ambitions and drives, their desires, hopes and dreams, finding out how they are responding in their local culture, or how they arent.  (Maybe one of the troubles is that we dont actually spend alot of time with the young people we do ‘ministry’ with. They turn up on sunday and thats about it) What that might mean is that a particular answer is needed for every specific young person or group of them, and a universal strategy, or regional, or external one might only have limited resonance.

Only the local will, the very local.

In a way, and this is no generalisation, if our attitude towards young people within the church, is the same as the church’s in the world – that the churches purpose is to be both practical and prophetic¹, then this might help to shape the role, direction and equipping that young people have within it. The local culture of the church is the biggest shaper of the format of youth ministry, unless the youth work volunteers are strong enough to develop different approaches.

We have to recognise the uniqueness of our young people, in our church, in our community, in this time.  How we help them become disciples of Jesus right now has got to look different, not because it has to be more relevent – often quite the opposite- if it has got to be relevant, it is to be relevant to them specifically, ie with them and for them specifically. It might have to be practical – how can our church be helpful to young people? and their discipleship?  But how might the church act in helpful ways for the young people?  and it might have to be prophetic – how might we help young people to use their gifts, or how might we help them challenge culture and yet remain in it?

And it might have to be prophetic – how might we help young people to use their gifts, or how might we help them challenge culture and yet remain in it? How might they opt into a deep faith? How might they be ‘part’ of the church as the movement – and not spectators of another churchs youth provision? (for example)

But this can only be answered by you in your context. And even this might not be the answer. The easy thing is to write blogs and articles that have universal answers and remedies, when what most childrens, youth and family work volunteers usually need is to be helped to think in their context. To be valued for taking the local context of the group, of the young people seriously, and acting as a filter for the things that might, even if shouted the loudest, not be helpful.

Because of the local context, and culture, the lives of young people, their families and their situation. There really is a difficulty being able to answer that question – how do we keep young people in the church?  The question we should be asking is – how might be the best way of discipling these young people here and now?

¹This is Nicholas Healys Ecclesiology, he states that blueprint ecclesiologies cause church to feel doomed by failure, he argues that a theodrammatic vision enables the church to see itself as an ongoing experimental peformance with the task of being practical and prophetic in the world (Church, the world and the christian life, N Healy, 2000)




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