I (Anna) still remember my first time leading the praise band at my church. I was in eighth grade. My stomach rattled as I approached the microphone. Before I knew it, though, the congregation was singing along with me. It was an adrenaline rush like I had never felt before.
Following this initial time, I continued to lead worship for our congregation. Often, our worship pastor, Sarah, would teach me new vocal skills. Other times, we would just talk about relationships with friends and potential boyfriends. What I didn’t know then, but I know now, is that those long conversations and that personal investment in my life tethered me to the church in a life-lasting way.
But that isn’t the story for many young people in today’s world.
The problem is more than young people being absent from church
In 2019, Barna published a report with a stark statistic: 64 percent of young people in the United States who had been raised in the Christian church were no longer a part of any worshiping congregation. In the Canadian context, the numbers are not exactly the same, but they are strikingly similar. Across continents today, when leaders hear the startling statistics about young people, they also have names and faces that come to mind. The young people have slowly drifted away, so many church leaders are asking, “How do I get these young people to come back to my church?”
When we talk with these leaders, it often seems that they are more concerned about the decline of the church rather than the actual individuals—youth and young adults—who have left. In truth, how we engage with the reality of younger generations disassociating with the church is much more nuanced and complex than asking how we get them back. Rather, we have found that the beginning to addressing this absence starts with a different foundational question: how can we begin forming intergenerational relationships in our congregations?
Before we address this question, let’s demystify one piece of criticism often said about young people: that they have no faith because they’re not affiliated with a church. Pew Research recently released a study, revealing the following:
- 50 percent of young people feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being at least monthly.
- 46 percent say they think about the meaning and purpose of life.
- 40 percent report feeling a deep sense of wonder about the universe.
- 77 percent experience a strong feeling of gratitude or thankfulness.
What exactly do these statistics have to do with our problem of churches without young people? Well, it turns out that young people are deeply curious about the world around them; they’re just not making meaning within the context of a congregation.
Therefore, the foundation of our forming relationships with young people cannot begin with an assumption that young people just don’t care about faith anymore. We must understand that young people are not leaving the church because they’re done with God. The hard truth—and a bittersweet truth—is that young people are leaving the church for other reasons, ones that are much more related to our own leadership and the shortcomings of older generations.
The beautiful discovery of this truth is that we can begin to implement new strategies to further relationships that will not just welcome young people [back] into the church but will also create thriving faith communities of all generations leading together. That is what we really hope to see in our congregations—intergenerational ministry and shared leadership.
What made the difference for me
In the Evangelical Fellowship in Canada’s Renegotiating Faith report, we read:
To continue on in a faith community, young adults need to renegotiate their childhood roles as adult roles. Mentors can help with this renegotiation by reintroducing young adults to a church community currently familiar with them in their childhood roles framed by their family of origin. Through this reintroduction, mentors use their status in the community to help young adults forge new roles, and in so doing they provide a means of differentiation within the church community. Young adults who had home church mentors were more than three times as likely to connect with new churches or parishes after moving out of their parents’ home and to connect with a Christian campus group after starting postsecondary studies.
We believe that at the very foundation of our intergenerational work is the necessity for forming relationships. I (Ron) remember that in my childhood and teen years, my family moved around a bit. It wasn’t easy for my brother and me to fit in during these moves, and there were times we hoped that friends would appear and that the sense of belonging would come. For me, the transitions were often difficult, and as a person who identifies as an INFJ, it was easy to retreat in isolation. To dream. To wonder.
During the high school years, our church defaulted to a model of discipleship that came with requirements and obligations. Programs would start and stop without any relational investment—until the pastor who led me through my profession of faith journey took a deeper step with me.
He was compassionate, listened well, and made space for all my teenage wondering and questions. This man of God helped me to feel and experience a sense of belonging when the programming left me empty.
When we dream of discipleship, we cannot rely on programs to fix the problem of young people leaving the church. We need God’s people to invest in the lives of those who are learning what it means to be a child of God in a world that often pulls them away from an identity in Christ. We need mentoring.
Why mentoring is the solution
Mentoring means walking alongside those who are wondering. It means wrestling together through life questions that mean the world to our teens and emerging adults. It means making space for the younger voices in our midst to be heard, valued, and honoured.
Mentoring can help reintroduce young people to our church communities. A mentoring mindset will enable your church to welcome and enfold young people who come through your doors. That incorporation and sense of belonging sets them on a road of connectivity to faith and the body of Christ, likely for the remainder of their lives.
Intergenerational relationships bridge the gap between the “head knowledge” obligations of programmatic ministry to where the heart and soul of our youth can be nurtured and cared for.
Here are a few ways you can begin to bridge the gap:
- After church, instead of going to your same group of people to chat with, reach out to a teen or young adult and say, “Hello! How are you?” A simple greeting and genuine interest is huge.
- Learn the name of at least one teen or young adult in your church each month and pray for them daily. They won’t know what hit them.
- Invite a teen or young adult into a project you or a committee is working on. Their voice and contributions are vital for the life of the church.
- Thank a teen or young adult for something you saw them do. Acknowledging and saying “thank you” should always be our default.
Rev. Annalise Radcliffe
Annalise Radcliffe is director of future church innovation for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with Anna by email at email@example.com.
Ron deVries is a youth ministry catalyzer for the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s Faith Formation Ministries.