National Magazine of the Lutheran Church of Australia

Where are all the young people? What can I do?

August 2019

by Jodi Brook

Have you ever found yourself asking this or similar questions? Do you sit in church and look around at the generations of people visible on Sunday mornings and wonder? As parents, grandparents, those involved in the work and life of families in our communities and all of us – this question can lead to great frustration and sometimes be very personal and cause considerable grief.

A lot of research has been done over the past 10 years to help us to understand why some young people leave the church and perhaps where they go. These studies have all had similar outcomes.

Over the past six years, Grow Ministries has been doing the hard work of processing this research.

What we have learnt is that we need to encourage congregations to rethink how they do ministry with children, young people and their families, and that this ministry needs to include the whole church community. Yes! That means each person of all ages needs to see themselves as part of ministry with children and young people.

Young people often do not feel like they are an important part of life in the congregation and belonging is really important to young people – as it is to all of us. For a young adult, in the years leading up to them deciding to leave the church, they have been unintentionally told that they are not welcome as part of the ‘big’ church.

We told them they were too young to understand what was happening in worship – ‘you can go to Sunday school’ – and then, when they are finished in Sunday school, they don’t feel as though they belong in worship because they have never been present there!

Next, we said: ‘Go along to youth group. Hang out with other Christian kids – you’ll have fun!’ Yes, they had fun. Yes, they made great Christian friends, but they never got to know the church, the congregation or the people. So what is the church that they are leaving? Perhaps it is a church they never felt they belonged to in the first place.

It is not easy to understand how we help young people to feel part of our congregation. It’s much easier just to run another youth program, or employ a youth worker and expect that to be our ‘silver bullet’ or quick-fix answer. The former requires us to rethink the ways we’ve always done things.

Part of our rethinking is not to put our time and resources into hiring an energetic youth leader or into providing a more contemporary worship service. Of course, these things may help, but they’re not the whole answer.

The key is to be intentional in providing opportunities to get to know our young people. We can help them belong by planning intentional ways of building relationships across the generations. Take time to speak with the young people in your congregation – particularly following your worship service. Find out what interests them.

Is there a way in which they can serve or contribute to the ministry of your congregation? Intergenerational ministry is about doing life together. It’s about taking the time to get to know the people we sit next to each week, no matter how old or young they are.

Can we provide learning opportunities that include all ages? Opportunities that build understanding of one generation to the other? Could we consider inviting a larger group of adults to assist with teaching confirmation and first communion?

Could we rethink small groups to make them intergenerational? Intergenerational ministry is not just about – and of benefit to – children and young people. It is about – and of benefit to – people of all generations.

It is essential for congregations and their leaders to invest some time and energy into understanding what role they have to play in implementing this new way of thinking – it’s about changing culture. It’s about doing ministry differently and this requires leadership and guidance. Permission to try new things.

Young people need to feel they belong to your congregation. But the research also tells us that our families still play a critical role in teaching and passing on the faith.

Families enjoy opportunities to pray, learn and be together – even if parents are a little reluctant to get started.

A growing number of congregations within the LCA are taking up this opportunity to rethink what faith formation looks like for their church family. They are now celebrating a renewal of health and vitality in their contexts as they minister to each other in faith and life.

Jodi Brook is Director of Grow Ministries.

If you would like to learn more about the ways in which Grow Ministries can help your congregation to rethink ministry with children, young people and families, please contact us via email at growministries@lca.org.au or by phone on 08 8267 7300.