One does not have to obtain a degree in advanced statistics to see that the church has a major problem in retaining young people. The evidence is all around us in an alarming number of congregations.
I recently conducted a very unscientific poll of several gospel preachers and asked them the approximate percentages of the following age groups in their congregations: under 30 years old, 30-60 years old, and over 60 years old. The results were about what I expected: a large number of our congregations are aging. Yet perhaps it is what I was not expecting about these results that is most interesting. I will address that at the end of this article.
As one of the few of my age group still left at my congregation, I have long felt as if my generation was the “lost generation” of the church. I can remember being one of several people my age who attended my congregation when I was younger, but now most of them have gone off into the world. I know that my congregation is not the only one experiencing this phenomenon.
The question becomes: What can we do to “stop the bleeding,” so to speak, and turn things around for the future? In the medical field, there is a word called panacea. A panacea is a “cure-all,” or a “wonder drug” that is supposed to remedy all problems. Of course a true panacea for all of the world’s medical ills does not exist!
The same is true regarding the problem of the church losing its young people. Yes, if all of our young people loved the Lord and abided by His Word then the problem would be cured, but we know that sadly many of our young people will choose to leave the Lord’s church.
I don’t believe that there is some sort of panacea for keeping our young people interested in the church, but I do believe that there is room for improvement so that we stand a better chance retaining them.
First, it is imperative that our congregations become less inwardly focused and more outwardly focused. What do I mean by this? If we aren’t careful, the church can gain a “me, me, me” mentality to the point that we are more focused on being served ourselves, rather than serving others. To illustrate this point, think about the following. Do your church members typically turn out better for a VBS or a fellowship meal, or for a door-knocking? If the answer is the former, then there may be too much inward focus. To remedy this, our congregations need to take the attitude of Paul, who said he became all things to all men, so that by all means he might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). We need to stop at nothing to try to reach out to our communities for benevolence, biblical education, and evangelism. If we do this, perhaps our young people will realize that they have an important place in the church and are needed for its success.
Next, we need to be careful not to get caught up in erroneous doctrinal extremes. What I mean by that is this: We cannot allow ourselves to react to a false doctrine in such a way that causes us to go too far the other direction and end up preaching something false to the other extreme. For example, we may, in an effort to avoid grace-only theology, allow ourselves to go too far the other direction and completely avoid talking about God’s grace. Perhaps, on the other end of the spectrum, we might emphasize God’s grace to the point that we no longer teach on the seriousness of sin. If this be the case, then a reading of Romans chapter 6 is in order! We need to make sure we don’t turn off our young people from hearing the truth by ignoring certain subjects that have been corrupted by those who are either too far to the left or to the right; we need to teach “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Finally, we need to make sure that we are not trying to keep our young people faithful through means of entertainment. The old adage is true: if it takes a gimmick to get them to come, it will take a gimmick to keep them! The church cannot compete with the entertainment the world has to offer, so it would be foolish for us to try! Rather than trying this approach, we need to instill in our young people a deep love for God and a realization that this world is not their home! “For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb. 13:14-15). We need to teach our young people to put God first in every aspect of their lives (Matt. 6:33). We need to teach them to prefer one another (Rom. 12:10) rather than their worldly friends. We need to teach them wisdom (Proverbs), and we need to show them through our actions that fearing God and keeping His commandments is the whole of man (Eccl. 12:13).
Now, back to the results of my survey! As I said before, I was not surprised to see that the majority of congregations polled had mostly people in the 60+ age group. Yet what was surprising is that there was a lot more variation than I had thought. There were plenty of congregations who still had a good mix of the under 30 and 30-60 age groups. What I learned from this is that I was looking for results based upon my own biases. Rather than expecting the results of every congregation to look like my own congregation, I should have waited to see the data before trying to make my own conclusions.
You see, there isn’t any one generation that is the “lost generation.” Why is that? Because every generation who does not know the Lord is lost! We need to be reaching the masses with the gospel of Christ! Age? Well, that’s just a number!
Chase is a 2017 graduate of the Memphis School of Preaching and preaches in West Monroe, LA, alongside his wife and children.