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Beyond Games: What Makes Youth Stay in Community at Church?

Beyond Games: What Makes Youth Stay in Community at Church?

The church dropout statistics are significant—and quite discouraging. Young adults are walking away from the church. As one study put it, they are “leaving in droves.” (CNN quoting a Pew Research study)

Kids who grew up actively involved in youth group are often not connected with church once they become young adults. Youth pastors and parents alike are bemoaning this trend, frequently with a Chicken Little, “the sky is falling” pessimism toward the church.

It’s easy to develop a gloom and doom reaction to these negative reports. But, it’s important for us to base our conclusions and reactions on what the Bible says and not upon relatively recent demographic downturns. God’s Word makes it clear in passages like Matthew 16:18, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.

God has assured the church of a long and bright future. As long as Christ tarries, His church will be the focal point of His work in the world.

Instead of reacting to the statistics with negativity and cynicism, let’s focus on proactive strategies that can be implemented by church leaders and Christian parents alike to help ensure that our kids will grow up with a life-long commitment to what God is doing in the world within His church.

Here are three practical suggestions to seriously consider that will help thwart the downward spiral of kids leaving the church:

1. Make God’s Word a priority and help young people understand that Biblical principles apply to life.

The foundational lynchpin for keeping young people connected to the community of the local church is if they understand and appreciate that the Word God is essential to their faith. This, of course, begins with godly parents who help their kids build the personal discipline of spending regular time in the Scriptures (see 2 Timothy 3:15).

The personal disciplines of meditating on the Word of God (see Joshua 1:8 and Psalms 1:2) and Scripture memory (see Psalm 119:11) are so important for young people. Putting Biblical truth into their minds will definitely help instill in them a connection to the church—another place where God’s Word is central.

However, today’s youth will also need to see that God’s Word is true and that it applies to their everyday lives. The Psalmist makes this point in Psalms 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet, And a light to my path.” The Apostle Paul makes the case for the Scriptures applying to life in passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable to doctrine, reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

This point provides another key reason for helping young people connect to a local church. Church youth ministries are ideal partners to help parents demonstrate that God’s Word is practical and that its teachings relate to life today. The practical reinforcement of Christian parents working together with the church is essential for maturing teenagers to learn and highly value the importance of learning God’s Word and showing them that it applies to their lives.

Plus, as youth study the Word of God for themselves, memorize its truth, and mediate on its teaching they will see from the Scriptures that the church is what God is doing in the world today (see Matthew 13:18). Young people who are grounded in Biblical teaching are much more likely to stay connected to a church that preaches, teaches, and helps them apply God’s Word.

2. Show young people that the church is important and assist them in building “sweat equity” in God’s work.

A lifetime connection to a church community is not likely to happen unless a habit of local church participation is instilled in young people as they grow up. This discipline will require Christian parents and church leaders to work together to help young people build “sweat equity” in and through the local church.

Today’s young people must learn that the church is not about being a consumer, but that it is built on the involvement of individual participants (see Ephesians 4:11-16). Church youth ministries that feature all fun and games and that promote an entertainment philosophy are not likely to keep emerging adults engaged as they grow up.

Sweat equity, or a growing personal interest and involvement in the value of church, is built through activities like ministry, service, work projects, and even giving. Anything that requires the participant to give of themselves to the church’s overall mission will help build this personal interest.

Parents and church leaders should work together to find creative and significant ways for maturing young people to minister to others, to serve the Lord, to utilize their own gifts and abilities, and to give of their own financial resources as a way to be involved in the local church.

A lifelong commitment to the local church is developed by personal involvement in the essential elements of the church. This actually starts with helping young people develop the personal habit of attending church faithfully. Parents that allow other priorities (like school, sports, work, etc.) to crowd church out of their personal schedules are likely to see them walk away from church when they become adults.

Church must be a priority during their formative years for them to make church a priority when they become adults.

3. Be intentional about developing growing inter-generational connections within the church.

A commitment to a church community will necessitate growing interpersonal connections to other believers of all ages. For too long, countless churches have adopted and implemented an age-segregated model of programming. The children are in one place, the teenagers in another, the adults meet somewhere else, and even the oldest adults are separated away from other generations. That’s not the Biblical model (see Titus 2:1-5).

Local church youth ministry has many very positive advantages (see Inter-Generational Youth Ministry, chapter 7). Many churches segregate their participants by age groups only, and they are making a big mistake. It’s no wonder young adults are walking away from church. They do not know, nor are they connected with, older adults.    

One of the leading youth ministry voices in this country has said that every young person needs to have strong relationships with five adults other than their parents for them to be connected to the overall church community upon graduation from high school.

It’s time to connect the generations in the church. The Bible gives us several examples of inter-generational connections, especially in the Apostle Paul’s ministry, and in the example of the Lord Himself with His disciples, many of whom were really quite young when he discipled them to carry on His work.

There is good news. We can move our teenagers beyond games to a lifetime of spiritual growth and to a lasting connection with the church community. Christian parents working in harmony with church leaders for the long-term spiritual maturity of youth is the key. This trend can be reversed.

cover of the book Intergenerational Youth Ministry by Mel WalkerMel Walker is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA and is the president and co-founder of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry. He is also an author, speaker, and consultant with churches. He speaks to hundreds of teenagers, youth workers, and parents each year. He recently released Inter-Generational Youth Ministry and Going On For God. More information about his books or ministry can be found at: He and his wife, Peggy, are the parents of 3 adult children, all of whom are in vocational ministry. Follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth.

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