In the good old days, so to speak, people attended church out of sense of tradition, or because it was the one time to gather as a community. In mid 1900s, research shows, families were led to church by mothers, who were more likely to direct a family’s faith practice. This is no longer true: most mothers work now, or slowly became disenchanted with a church that was slow to adapt to modern values. (Consider that even in a pretty liberal country like Canada, women, and especially younger women, are more likely than men to support gay rights, abortion rights, and social equality.) As a church, we have caught up – but for many mothers it is too late.
Now families increasingly choose churches with their kids in mind : Does the minister relate well to youth? What are the character education programs available? How are youth included in worship? And – the bottom line – are our kids having fun? When we ask a family to get themselves out of bed on a Sunday morning, to choose worship over hockey, we have to accept the reality of the times: it’s our youngest members that are often driving that decision.
Considering the sample size of the newest members at the church where I serve, and the reasons why they chose to join a new congregation, all of the families have told me it was for their children. In one case, their two young girls like coming to church, listening to the children’s sermon, doing the crafts in the nursery, even playing with the plasma cars in the hall. Another mom brings her girls because of a friendship with another youth in our congregation. Another mom started coming because she wanted her daughter to be baptized. Some of these reasons may not be surprising, but they are all certainly worth considering.
As a church, we have a tendency to box up our youth programs and put them “over there.” They are separate from our mission and finance committees, worship – or at the most a secondary consideration. This needs to change: as an organization, we have been slow to recognize this significant shift in why young families attend church. They want their kids to learn the gospel, to be trained as leaders, to participate, to explore big ideas. Those elements of a church can be shunted “over there.”
But what about older members, you may ask? In many ways, churches still serve its older members pretty well. Pastors spend more time visiting and providing pastoral care to older members. Church council is typically the domain of older members. Bible studies, quilting groups, etc cater mainly to older members. What’s more, what’s the first thing an older member will say, when asked what they’d like to see more of at their church: kids.
How do we shift that “over there” attitude, and make youth and family-centred perspectives central to our larger ministry and synodical work?
Well, let me tell you about a new policy that Britain is trying. A few years ago, economists made an interesting finding: although the GDP of most western countries had steadily risen, when citizens were surveyed about their well-being, researchers didn’t find a similar rise in happiness. In many cases, happiness had declined. The conclusion was that government policy focused on fuelling the economy did not make the citizen living in it any happier – so what was the point? Ultimately, a nation wants to be happier, not richer and more miserable. The British government announced a new initiative, from now on every new government policy, tax effort or legislation would include a specific consideration of the Happiness index – that is rather than counting coins in the coffers, how would the policy improve the quality of life for the country’s citizens.
This is also what we need do with a family-focused church. Every policy or committee decision should include in its documentation a consideration of how families will benefit or be served. Part of this is a perspective change: by being required to consider a family or youth element, we may end up adjusting policies to better serve this demographic. We will be more sensitive to certain messaging that is contrary to the value of our families, and youth. We will be more likely to add a social media element to new programs.
We can’t just talk about being a youth-friendly church and synod. We have to put this into practice. By creating an imperative to include a youth/family assessment, we are forcing ourselves to think like a modern church living in a modern society.