I served as the senior pastor of Grace Bible Chapel for eight years in the 1990s. When I resigned from that position, I spent some time looking back over that eight-year period and tried to evaluate the impact of my ministry there.
One of the things that I did was to count all of the people who had started attending the church during those eight years. These were brand new people who had not attended prior to my coming to the church. I probably didn’t remember everyone but according to my count there were about one hundred and fifty new attendees.
Not content just to look on the bright side I also took a count of the people who left during my tenure. That number came to about one hundred and twenty-five people. In other words to grow by twenty-five, one hundred and fifty new people had to start attending.
Almost all of those people left for a valid reason. Most moved away from the small rural town where the church was located.
Of those one hundred and twenty-five people who left the church, about forty were young people who had graduated from high school and moved on in order to go to university or college. For the first few years they returned for holidays but they were gone.
That is one of the realities that most small churches have to face. The majority of their youth leave and don’t come back.
The normal reaction
Most churches see this exodus of their youth as a negative and part of the reason why they remain small. It is certainly part of the frustration that small churches face.
Shortly after I resigned from Grace Bible Chapel, where I had lost those forty youth over an eight-year period, I spoke at a college and career group in a large church in London. There were more than one hundred students attending that group at the time.
I enjoyed speaking to those students but I must confess that at times I felt a twinge of envy. I had lost forty students. Without trying that hard they had a college and career group that was larger than the church from which I lost the students.
There were times when I decided that it just wasn’t fair. They had a university campus located a few minutes away. They were able to rent buses to pick up students on a Sunday morning. They already had thousands of people attending their church. They didn’t need my students to add to their numbers.
A new perspective
The problem with seeing this exodus of students as a negative is that there is absolutely nothing that any of us can do to change it. Short of building our own university there is no way that we are going to attract university and college students to our church.
Young people grow up. They move from nursery to Sunday school to youth group and then they graduate. We wouldn’t want to stop them from growing up even if we could. Once they graduate from high school, they have to leave home unless they are living in a city with opportunities for further education.
If we can’t change the circumstances that are affecting our church, we have to change our approach to the circumstances.
For all of you who can identify with what I have been saying up to this point, I want to suggest a different approach to this issue of losing our youth because they leave home.
You are going to continue to lose them and probably you are going to lose them to larger churches in the cities where they go to school. There is nothing that you can do to change that.
There is a way though in which you can turn that loss into a gain for the Kingdom of God that will extend your impact far beyond the four walls of your church.
You can train your youth to be future leaders in the church and the evangelical world wherever God might lead them.
Rather than seeing your youth leaving as a loss, see it as an opportunity to make an impact for Jesus Christ on a worldwide scale.
How do you do that you ask?
A couple of years ago I did some research on current leaders in the evangelical scene in Canada who had grown up in a small church. I asked these leaders how those small churches had prepared them for leadership today.
Most of the replies could be fit into two areas. The first was that leaders said that they had the opportunity to serve at an early age. They taught Sunday school in their teens. They preached their first sermon while they were still in high school. They were in leadership positions in the church while they were still young.
The second thing that leaders mentioned was that either formally or informally they were mentored by older leaders. They talked about the fact that members of the leadership board spent time with them. They looked back on pastors or youth leaders who helped them develop in their walk with God. They had older folks in the church who prayed for them and encouraged them.
From those beginnings future leaders were born.
A vision worth developing
In most cases the mentoring that took place in these leaders’ lives when they were young was unintentional. The fact that it was a small church that they attended meant that they spent more time with older leaders and some good things rubbed off.
What would happen if your small church decided to become intentional in the task of developing future leaders for the church worldwide?
What would happen if instead of seeing your youth leaving home as a loss, you intentionally planned to send them out as future leaders wherever God took them for the rest of their lives?
What would happen if your church developed a plan for training your youth to become leaders so that they would become an asset wherever they might go after they left your church?
I’m not sure that you could turn every teenager into a future leader but my experience is that almost every group of young people has one or two leaders in their midst. There are a host of ways in which the gifts inherent in those leaders could be developed and encouraged and supported within the context of the local church.
A personal experience
When I was a young person in a small church in the Town of Burks Falls, I had an idea that I brought to the adult leaders of our youth group. I wanted to hold a day-long rally to which we would invite all the other youth groups in a radius of about twenty-five miles.
We would bring in a known speaker and outside musical talent. We would rent the local high school gym and plan for more than one hundred people to attend.
That may not sound like that big a deal today but it was something that had never been done before in our small town.
I wasn’t sure what the leaders would say but they gave me the go ahead to do it. They also came along side and encouraged me and helped to make it happen. That day was one of the turning points in my young life and part of the reason why I am in ministry today.
I want to finish this blog entry with a challenge.
Almost every small church leader with whom I talk wants to have a successful youth group. It isn’t enough just to have a youth group. You need to aim to produce leaders who will some day leave your church and become leaders who will define what the evangelical church will look like in Canada in the years to come.
Small churches have unintentionally produced an inordinate number of leaders in the evangelical world in Canada. What would happen if those same small churches made it part of their mission to intentionally develop leaders who would some day leave home but would extend the impact of your church through the leadership that they would contribute to the evangelical church around the world.
Some ideas for growing leaders
- Identify potential leaders among the youth in your church.
- Open up opportunities for those leaders to serve and then support them in that area of service.
- Identify a spiritually mature adult who would be willing to spend time with each potential leader.
- Ask a young person to accompany the pastor or other leader on hospital visits or other avenues of service.
- Send key young people to training opportunities (conferences, seminars, courses, etc) and cover their expenses.
- Give key young people books to read and then discuss the book with them after they have read it.
- Encourage key leaders to consider a year or more at Bible College and help with their costs.
- Take time to ask those youth about their lives (school, friends, work, etc)
- Challenge them in regard to their spiritual growth.
These are just a few ideas that could make a difference in the lives of your youth. If you have other ideas or experiences share them in the comments. I am sure that others would benefit from your ideas.