I firmly believe that one of the advantages of a small church is the potential impact it has on its youth. My evidence for this is all anecdotal. I don’t know of any study that has been done that shows this, but I still believe that it is the case. A disproportional number of leaders in the evangelical world today grew up in small churches.
A few years ago, I did an informal study in which I contacted 110 such leaders. One of the questions that I asked them was what there was about growing up in a small church that contributed to their present leadership role. I received a variety of answers but two stood out.
The first was that they were given a chance to serve in a small church setting. They taught Sunday school, worked in children’s clubs and even preached while they were still in their teens.
The second was that they were mentored by older adults in the church. Almost all of this was informal but the adults and especially the leaders took an interest in what they were doing. The leaders knew their names and spent time with them.
I believe that both of these can happen more easily in a small church setting.
I recently attended an event sponsored by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada at which they shared the results of a study that they had conducted in partnership with four other organizations (Power To Change, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Youth For Christ and Truth Matters Ministries). They just released the study entitled Renegotiating Faith www.RenegotiatingFaith.ca.
I would strongly recommend anyone who works with youth in any capacity to read the full 182 pages of the study. It is excellent. There were a couple of statements as I listened at the Presidents’ Day event that struck me with tremendous force.
Every once in a while I have what I like to call a two-by-four experience. That happens when I hear something that hits me with such force that it is like I got hit over the head by a two-by-four. These statements had that kind of impact.
The study deals with the point at which young people leave home to go to school or to take a job. Every Christian parent wants his or her child to connect with another church or a Christian campus group. According to the study this is much more likely to happen if someone in the young adult’s home church helps to make it happen.
Here are the statements that drove the point home for me.
“Young adults who had home church mentors were more than three times as likely to connect with new churches or parishes after moving out of their parents’ home and to connect with a Christian campus group after starting postsecondary studies.” p. 11
“Young adults who had been involved with Christian camps either as teen campers or camp staff were roughly three times as likely to connect with a Christian campus group and at least twice as likely to connect with a new church or parish after having moved out.” p.11
“Young adults are roughly three times more likely to connect with a new church after moving out of their parents’ home if someone from their home congregation tries to make a connection for them. Similarly, young adults going on to postsecondary studies are four times more likely to connect with a Christian campus group or chaplaincy if someone from their home church tries to make a connection for them.” p. 12
It pays to be intentional
Those numbers are startling. A young person is three times more likely to connect with a church or Christian group if he is mentored. That young person is three times more likely to do so if he is involved in a camp ministry. She is three times more likely to connect if someone from her home church makes a connection for her.
Those statistics are earth shattering. They all have one thing in common. They describe ways in which the local church can be intentional in helping a young person transition from the safety of home to the challenges of a new setting.
When a young person goes off to university or college or leaves home to take a job in a different location, he is leaving behind his family, friends, school, and church. It is both an exciting and a scary time. Unfortunately, too often along with everything else, young people also leave behind their faith.
These statements tell me that churches need to be very intentional in how they help their youth through this transition period. They need to seriously look at the possibility of mentoring while they still have those young people at home. They need to seriously consider how they can encourage their youth to get involved in outside ministries such as camp. They need to look into how they can help that young person connect with a new church or a Christian campus group.
There is a huge need for churches to become intentional in how they do this. If it is left to the young person, then a connection with a church or a Christian group seldom happens.
When does it end
The Renegotiating Faith study suggests that a church’s responsibility to its young people doesn’t end until each one is connected with either a Christian campus group or a local church or both. Until such time, the church should be committed to visiting, emailing, texting or phoning that young person. Our young people are far too important to leave their spiritual future to chance.
I want to close with the closing statement from the study.
“Young adults who persist in their faith into young adulthood are well integrated into churches and other Christian communities. Warm relationships with parents who live out their faith are vital for faith formation; however, when it comes time to develop a Christian identity apart from one’s parents, young adults need persisting communities of faithful adults, mentors and friends in their lives. When young adults move, it is vital that families, churches and ministries work to get them connected to new Christian communities in a timely manner. p. 163