Steve Parr: We don't have any young people

Open the eyes of the congregation

Does your congregation realize that the lack of young participants is an issue? I pointed this challenge out to a congregation that I was leading in the following way. I had each person in all Sunday school classes write one thing on an index card on a particular Sunday. I expressed that the information was confidential and that total honesty was needed. I asked each person to write down their age, turn the card face down, and pass it in. I conducted an age audit. I followed up by getting demographic information about the population within five miles of the church location.

I was able to show the congregation that only 4% of those attending Sunday school were between the ages of 20 and 39. That same group made up over 25% of the local population. It was an eye-opening presentation to the congregation. They did not see it until it was presented in black and white. Perhaps it is more obvious. It could be that you have no preschoolers, children, students, or young adults. Don’t wait until you are down to zero in one of these groupings to open the eyes of your congregation.

Make a decision: Live or Die?

What do you do with the information once you have it? The congregation is at a crossroads whether the information was shared from an age audit or from clear observation. A congregation does not generally lose their young attendees overnight. The decline is often slow and subtle. The Sunday school is an ideal place to measure these trends because it is generally organized by age groups or life stages. A well organized Sunday school can enable leaders to spot trends more quickly. The changes may not be as evident when looking across a larger crowd in a worship setting. So what if you don’t have many young adults? The problem is that the absence of young adults will also mean a decline of children in attendance and an erosion of the leadership base.

A decision needs to be made. One option is to do nothing and that is a decision to die. It will take time, perhaps ten, fifteen, or twenty years. The further the slide goes the more challenging to turn it around. The worship attendance pattern will slowly follow the trend in the Sunday school. The congregation cannot wish the problem away, try to spiritualize it (God has those here he wants here!), or ignore it. The congregation must make a decision to live, to be healthy, to thrive, and to be obedient to the Great Commission in reaching the community. Changes will need to be made.

Listen to some students and young adults

What changes will need to be made to reach and to keep students and young adults. Some members may not like what they are about to hear, but you must engage young leaders in addressing the issues. Church leaders need to survey students and young adults either formally or informally. Begin by interviewing those who do attend and ask for honest assessment. Secondly, interview those who have left recently and seek honest feedback. Thirdly, conduct a survey of adults and students that have never attended your church. Consider inviting some of them to attend solely for the purpose of observing and evaluating your Sunday school ministry and worship service.

The weaknesses of either have an impact on the health of the other. Do not discount anything that they have to share. You will not likely be able to respond to or implement every idea that is shared, however the response and purposeful application of three, four, or five key ideas might make a major difference. The exercise may be akin to going to the doctor. He examines you and tells you things that you don’t like to hear. But, you know he has your best interest at heart so you listen and make adjustments in order to improve your health. Listen not only to what the young people say but more importantly to what the Holy Spirit is saying through them to your congregation.

Talk about the future and the legacy of those present

Gather you congregation to discuss the challenge at hand. Ask them to envision what the Sunday school, the worship, and the church as a whole will be like in a decade. What is their desire and hope for the church? Ask if it will be possible to get to where they want to go by declining or ignoring the needs of students and young adults. No age group is unimportant in the life of a congregation. However, a majority of those who come to Christ and are reached by a congregation are children, students, and young adults.

If a congregation fails to reach these groups the result is ultimate decline. Do the current members desire for the church to be thriving ten, twenty, and fifty years from the present? The decisions made today will affect the health of the church in the future. God forbid that decisions made by today’s members would result in the ultimate death of the congregation. It does not have to happen and it is not the will of God. Talk about the future and agree that God wants your church to be healthy and to make a difference in the community for generations to come.

All hands on deck

Are the members serious about turning the tide and strengthening the participation of preschool, children, students, and young adults? A commitment of several years may be required. A “whatever it takes” attitude is critical on the part of the current members. It will require current members to lead Sunday school classes rather than sitting in them. Classes must be staffed for all age groups. Perhaps members are thinking that the congregation does not need a preschool teacher because there are no preschoolers attending. The mindset has to change.

Could it be that no preschoolers are present because there is no one prepared for them if they attend? The church must staff classes or small groups for all ages. Now you have a room, a teacher for the class, and all of the training and materials needed. But, what if you don’t have any students? You have to be aggressive. The leader of the class has to be assertive in identifying, reaching out to, enlisting, providing activities for, and inviting people to attend. He or she will have to invest time apart from Sunday morning. Guests and prospective members will not just show up. In addition, the congregation must get more assertive in ministering to and identifying people in the age groupings where the gaps were discovered. To turn around the Sunday school in this circumstance will require that all hands are on deck.

Steve Parr is part of the All Star Sunday School team and author of the new book: Sunday School that really responds.