A 2010 study found that the median age of United Methodists was 57. The median age of those in the United States hovers around 35. This glaring discrepancy has caused a well-founded sense of panic or at least disappointment in the United Methodist Church (most other denominations claim similar incongruities between church age and population age). For some the panic/disappointment is connected to a fear that our institution will cease to exist. For many, though, the emotions connected to this data and the desire to do something about it has more to do with the mission of the church. Our hearts break when we realize we are failing as a church to reach young and younger people and connect them with Jesus.
I am a pastor whose age is less than the United States median and who has 4 other people living in my home who fit that criterion too. The church I serve is a 4-year-old church who has many others below the age of 35 as well (and many above it too!). I want to share some practical advice for churches that might be interested in reaching young parents and young children. I do not share this advice, though, from my experience as pastor of a church with young people. I share it from the experience gained from one weekend when I had the opportunity to take my 3 young daughters to church.
I was taking the Sunday “off”. My family was excited because it was one of those rare Sundays when dad/husband would be home on Sunday morning. The Saturday before my wife asked me where we would be worshipping on Sunday morning. I wondered, “How many of the families that visit my church for the first time begin thinking about it within the 24 hours before?”
Where else would I turn but the internet? I began looking at websites of churches in our area that we might be interested in visiting. I was struck by how many had out dated material on their site. I also noticed how difficult it was to simply find the worship times for Sunday mornings. What I wanted to know, though, was more than the worship time, and even more than the Church’s stated vision or mission (which can be found easily on most sites). What I wanted to know is what my children could expect. The church we chose to visit gave a simple outline of what we could expect to find for our children when we walked in the door, and their presentation of the material made me at least feel like they had welcomed a young family before. We chose the 9am service because our kids get up early. My wife asked me what time we would need to leave and I said 8:30…I didn’t want to be late for church.
Now remember, most Sunday mornings I am out the door before the sun rises. When I woke up Sunday on my day “off” I had plenty of time to sit at the breakfast table and relax. There was a part of my heart that longed for church, a part of my heart that longed to worship. I wondered how many of the folks that attend my church feel that same longing on Sunday morning. Another part of my heart longed for coffee. I didn’t want to move. My kitchen was tranquil, quiet, and all the movement of my week seemed to come to a place of rest early that Sunday morning. I began to consider spending my entire day sitting in that one place looking at my backyard trees and doing nothing. I wondered how many of the folks that attend my church consider that it might be more faithful to sit still at the kitchen table rather than come to church.
At 8:30 we were not ready to go. We were not dressed and we were not in a good mood. We rushed to get everyone’s shoes and coats on and left at 8:44. When we got in the car there was a tangible feeling of tension in the air. Because of our rush it felt as if we were angry at each other. I wondered how many young families that come to my church feel tension as they approach our Church on Sunday morning.
We arrived to the church a couple minutes after 9. The church had someone greet us at the front door and lead us to where our 3 children would go. They had an easy sign in procedure and a safe way of checking our children in. We put our 3rd and 1st grader in their respective rooms. I carried our two year old into the toddler room. I set her down. She screamed. I picked her up and she stopped. I set her down and she screamed again. I began to sweat. I apologized to the teacher and carried my daughter out. My wife and I walked into a darkened sanctuary carrying a crying 2 year old at 9:14am. We had missed most of the music. We found a seat; I sat down and began to relax. Even with all the rushing and tardiness I was glad I was there. I looked over at my wife and realized she has done this alone for 8 years now. I wondered how many single parents come to my church each week and experience all the things I experienced that morning alone.
The sermon was good, really good. Yet, I often thought about my girls in those rooms they had never been in, with adults they had never met, and children they had never played with. I bet I paid attention to 60 percent of the sermon. I wondered what percent of the sermons I preach people are able to pay attention to.
After the service as I walked my young family back to our car, I was really glad that we had come to church. We felt better. The sense of tension among us was gone. We felt happy and thankful that we had worshipped together. It was worth the struggle.
A few things to think about if you are at a church that wants to reach people under the age of 35 in America in 2013.
- Make sure your website has the information that a young family needs to know before they bring and then entrust their children to your care. If you can’t prove that to them on the website, chances are they will stay home.
- Understand that the spiritual forces of evil want the discrepancy between church age and population age to grow larger. Know that it is hard to get young children to church. Think about what you can do to make that easier for young families from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. Think about what you can do to make it easier for single parents, and more accessible for parents with children of special needs.
- Make sure parents find a safe environment for their children. What procedure do you use for check in? For notifying a parent of a crying child? For ensuring the safety of all children? If you aren’t thinking about these things parents will know it. They won’t leave their kids, they won’t bring them back, or at best they’ll be thinking about it during your sermon.
- Remember that there is a deep longing within parents of young children to connect with God and for their kids to connect with God. This is a critical time for the parents and the children. Let’s do everything we can to create a place for them to connect with God.