Congregations as Families of Faith: Beyond Age-Level Ministries

April 16th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

According to national studies like Fuller Youth Institute’s “Sticky Faith” ( and the National Study of Youth and Religion (, which of the following are more likely to produce adults who actively participate in church: dynamic youth ministries with large numbers of participating youth or small family-based churches?

I’ll give you a hint: “intergenerational ministry” is the key finding of the Sticky Faith research. Small, family-based churches are more likely to produce sustainable faith. Large youth ministries can learn a lot about how to help youth develop faith that extends beyond their teenage years by looking at some of the intergenerational elements that smaller congregations naturally have in place.

Why do we believe that having age-level ministries is the best way to grow faithful followers of Christ? Is it because we have adopted a secular understanding of education? Children and youth should learn the faith at age-appropriate levels, right?

We place them in Sunday schools with their age groups, in children’s programs, in youth group, and in small groups with their peers so that they can learn together. One of our problems is that the schools after which we have patterned our Christian education have completely different objectives than the church should. Schools are about learning. Christian education is about becoming.

The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) shows that we are failing miserably. The vast majority of youth are not learning the faith nor are they becoming faithful followers of Christ. This landmark study on the faith lives of American teenagers reveals that while a majority identifies with a religious congregation, many adolescents:

  1. Lack the ability to speak articulately about their faith;
  2. Believe that religion itself is not terribly important to daily life; and
  3. Subscribe to a watered-down belief system that the researchers call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

The research done by Fuller Youth Institute in their College Transition Project shows that an estimated 40 to 50 percent of youth group graduates drift from God and from church after graduation. The one thing that stood out in their research, one quality that is critically important to Sticky Faith is intergenerational relationships.

Intergenerational Congregations Produce Faithful Followers

When I visit certain congregations, I often wonder if they should change their congregational baptismal covenant to read something like, “We will pray for them and hire a good full-time youth minister so that they may walk in the way that leads to life.”

Is that our covenant? Or will we the church walk with children and youth leading, guiding, teaching, and modeling the faith for them?

When we isolate youth and children’s ministries from the larger church, we take away their opportunity to see mature Christian adults in action. We take away their role models. We take away their opportunity to see why faith matters to us, and how and why we worship God.

In Christianity Today’s 2011 book of the year Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean explores what the highly devoted teens from the NSYR had in common. One of the things they shared was that they “belonged to a community.” As Dean unpacks what this means, she is quick to point out that it was the community of faith that modeled how to be a Christian for these young people. They were articulate about their faith because they were immersed in a community in which they could eavesdrop on and participate in theological conversations. They articulated an intimate relationship with Christ because they had witnessed Christ’s intimacy in the lives of others in their community.

Jesus spoke to the masses, but he was really in the apprenticeship business. For the church to be in the apprenticeship business, we must place children and youth in close relationships with mature Christian adults who can show them the way.

Dean says in Almost Christian, “Awakening faith in young people does not depend on how hard we press young people to love God, but on how much we show them that we do.”

One practical suggestion for how we can do this comes from Kara Powell and the Sticky Faith team that suggests we create what they call 5:1 Congregations. Most churches seek to have one adult for every five to seven youth participating in a particular program or serving as a counselor on a retreat. But 5:1 Congregations turn that ratio around and seek to have at least five caring adults for every child and teenager. Powell is not talking about having more adults at youth programs, but instead building a congregation of faith that surrounds each youth and child with five caring adults who invest in them in small, medium and big ways.

Churches are building these congregations in a variety of ways: youth and senior adults work on mission projects together. One church has an intergenerational Bible study at least one quarter per year during which the whole church studies and learns together. The women’s circle in another church adopts the senior high girls’ Bible study and creates ways for them to get to know each other. I recently spoke to a youth minister who met with a senior church leader to ask if she would recruit the adult Sunday school classes to write letters to the youth encouraging them in their faith journeys.

The research has continued to show that intergenerational relationships are like glue that makes faith sticky for young people. Age-level ministries are still important to create a community of peers for children, youth, and adults to belong to. But if we hope to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world, then we must develop intergenerational ministries that model the faith for our children and youth, and support our families as they seek to follow Christ.

The research tells us that we need to be doing church differently

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