School Daze: The new realities for ministry and outreach

October 30th, 2017

Much is being written and discussed today regarding the new realities for ministry: decreasing worship attendance, infrequent attendance, doing more with less, the myriad demands of pastoral time and energies, and the ever-widening circles of those who categorize themselves as “nones” or “not religious.”

But lamenting the new realities, or cursing them, won’t result in church growth. Nothing changes when church leadership insists on plowing the same furrows or refuses to work in different fields. Likewise, just recognizing the existence of certain realities will not result in change. The same methods produce the same results, and same patterns or outlooks simply result in the same outcomes.

However, discussions of the new realities in American culture rarely identify the most impactful change for church: the changes in school calendaring and culture. Most schools — whether public or private — have felt the increasing demands upon their resources and energies, too. Teachers work longer hours. Administrators have more on their plates. And as many school districts decline, or feel the pressures to produce academic results through higher test scores or increased student participation, these changes impact the church as well.

We might do well to consider how these changes impact ministry and what church leadership can do to minister to children, teenagers, and younger families in this increasingly demanding environment.

The Pressure to Succeed

Schools across the country now face more public scrutiny — politically, socially, academically, and financially. Every school, public or private, feels the weight of these demands... and so do the students.

As a result, an increasing number of children are experiencing these pressures at an earlier age. The teenage suicide rate has never been higher in the U.S. Students who fall behind academically, or who do not participate in extra-curricular activities, often feel hopeless. Many give up.

Likewise, many schools are suffering, even reeling, from these pressures to produce stellar results — and these pressures do impact the church, especially when it comes to the time and energies that school teachers and administrators (and students) might have been able to offer the church in the past.  As the schools are often some of the largest employers in most communities, these resultant demands at school can often leave the church with fewer volunteers, less participation, and a decreasing number of children and teenagers participating in church activities.

But what can be done?

Churches that want to reach students and younger families will need to address a new set of needs and challenges. Many congregations are discovering that after-school programs (tutoring help, safe place, food support) can address these new needs. Likewise, church preschools and parochial options for early childhood support can often be a front door for many into the church.

Serving the needs of children, teenagers, and younger families is one way to counter these pressures that many are experiencing today. These paths are not easy (nor are they quick fixes), but congregations may discover that focusing on children (in ministries outside of Sunday mornings) will meet a variety of needs.

Financial Pressures

Just as many schools are experiencing financial pressures, so goes the church. But many church leaders cannot see the correlation between the two.

In fact, the single most telling factors in any community can be found in the community schools. Schools that are struggling, or on the verge of closing, will likely be reflected in congregations that are struggling in those same communities.

Here, the church can be a hopeful community when people are losing their identity in the school. Again, this is not an easy transition, but congregations that offer ministry and events outside of their walls, or share in new ways in the community in word and deed, can discover a new reason for being.

Congregations that form community food pantries, host job fairs, or organize community meals, block parties, or open gymnasiums for teenagers may discover that these new ministries address the new financial realities in many communities. Working directly with the schools can also be a new avenue for growth — either by forming new worshipping communities that meet in school spaces, or by offering volunteers.

Calendaring Pressures

Many churches have also felt the impact of the new school calendars. Decades ago, it was common for the school year to begin after Labor Day and end before, or around, Memorial Day. Those days are now a distant history. Many school districts now begin the year in July, and end in June. Likewise, many have longer fall and spring breaks — up to two full weeks — which can impact the church significantly when families are travelling more frequently and are, therefore, not in worship.

Many church leaders point to the school calendar as the single most impactful indicator when it comes to planning church events or addressing major needs. The school calendar is also the single greatest influencer of church attendance. Likewise, the lengthening demands of being on an athletic team, playing in the marching band, or participating in an academic team makes it difficult for many children — especially older teens — to consistently participate in youth events and activities at church.

What’s the answer?

Again, nothing comes easily. But first, holding the school calendar close to the vest is a start. Congregations that are aware of the school breaks and the beginnings and the major sporting events will do well to mold their church events around these times when families will be travelling or out of touch. 

New ministries, perhaps, can be shaped around those times when families are more readily available, or the focus can be on providing support or worship or educational opportunities during the arcs of time when families are in town. Additionally, the church may discover that ministry can travel with families, and that resources for study or prayer or spiritual growth and learning may need to be produced that can, essentially, be the church with people.

Just as the tabernacle was portable and travelled with the Israelites through their desert, the church must increasingly be adaptable and portable today. Instead of expecting people to come to church, the church needs to go to people.

Changes are never easy. But in our age, the church can certainly begin to learn new lessons by more closely working in tandem with the schools.

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