A Thriving Church Defined:

What Pastors of Growing Churches Have Learned About Engaging Youth

Churches all over the U.S. — and the world — are facing the problem of an aging congregation. Their members are getting older, but no one is coming in behind them to fill in the pews, most especially youth. Churches have been trying to increase their membership in many different ways, attempting to make their congregation seem more appealing than another, but many of them neglect the root issue: they are not effectively engaging the younger generation.

Though many churches have some type of youth ministry, the level of long-term engagement remains low, and attendance dwindles. Youth pastors are cycled through, facing enormous expectations for growing the youth ministry without any effective tools or support to do so. Senior pastors and other leadership often seem at a loss as to how to grow their shrinking congregation.

There is, however, hope. There are several churches around the U.S. that have tapped into something that works: focusing on nurturing younger teens in a way that is intentional and shows they are valued as contributing members of the church. Ron Luce, founder of Jesus Global Youth Day, discovered this common thread in talking to leaders of several thriving churches.

“Too much youth ministry energy is spent trying to catch youth who don’t want to be caught. At ages 16 and up, they’re driving and have their own agendas — they don’t want to be caught,” says Luce. “We try so hard to get this age group to engage by going above and beyond to provide a fun activity for them, when the more effective strategy is to be intentional about engaging youth when they are younger, around age 13.”

By creating a strategy to connect with younger teens — listening to them, forming relationships with them, getting to know them as people — lays a foundation of faith and church involvement for them that will continue to grow as they age. For example, consider how many 13-year-olds are in your community or city. How many youth in this age group attend schools represented in your church family? Be creative about how to meet them where they are and engage them early on.

“Have a clear plan for how you can disciple them from ages 13 to 18, even 25. Creating structure around this intentional discipleship makes the plan come alive and can usher them into a strong relationship with Christ,” adds Luce.

Youth in middle school are still very impressionable and openly looking for guidance. Taking the time to enter into their world at this age, asking questions and trying to understand their day-to-day challenges, will go a long way in laying a foundation of faith that leads them to further engagement in the church.

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