It happens in almost every congregation at one time or the other, “What can we do about our kids?” Today’s children (under 18 years of age) are raised in homes and in churches who have walked away from Christianity. Despite the youth program, mission trips, and youth gatherings, the youth, in increasing numbers, don’t want anything to do with church anymore. The daunting statistics about church-going youth keep rolling in. Congregations plead for more young people. What’s wrong? Of course, we continue to pray our children will find a “faithful” mate, but realize there’s no easy solution for bringing them back to the church. What sets apart a church that keeps young people? Why can’t every congregation have a robust youth ministry? St. Paul gives us a clue, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (II Cor. 5:17) Salvation comes from the power of Gospel, through the working of the Holy Spirit. (Luther’s Small Catechism, Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed). God’s Spirit works in the hearts to convert and sustain us in our faith. Scripture teaches us, “[Christ] gave…the teachers to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11-12) Christ gives teachers to the church. It’s not for entertainment (which is perhaps a good gathering tool), but, that the church can equip the saints for the Gospel ministry, and to build up the body of Christ. If our youth eventually leave high school without Bible-reading habits, study skills, and see strong examples of discipleship and prayer, they’ll likely never return to regular worship.
Where do they “find” those skills? A pastor can’t do it all. He has an hour or two a week at the most with the youth. He doesn’t have that kind of influence, and cannot bring about conversion or take up residence in every home where a young person resides and is growing life skills. The common thread that binds together the spiritual life of the youth is abundantly clear: their home. Letting the child decide whether to pray, read the Bible, or go to church forces them into the parental role. Parents who make their children go to church, teach them right from wrong, and hold them accountable, are parents who have operated under the framework of Biblical parenting and God-given grace.
Children led in their faith by parents who love Jesus, eventually serve their church actively. Proverbs 22:6 isn’t a formula that’s true 100% of the time! But, it provides a principle that comes from the gracious plan of God for families: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” Simply put, we do our youth ministries a disservice when we segregate them from the life of the church. If youth and children ministries aren’t folded into the life of the congregation, the unintended consequence is a future of empty pews. We must engage our youth in the entire life of our congregations. Rev. David Wright speculates, “In other words, maybe young adults aren’t actually leaving the church. Maybe they were never there to begin with.”
In 1994, a group of Swiss researches conducted a 20-year survey that wished to determine whether a person’s religion carried through to the next generation; and if so, why, or if not, why not. The results blew up our understanding of faithful church attendance. The one critical factor is this: The religious practice of the father of the family, above all, determines the future attendance at or absence from church of the children for the next generation.
The results were staggering. If both father and mother attend regularly, 33% of their children will end up as regular churchgoers, and 41% will end up attending irregularly. Another 25% of their children will end up not being church-goers at all. If the father is irregular in worship, and mother regularly worships, only 3% of the children will become regular church-goers, while a further 59% will be irregular. The last 38% will never return to the church.
When the father is non-practicing and mother regularly worships, only 2% of the children became regular worshippers. Another 37% attended irregularly. But, over 60% of the second generation children left the church completely. Remarkably, if the father was regular in church attendance, but the mother was irregular or non-practicing, the percentage of children who became regular in worship went up from 33% to 38% with the irregular mother, and to 44% with the non-practicing mother, as if the loyalty to father’s commitment grows in proportion to mother’s laxity, indifference, or hostility.
Even when the father is an irregular worshiper, there were some amazing results. An irregular worshiping father and a non-practicing mother yielded 25% of their children as regular worshipers in future life; and 22% in irregular worship. This means, where the father is even nominally involved in faith development, his children will have twelve times the yield of faithful future worship practice, than when the parental roles were reversed!
As we might anticipate, where neither parent practices any sort of worship, only 4% of the children became regular worshipers, and 15% irregulars. In other words, without taking the parental responsibility to bring a child up in the nurture and admonition of a Christian household, 80% will be lost to the faith. In short, if a father doesn’t go to church, no matter how faithful his wife, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshiper! If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between 67% and 75% of the children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular)! (Touchstone Magazine, May, 2016)
The Mid-South District has embarked on an exciting and somewhat difficult task: Returning to the Biblical and Catechetical understanding of engaging our children and youth into the life of the Church. With the cooperation of Concordia University – Ann Arbor and The Concordia Center for Family Ministry, we have engaged ourselves to become a pilot initiative to engage, equip, and encourage our congregants to reverse the trend of eroding church participation, and build strong congregations for the life of the next generation.
In 3 – 5 years, “Beta-study” sites across the Mid-South District will implement and evaluate ways to bring meaningful continuation of our ministries to the Mid-South District, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and American Christianity. Please pray that the Lord of the Church will lead and guide this effort that we may become a leader for sharing life we have in our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Roger Paavola
Mid-South District President