As I work with smaller churches one of the things I hear from almost all of them is their need to reach young people. When I was pastor of a similar church we said the same thing. We knew there were dozens of children and youth even in our rural area that were not in church on Sunday, and we believed the "youth were the future of our church." We hired bivocational youth ministers to head up these ministries and did a number of things designed to attract them. Occasionally, we would be successful for a period of time, but when I left that church after 20 years we didn't have any more young people attending than when I began. From that experience and from talking with leaders from other smaller churches that have struggled to reach young people I had learned some important truths about the difficulty in reaching this age group.
There might be dozens of young people and children in your community who don't go to church, but there is a reason they don't attend church. Church is so far off their radar screen of things to do it's not even a thought. A junior high age boy was recently asked by a church what they could do to reach people his age, and he couldn't think of a single thing. He had no suggestions, and he was the age of people this church wanted to reach! When young people can't think of a thing a church can do to attract them it's pretty tough for a bunch of middle age and older adults to think they can do better. The generation our churches are wanting to reach has not been exposed to church as many of us were growing up, many of them do not know anyone who goes to church, and there are far too many other activities that appeal to them for them for church to be on their list of things to do.
Another thing I learned is that churches tend to reach who we are. A rural, older congregation will probably find it much easier to reach people who are comfortable in that environment than it will be to reach young professional suburbanites. A church that does not already have an active youth ministry will find it very difficult to start one from scratch. One smaller church contacted me a few years ago asking for advice for starting a youth ministry in their church. The caller admitted to me they had three young people currently attending. I reminded him their community had at least two churches with youth groups of over 200 that met every week and asked how he thought their church could compete with that. The phone got real silent for a few moments until he admitted they couldn't. I know the mantra is that "we need to reach youth because the youth are the future of our church" but it's going to be very, very difficult to develop a successful youth ministry when you have no youth to begin with. Most churches would find it much easier to identify who they are and target people most like them.
When I was growing up you either went to church on Sunday or did nothing. There were no organized sports playing on Sunday, virtually all the stores in our area were closed, and we didn't have video games to keep us entertained. Young people today have a vast array of things they can do on Sunday. If they play on an organized sports team they will probably play on Sundays, especially if they are in tournaments. Compound this scenario with the fact that many of them live in single-parent and blended families which means they are often only home every other weekend, and it becomes very difficult to get young people to church activities on a consistent basis. Youth ministry is much more difficult today than it was even when I was a pastor, and it was tough enough then.
The other mistake we made in our church was in reaching out to young people believing that if we reached them we could reach the parents. It didn't happen, and because it didn't happen we could not depend on having our young people show up for anything we wanted to do with them. Our youth ministers would sometimes plan an activity for weeks, and we would have zero kids show up because their parents decided to do something else that day. If a church wants to have a successful youth ministry it must be very intentional about reaching out to the parents of these young people. Developing ministries around family needs might be better than just targeting young people.
Statistics show that most people who make a decision for Jesus Christ do so when they are younger, so it's important that churches reach out to young people. It is vital that they not be ignored when the church plans its ministries for the year, but smaller churches that do not already have at least a few young people will find it very difficult to develop a strong youth ministry. My recommendation to such churches is that they focus on offering ministry to the entire family. Ministries designed to serve single parents or blended families will reach the children but also reach the entire family around the children.