A few years ago I was asked to preach in a small, rural church. I had been in that church before and knew that it was a church that had been struggling for some time. I sat on the platform during the worship service observing the 25 or so people in attendance. There were a handful of children. The vast majority of the congregation was probably drawing social security. There were virtually no one between the ages of 15-50.
There was very little energy in the worship service. The singing was listless. The prayers seemed to lack hope that any good would come from them. There was only one moment in the entire service when people began to sit up and seem energized. It was during the Children's Sermon. As the handful of children made their way to the front for the message the people began to smile. Their eyes seemed to sparkle. After the Children's Sermon finished the children returned to their seats, and the energy level quickly went back down.
As I sat there watching this I realized that the congregation believed that these children were the future of their church. They believed they were watching the ones who would keep this little church open in the future. These children gave them hope, and that's what brought about their smiles and temporary energy.
I wanted to tell them that these children were probably not the future of their church. Yes, they are the future of the church, but probably not this church. They will grow up and get married. They may move from that rural community. Even if they stay in the area there is a good chance they will not attend that church as adults for the same reason that their older siblings and parents don't attend there.
I once met with a pastor search committee of a small church to help them begin the process of searching for a new pastor. The church had a history of being a rough place for ministers and none stayed very long. One of the questions I always asked these committees was what they believed they needed in their next pastor. I got the usual answer I often received when I asked that question: We need a pastor who will grow our youth group. However, I didn't give my usual response. Instead I asked, "Why do you think you can attract new youth to this church when you couldn't keep the youth you had?" You could have heard the proverbial pin drop.
Young people don't want to be the future of the church. They want to be involved in the life of the church now. They want to be a part of a church that is making a difference in the lives of people. They want to be in a church where they can experience worship in a way that's meaningful to them. As children, they may be content to be picked up by Granny and taken to church, but when they get older they want more from church. Too often, we are not providing what they need.
Small churches need to provide meaningful ministry to children and youth but not out of the mistaken belief that they will carry on the traditions of that church. We need to help them find a relationship with Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. We also need to be prepared to wish them well if they decide to worship elsewhere when they get a little older.
Neither of my children worship in the denomination in which they were raised. They have found other churches that better speak to their needs as adults with children of their own.
You should view your youth ministry as an opportunity to raise leaders for the Kingdom of God, not as saviors who will keep your church doors open. Don't put that burden on them. It's not one they are called to bear.