My word on “How Can We Get Young Families to Come (Back) to Church?”
There is no doubt that on almost every Sunday afternoon- after the worship service in which we hear the Word of God, are nurtured at the Table with the sacrament of Holy Communion and enjoy all of the aesthetic benefits of an Anglican liturgy that connects us to the Divine; after the potluck luncheon featuring some of my favorite church-suppah specialties- deviled eggs, corn pudding, macaroni & cheese, jello salad and tea sandwiches; after we settle down around a couple of folding tables and introduce ourselves around the Vestry circle,- it will come: THE QUESTION. You know, THE QUESTION: “How Can We Get Young Families to Come (Back) to Church?”
It is, hands down, the most pressing question on the collective minds of vestries in our Church.
THE QUESTION is not always the first thing that comes in these meetings- in fact, it is usually offered up towards the end of the meeting as the big solution to what ails the parish- not enough money, not enough people to take on the ministries that keep the Church going, no one to step into the shoes of the current leaders who have been serving for decades and who are looking around for their successors... THE QUESTION is a conundrum… and the elusive answer seems to hold the hope of the congregation for its survival and its success.
And, I am always overwhelmed by its asking. Because the answer is so large.
THE QUESTION really begs asking questions in return… that will allow for some honest self-study on the part of the parish.
Here’s a start:
1. Ask- what in your parish is nurturing for young families?
If a family arrived at your church on a Sunday morning, what would they find? A welcoming and warm community, for sure, but then what? Is there a plan to accommodate children in the service? A children’s class or materials for use in the pews? Are there programs that are geared towards the concerns of young parents like parenting classes, a play group, an after school program, homework club or a “Parents Night Out” program where children come for an early evening supper and activity while the parents go out for their own dinner? Are there inter-generational activities that treat the family as a spiritual unit who can learn and pray together? Are there ways that the church can nurture the families in their faith formation at home? Is there a way to invite conversation with parents and ask them what they need, spiritually, for their own formation and support.. and helps to equip them as their childrens’ primary spiritual guides and teachers? And, if you have all of these materials ready to go, is there a logical way to let people know that you are ready to welcome them? (They probably won’t find their way to you on their own.)
2. Is it clear that you are willing to shift your practices and patterns to welcome a new demographic into your church? Is your congregation ready to move some pews out and create an area where small children can move around on the floor during the service? Can the congregation tolerate the sounds of small, happy voices during the liturgy? What about the unhappy voices? Will older children and teens be welcomed as assistants in the liturgy- acolytes, lectors, intercessors and ushers in a way that honors their participation as members of the Body of Christ? How can the inter-generational reality allow for a “satisfactory church experience” for all?
3. Young families are not the best choice to assign leadership duties- how can you mentor them as they grow into leadership roles? The temptation when a new family joins the church is to invite the parents of young children to teach Sunday School and to join committees just months after their arrival. How can we employ a culture of invitation that does not overwhelm new participants and also makes room for their new- and creative- ideas. How can we stretch to embrace the new gifts of fresh expertise and enthusiasm and resist giving voice to our favorite church adage: “We’ve always done it that way.”
4. Are there activities and projects that will be appealing to young families- concrete ways that people can make a difference by participating in parish outreach and mission programs? The consumer culture of the attractional church (Church has something to offer, people come and “get it”) is passé. People who are willing to come and spend a Sunday morning together want to have opportunities to make a difference and to participate in meaningful work that will transform the neighborhood and the world. This is especially true for teens and young adults.
And then, there’s this:
Is THE QUESTION the right question to be asking, anyway?
The whole premise of THE QUESTION is built on the assumption that if we can “get more families” to join us, then our Church (read: Institution) will be able to continue on as it always has. In truth, our society is changing and the needs of young families today have shifted. Levels of commitment and community participation have shifted and, in a culture of over-load, it may be that what young families really need is sanctuary and peace, not more to do. The “point” of the Church is to “restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (BCP pg. 855) and, in our urgent need to keep the ship afloat, I think that sometimes we have forgotten where we are supposed to be heading.
If we want more young families to come to Church, it should be so that we can show them Jesus’ path of peace and love. We should be focusing on making our time together extra-ordinary and provide an antidote to the madness that pervades our secular culture in which achievement, self-focus, and climbing to the top prevails. Parents want to do well by their children. The teachings of Jesus offer a framework for living that is deeper and more profound than any “character building” social studies program delivered in 30-minute, weekly lessons at elementary school.
I talk ad nauseum, about the “Missional Church.” I talk about getting out into the neighborhoods and exploring what God is up to in the local areas where our churches are planted. I urge our clergy and lay leaders to engage those right around us, in our local mission field. My guess is that, for many congregations, the local mission field has plenty of young families within a stone’s throw of the church. Our call is to listen, carefully, to what these neighbors need- in order to live healthy, whole lives- and to reach out, through the church, to offer those paths of reconciliation, healing and growth. It’s a shift in thinking- from “how do we get them to join us-“ to “what can we do to give them the ‘peace that passes all understanding’?”
If you’ve made this shift at your church, how have you done it? And how are the families whom you have embraced growing in Christ?