By Gary L. Johnson
I hadn’t finished breakfast and had already heard of three crises facing our nation. One news commentator spoke of the growing crisis at our southern border, while other reporters spoke of global warming and opioid crises. And some commentators questioned whether these were crises at all. It caused me to think of a real crisis facing us as Christians: How does the church reach and keep the next generation for Christ?
In recent years, we’ve experienced a definite decline in the number of young people coming to Christ, while increasing numbers of Christian young people have left the faith. Barna Group’s statistics should serve as our wake-up call. Their research shows that fewer people in generation Z (those born 1999 to 2015, according to Barna) are engaging the Christian faith; beyond that, 13 percent in gen Z claim to be atheists, compared with 7 percent of millennials (whom Barna defines as those born 1984 to 1998).
This crisis did not happen overnight. More than a decade ago, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons coauthored UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters(Baker Books, 2007); Kinnaman followed that book with You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church . . . and Rethinking Faith(Baker Books, 2011). These writers concluded that individuals ages 16 to 29 are walking away from the faith and alleging that the church is hypocritical, sheltered, too political, too judgmental, and anti-homosexual.
Like it or not, this is the new reality, and we—as elders—must face it. If we are to lead well, we must respond to this crisis with urgency and intentionality. To reach and increase the numbers of young people in the Christian faith, consider three practical initiatives.
Scripture describes several relationships between older and younger people. Many of these relationships are characterized by mentoring, such as Moses taking young Joshua into the tent of meeting to teach him how to meet with God (see Exodus 33:7-11). Elijah took Elisha under his wing to mentor him in the role of prophet. Naomi mentored her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth with respect to remarriage in the Hebrew culture.
Moreover, by observing Paul and Timothy we learn how to cultivate relationships with the next generation in three unique ways. First, Paul met Timothy and they became known to one another (Acts 16). Second, Paul wrote of Timothy, “I have no one else like him” (Philippians 2:20). What a compliment! Paul valued young Timothy in the scope of his ministry. Finally, Paul referred to Timothy as “my son whom I love” (1 Corinthians 4:17). Known. Valued. Loved. What if we—as elders—cultivated similar relationships with young people . . . getting to know and value them, and loving them unconditionally? Could we reach and keep more of those in the next generation in Christ?
Integrate the Generations
It’s one thing to lead a multigenerational congregation, yet it’s different to lead one that is intergenerational. We sincerely hope your church has multiple generations . . . from newborns to those well advanced in age, and we urge you to integrate the generations.
For example, recruit teens to serve on the guest services team with retirees. Welcome gifted teens to the adult worship team; encourage older musicians to mentor younger musicians. Tech-savvy teens can help develop and leverage church websites, apps, and more—that’s a way for some young people to “mentor upward” those individuals who are older. Look for ways to introduce older and younger individuals to one another, fostering mutual respect.
Equip and Empower the Next Generation
We’re challenged by Psalm 127:3-5: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate” (author’s translation).
Notice the context: “like arrows . . . hands of a warrior . . . contend with their enemies.” The psalmist is describing war. A warrior doesn’t keep arrows in his quiver. Instead, he shoots the arrow where he cannot go . . . he sends the arrow into battle. The gates of an ancient city were the most vulnerable point. If the gates were breeched, the city could be invaded and its inhabitants killed.
In the same way, we want the next generation to advance the kingdom of God in ways our generation never accomplished. We want to send our children and grandchildren into ministry service to do far more for God’s glory than we even dreamed possible of ourselves. We must sincerely desire to send further those who are younger; we mustn’t be envious or intimidated by the next generation.
Let’s solve this crisis by making the most of the opportunity to reach and keep the next generation. Each generation must bring those who are younger to faith in Christ, and then disciple them so they remain anchored in him. The next generation must courageously advance his kingdom in ways we have not.
The dwindling number of young people coming to faith and staying faithful to Christ is a crisis, but in the strength of the Lord, we can—and must—overcome it.
Dr. Gary Johnson concluded 30 years of ministry with Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 28. He is a cofounder of e2: effective elders, which he now serves as executive director.