By Gary L. Johnson
“Christmas is for children,” declares one song of the season. We can see the truth of that statement in society simply by observing parents and grandparents as they buy gifts to make children’s Christmas wishes come true.
As elders, we understand the importance of children all year round.
We have a serious problem in the church that will directly impact the next generation and can claim the spiritual lives of countless people. Elder teams must respond quickly with strength and wisdom from God so we can avert this crisis.
Elders need to be keenly aware we are losing the next generation. Record numbers of young people are walking away from the church and the Christian faith.
In a January 12 post at Cold-Case Generosity (coldcasegenerosity.com), J. Warner Wallace wrote that a variety of studies reveal that 50 to 70 percent of young Christians walk away from the church by their late teens and early twenties. Similarly, Daniel Cox reported at FiveThirtyEight (fivethirtyeight.com, October 10, 2017) that 79 percent of young people begin walking away from their faith in their adolescent and teen years—long before they leave home for college, work, or the military. Like it or not, once we reach the next generation, we fail to keep the majority of them in the church, and sometimes, even in the faith.
People born between 1995 and 2015 are known by such names as generation Z, post-millennials, the selfie generation, and the app generation. Here’s the important thing to remember: People born during those years comprise almost one-third of the earth’s population, and we can safely speculate that the majority are not Christian. This generation should matter to us.
Problems call for solutions, and elders must lead by example. Elders can help solve this very real problem in three specific ways.
Invest: To reach the younger members of generation Z, we must invest in our children’s ministries. The return on investment (ROI) has both short- and long-term benefit. When we make children’s ministry one of the largest portions of the annual church budget, we are more likely to reach—and keep—increasing numbers of young people in the faith. When children’s programming receives ministry dollars for staffing, high-quality facilities, and more, it demonstrates children matter. Instead of receiving “the leftovers” of ministry resources, elders must make certain children’s ministry receives significant funding. The potential ROI is great in this life and the next.
Involve: If we are to spiritually reach and keep generation Z, elders must personally involve themselves in children’s ministry. A landmark study several years ago showed that intergenerational relationships are essential to reach and keep children in the faith as they grow into adults (see Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Child, by Kara Powell and Chap Clark, Zondervan, 2011). Such relationships should include parents, grandparents, and other older adults. Yet, children need more than loving relationships—they need to hear truth. As children grow, elders must build bridges of trust that bear the weight of truth.
As children become teens, they must experience authentic relationship with elders. Generation Z will have tough questions that demand biblical answers. Studies show that unanswered questions are a leading cause of young people leaving the church and the faith. When we fail to create environments where children and teens can ask serious questions, young people grow more skeptical of the Christian faith. Allow them to ask any and all questions. Listen to them. And whether we think we answered their questions effectively or not, engaging with them will show we love them unconditionally.
When children’s ministry staff and volunteers see elders actively involved with the next generation, they will be encouraged and better understand that children matter to the elders.
Invite: Elders should invite the children’s ministry staff and key volunteers to their meetings from time to time. Enjoy a meal with them. Ask them about their ministry. Take an interest in what they do. After dinner, pray over them, their marriages, their ministries, and more. As you lay hands on them and pray, ask God to empower them to reach and keep the next generation in ways never before accomplished in your congregation. Invite these kingdom workers into relational community with your elder team.
Children’s ministry is facing great challenges, and it’s essential elders turn their attention to this tremendous need. Jesus said there is no greater love than when a person lays down his life for a friend (John 15:13). What if we—as elders—sacrificially make children’s ministry a great priority in our personal lives, as well as in the church? What if we taught and showed every child how to love God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength (Mark 12:30)? I firmly believe that if children learn to love the Lord, there is greater likelihood they will live for the Lord all of their days.
Someone helped us come to know the Lord. It’s time to pay it forward. Children matter—and not just during Christmas.
Dr. Gary Johnson served 30 years with Indian Creek Christian Church (The Creek) in Indianapolis, retiring earlier this year. He is a cofounder of e2: effective elders, which he now serves as executive director.