Everywhere I go, I ask people when they came to faith and nearly everybody says before the age of 20.

In fact, the research reinforces this anecdotal experience. In one study, it was found that 85% of Christians in America came to faith between the ages of four and fourteen.

Why, then, do churches tend to focus on adult (or senior adult!) ministries and let ministry to kids fall to the wayside?

Don’t misunderstand. Adult ministries are not bad! But they often come at the expense of ministries that focus on families, children, and students.

“The Youth are the Future of the Church.”

Who is going to carry the torch when this generation is gone? What will happen to the Church if we don’t intentionally disciple our youth?

The reality is that youth aren’t the future of the Church. God is calling us to include young people and emerging leaders in the Church today.

Research by Barna indicates that 61% of young Christians disengage from the Church in their twenties. While each person is responsible for their own choices, the Church has largely created a culture where youth are ignored or segregated rather than embraced and integrated.

Children absorb everything and are so impressionable. Why would we waste the opportunity to make an impact on their lives while they are young and eager to learn?

Your Programs Need to be Known in the Community.

Each congregation should aim to have the best children’s and youth programs in their community. It isn’t about lights and flashiness and being cool. It’s about engaging young people in meaningful ways and building a church that is for them, not merely tolerates them. Kids know the difference, and so do parents.

What are the indicators of great ministries to children, students, and families?

They aren’t boring.

The biggest challenge when working with spiritually immature parents and kids is the “boring” factor. If your program is boring, kids will tell their parents they don’t want to come back. Spiritually immature parents would rather keep their kids home than have a fight about going to church.

The good news is that for most kids, it doesn’t take a lot to make a program “not boring.” What it takes is attention and intentionality. Keep the program moving; don’t just show a video. Engage their creativity. Have them move. Tell jokes. Let them play. It doesn’t take a big budget to have a “non-boring” program. It just takes effort and care.

They teach Jesus and life transformation, not just moralism.

Many youth leave the church because they one day realize that you can be a “good person” and not go to church. You can even be a “good person” and not be a Christian! For kids who have learned a more-or-less moralistic Christianity in church (God wants us to do this, but not that), they don’t see the need to stay connected to the church in their twenties.

Instead, be sure the curriculum you use or the one you make is rooted in grace, life-transformation, and what it means to have a relationship with Jesus. Talk deeply in age-appropriate ways about what it means to be transformed by Jesus and to experience new life. Don’t be afraid to talk about the hard things, and be honest about life’s challenges. Don’t teach a pollyanna Christianity with trite answers that easily falls apart in college. Rather, focus on the person of Jesus and the need for relationship with Him and His people (the Church) to help you through dark times.

They include young people throughout the church.

There has been movement in recent years away from traditional “student” and “children’s” ministries towards family worship services. Largely this is simply an issue of preference and church culture. It works for some and not for others. This is not what we mean here. In fact, there is a great case to be made for the need for age-specific ministries.

However, what’s needed is for students and children to have opportunities to experience the church above and beyond their own programs. Allow students to play in the band (not just on Youth Sunday!). Let children help collect the offering. Have middle school students assist with greeting. Find ways to include young people in the lifeblood of the church in meaningful ways on a regular basis.

One of the reasons that young people leave the church is because it has always been something they “attended” and not something they participated in leading. Research by the Fuller Youth Institute has consistently shown the connection between including young people in service and the likelihood that they stay connected to a church.

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Pastors, if you want to see long-term growth, you need to start with the youth and children. If youth are the future of the church, shouldn’t we make these ministries as good as possible? We desire to bring individuals to a lasting faith at a young age, so they can go forth in the future and impact those around them.

Does your church have a reputation for loving children and youth? If not, ask yourself why. If so, what areas can you improve on? What areas have worked for your church and your community? Share with us below how you are living the axiom that youth are the future of the church.

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Dr. Aubrey Malphurs is the Founder of the Malphurs Group and the Senior Professor of Leadership and Pastoral Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also a husband, father, grandfather, fisherman, and a diehard Florida Gator fan. @amalphurs 

Scott Ball is the Director of Services and a Lead Guide with TMG. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott)

This article was updated by Scott Ball in July 2019.