Please Don’t Shoot The Messenger

I’ve got a question to ask. It is a bit of a big one, so I feel quite nervous asking it – but I can’t seem to shake the haunting feeling in my gut that the future of our churches and our young people just might depend on us asking it.

But first, a bit of scene setting. The Evangelical Alliance wrote a blog entitled, How To Stop The Child Exodus From Church. Before I even share the quote with you, if your experience of church and youth work is anything like mine, God’s Spirit and your spirit are already groaning at this reality and a hope for something better. They wrote in this article:

1523 out of 2228 passengers and crew were drowned during the sinking of the Titanic – a loss of 68%. But according to Peter Brierley’s research, of every class of 10 nought to nine-year-olds in Sunday School in 1985, only three were still connected with the church in 2005.

Which leads me to the question: in all these years, has our youth work actually been diminishing the church rather than growing it?

Now, before you start Googling angry memes to tweet at me, hear me out. I was there in the 80s. I was one of those Sunday School kids basking in the glory of the flannel graph. And, by the grace of God, I am not one of those Titanic casualties. The glory goes to God for that, but the tools that he used were youth workers – amazing and Godly men and women who gave their time and skills to helping me understand just how good God’s good news is.

Sadly though, many of my friends didn’t have those sort of individuals, and they didn’t make it off the Titanic alive.

I recently read an e-book called Unintended Consequences by Andrew Brims. It puts into words some of my frustrations: has the way we do church, and the way we do youth work within that model, let down an entire generation? Andrew says this:

By simply being told to drop their kids into the ministry each week parents are lured into believing they’ve correctly and completely carried out their Christian parental duties and presumably expect shiny, happy Christians coming out of the other end… Parents aren’t given a model of how to disciple their children as in the main they don’t see it.

What if, in our attempt to reach a generation, we’ve disconnected family life from church life? When was the last time a family in your church sought to pray, worship, evangelise, disciple, church plant, grow in diversity, etc. as a family? We’ve separated church and family. It is costing us dearly.

What if, in our attempt to reach a generation, we’ve isolated individuals (like youth workers, Sunday school teachers, and young people) from the wider community?

What if, in our attempt to reach a generation, we’ve stopped that generation from being a catalyst for change, growth, and development in our churches? Have we lost out by sticking them in a side room, instead of rubbing shoulders with them and feeling the tension of how their culture has shifted from ours?

Let me be clear, I don’t think we’ve done a bad job with our youth work. No one could convince me of that. I have met too many wonderful, sacrificial, Christ-following, creative, innovative and loving people that give their everything to disciple young people.

It’s just that I have a dream (cue the MLK Jr voice) - a dream of church where everyone makes it through that journey from childhood to adulthood with a thriving faith still intact. A dream where we stop passively watching parents out-impact us in regards to beliefs and spirituality. A dream where we start caring about our young people so much that we ourselves work hard to impact their parents. And a dream where so many entire families are coming to faith that our churches are starting new churches multiple times a year.

Maybe it is only a dream. But then again, as Paul says in Romans 8: “Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”

No matter how many young people I see leave the church, I will continue to hope and to work towards something better. But I won’t allow the way we have always done things to forever be the way we do things, not when so many young people aren’t surviving.

If you’re with me in longing to see our churches grow in this, why not pray through some of these ideas with your leadership team:

  1. Which of your activities could you segregate by age less often? When families attend a church activity, could you use it as an opportunity to help them engage with God and Christianity as an entire family? For example, taking communion as a family, having prayer stations which families do together, or discussion questions for families to talk through, etc.
  2. I'm imagining one of those big boards coordinating police operations, like in Line of Duty or Broadchurch. What would such a board look like if it outlined a strategy connecting families? Can we help connect the families of our young people to other Christian families and/or the wider church? Food is always a great way to do this.
  3. Who could you ask to pray? To pray not just for the young people, but their families, teachers, neighbours, role models, etc. To pray for a release of God’s kingdom in their home. May their prayers be an impetus for salvation to course through every family member’s life.

We’d love to hear your stories, both the encouraging and the disheartening ones, of trying to reach the families of your young people. Drop us a line and let us know how you are getting on and what you are seeing God do in your area.


Matt Merriam is the Somerset Area Coordinator for SWYM. He lives in Yeovil with his wife and three children. As well as supporting and coaching SWYM trainees in Somerset, he is also the Senior Leader of Birchfield Church in Yeovil, a regional hub leader for Church Planting Initiative in the South West and the chair of governors for Birchfield Community Primary School.