Recently I attended a church service that targeted young people. The service included praise music, smoke machines, lighting effects, and even dancers. Most in the congregation had fun, some were offended, and I’m sure more than a few received a great blessing. However, throughout the church service, I kept thinking that we are doing our young people a disservice if we think that the only way we can get them to come to church is under the guise of a concert.
How many of us have attended a youth event where the pastor rushed through vespers and prayer so that the young people could start their game night, pizza feast, or swim party? Probably too many of us. The problem with using entertainment as a way of getting young people into the pews is that it is only a quick fix. What happens when young people become adults, come to Sabbath School and church, and discover that it’s not fun anymore?
Statistics show that between 65-70 percent of young people in all Christian denominations leave the church after high school; some never return, and others return only after they have children. Unfortunately, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is no different. We too have a large number of young people leaving our church.
In Proverbs 22:6, Solomon says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he won’t turn from it.” So the question is: When did youth ministry decide that the gospel wasn’t entertaining enough and that young people wouldn’t fill the pews to hear the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness?
As someone who works with Pastor Jan Paulsen’s “Let’s Talk” initiative for our church television channel, I hear many questions and comments about the church and its leadership. Young people complain that they are not allowed to be involved to the extent that they want to be, they worry they are not helping enough in their communities, and they wonder if their youth groups are getting the gospel foundation they need or want. They worry that when it is time for them to be leaders, they will not have the experience they need. However, I cannot remember even one email complaining that young people are not being entertained enough or that their meetings and events aren’t fun enough. Young people want and need to lead, and for that they must have more than just entertainment in their youth meetings.
So what can we do to give our young people the foundation they need to stay in church, to be active members, and to become effective leaders?
First, we have to put Christ at the front of whatever we do with young people. Yes, some kids may groan when we want to have a meaningful vespers and prayer before the Saturday-night or Wednesday-night activity. We may be afraid that they will feel we are pushing the Bible and Jesus down their throats. But isn’t learning about Jesus the whole point? Didn’t their parents send them to youth church or AY for that very reason—so that they could have a Christian experience? We cannot be afraid to give it to them. They will remember and use what they are taught.
Second, we have to get our youth involved in the life of their church—even when we think they don’t want to be. They do. At the very least, they appreciate being asked. We have to have faith that they can complete the tasks that we give them. Young people often complain that their churches do not trust them to take part in the service. When I was growing up, I always appreciated my church’s willingness to make sure that young people were involved in the different aspects of the church service and church life. We were invited to read scripture, serve as deacons, lead the song service, and pray. Even when we acted like we were too cool to be involved, we each felt appreciated and welcomed in the life of our church. This is important. If young people have invested in the life of the church, they are less likely to leave it. They will also build an amazing foundation and be able to lead the church when they become adults.
Finally, we have to get our young people involved in their local and global communities. Young people need to realize that when Christ said to “love your neighbor as yourself,” He was not just talking about the person sitting next to them in the church pew. He meant the person who cannot come to church because he or she is too ill to leave the house. He meant the people who have to sleep on the street because they cannot afford housing. He meant that everyone is our neighbor, our brother, our sister. Our duties do not encompass just church life—they also include the communities around us. When young people are involved in their church, and their church is involved in the community, they will see a direct connection between Christ’s love for them and for others. It also allows the people in the community to see Christ’s love through our young people, to experience Christ’s compassion not through words, but through actions.
The youth church experience should be fun. There is nothing wrong with Saturday night games and pizza parties. But why can’t being involved in the church and community also be fun? Why should fun in church always have to come with an exciting gimmick? Our goal as leaders is to train our young people to take our place. They will lead the church one day, and it’s up to us to make sure they have a strong foundation of experience and commitment to do it well.
General Conference Communication Department
Hironori Takahashi has been a local church elder from Yokohama in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years. He works as a professional architect. He is also the president of the Elders Association for the Japan Union Conference. According to him, the church in Japan is facing a difficult situation. The early evangelization focused on reaching out to individuals but neglecting the family. Although certain areas of major cities may have this tendency to individualism, in general Japanese society is a family oriented society and it is still very strong with attachment and bonding relations. He suggests approaching Japanese society with the gospel through families and also young people.