Adapted from Terry Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.
Friday, June 15, 2012
The Importance of Relationships in Reaching Young People
Lately, on my blog, we have been discussing the importance of the church regaining its position as the social center of the community. Churches need to work harder at creating a sense of belonging for those who participate in her various activities. Though social interaction is important to people of any age, it is absolutely essential to those under age thirty-ﬁve. Len Hjalmarson, a Canadian pastor, author, and church consultant, writes regularly about how to reach young people. Hjalmarson concludes that they “reject authority of position in favor of authority in relationship.” Young people do not care who the pastor is, or who the deacons are; they care about the people with whom they have relationships. Basically, relationships mean everything to young people. Because a sense of belonging is so important in this postmodern age, churches that fail to create that atmosphere will most likely fail to reach the next generation.
A signiﬁcant contrast is growing between churches that have only a formal ministry aimed at reaching the next generation and those that are focused on building relationships with the next generation. Churches trying to reach young people in any fashion are to be commended, but churches with only a formal program will not reach as many young people for Christ as those that are focused on building relationships.
For those who struggle to understand the diﬀerence between building relationships and simply having a program, here are some thoughts to consider. A program is something that a church sponsors once or twice a week. It begins and ends at a speciﬁc time and is very structured in the way it functions. Such programs often have a core group, mostly consisting of people who have a long history of connection to the church. The program’s participants seldom bring their friends to take part in the program. Many older adults in the church often see programs aimed at reaching the next generation as a drain on the budget, but they invest the money anyway because it seems like the right thing to do. Unfortunately, such programs are not very eﬀective in the long term.
Audrey Barrick, a writer for The Christian Post, frequently reports on trends impacting the church. In a 2007 article, Barrick reported that nearly two-thirds of teens who participate in youth programs will drop out of church during their college years. Clearly, using a program based approach is not the most eﬀective way to reach the next generation.
A relationship-based ministry, on the other hand, is quite diﬀerent from a program-based eﬀort. While a relationship-based ministry will include some structured programs, it also includes a lot of impromptu events. The people involved in these ministries spend a lot of time together. This time might be spent over a hamburger at McDonald’s, ice cream at the local ice cream shop, or playing cards or games on a Wii. The people in this kind of ministry know each other, encourage each other, and are involved in one another’s lives. Young adults who are part of such a ministry often come from outside the church and may take part in the church without any support from their families. The leaders of such ministries look for ways to include these young people in the overall life of the church because they enjoy being together. Older people in the church may see these young adults as a little unruly, but because they are excited about changed lives, they are usually committed to helping those young people despite the occasional frustrations members of the next generation bring to the church.
Relationship-based ministry takes more time, but it is the most eﬀective way to reach those under thirty-ﬁve. Ed Stetzer says, “Programs must be the tool, not the goal.” Stetzer goes on to say, “Programming must give way to intentional relationships and community.” Programs have their place, but programs alone will not be suﬃcient to hold the interest of the next generation or help the church regain its position as the social center of the community.
If churches want to reach the next generation, they may need fewer programs aimed at reaching the next generation and more church members willing to take a young person out to lunch or spend time with them in others way. Many program based churches will struggle with this, but it is a struggle worth having.