Megachurch Pastor Andy Stanley recently received an avalanche of criticism for accusing people who attend small churches of being selfish. Stanley has since apologized for his statements, which I appreciate. But, what about the premise of his argument? According to Stanley, big churches are better equipped to disciple the next generation because they are big enough to segregate people by age, and then design programs to suit specific age groups.
“We want churches to be large enough so that there are enough middle schoolers and high schoolers, that we don’t have one youth group with middle school and high school together,” he said. “We want there to be so many adults that there will be so many middle school and high school kids that we can have two separate environments.”
As the director of children’s ministry at a megachurch in Maryland, one might expect I would agree with Stanley. But, I don’t. In fact, what I have found from my kids’ experience at our mega-church, the research, and the Bible is that age-segregated ministry can actually hinder children’s spiritual development, not help it.
My Kids’ Experience
When my twins graduated from high school, they, unlike most of their friends, easily assimilated into the life of our church. They had been attending the adult service throughout high school, unlike their friends who had only attended our church’s youth service. They also served in our children’s ministry and knew our teaching pastors and worship team members. We would discuss the pastor’s message in the car ride home and spend time together with other church families — as families.
Teenagers across the nation leave the church at alarmingly high rates… They simply were not getting connected at their church, nor at a church where they were attending college.
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In contrast, their friends who had been actively, but solely, involved in the high school ministry, struggled after graduation. In essence, they had lost their church. Being connected only with their peers, they didn’t know what to do when they entered the main church lobby, nor did they recognize anyone when they entered the main worship service. Some church-hopped looking for another church that resembled the high school ministry environment. Others stopped attending church altogether. Being connected with their peers alone was not enough.
As the children and youth staffs at our church started meeting and examining what was happening with the next generation, it became clear that the experience of my own kids and their friends was not unique. Teenagers across the nation leave the church at alarmingly high rates (anywhere from 60-80% depending on the study). They simply were not getting connected at their church, nor at a church where they were attending college.
What the Research Says
In studying the research, and talking with parents and young adults, I have become convinced that the two critical factors for the spiritual formation of children and youth have nothing to do with providing an age-specific worship or small group experience. Rather, children need parents who live out their love for Jesus every day. They also need to be in relationship with people who are older and younger than they are. This is what matters.
Seeing the trend of youth leaving the church, Fuller Youth Institute decided to find out why and undertook a six-year College Transition Project. What they discovered is that more than any other participation variable measured, it was students’ participation in all-church worship during high school that was consistently linked with developing a mature faith in both high school and college. Apparently, students need to connect with adults in worship, not be separated from them.
Another study launched by the National Study of Youth and Religion found that the influence of parents is another key factor. It reported that 82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home attached great importance to their beliefs. It also found that children who were active in their congregations while growing up tended to be religiously active as young adults. It was parents engaging with their children about their faith that made the difference.
What the Bible Says
God already told us what it takes to pass along our faith to the next generation — and it’s not a mega-church.
Paul reiterated God’s plan to fathers in Ephesians 6, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” In addition, in the early church, the model of the older mentoring the younger was evident — whether it was Paul mentoring Timothy or the older women discipling the young wives and mothers. And of course, the early Church itself was comprised of small house churches that would have been multi-generational.
Taking Steps to Change the Culture
While our church currently has an age-segregated approach, we are actively taking steps to change our culture so that parents don’t view dropping off their kids in Sunday School or youth group as sufficient.
- Parents are continually reminded of the 1/164 fraction — one hour out of 164 hours in a week is not sufficient discipleship. Instead, children and youth ministry at church is a jumping off point for week-long discussion and time in the Bible together — as a family.
- Worshipping as a family and then, serving in their child’s class or in the youth group is promoted as the model to follow.
- Other ministries at our church are encouraged to make events family gatherings whenever possible. For example, when we have our community-wide ServeFest, many of our serving opportunities are specifically designed to be something the whole family can do together. Even our missions department offers family mission trips.
- Soon we hope to launch our “milestones” to help parents intentionally disciple their child from birth through college graduation. Parents will learn how to be their child’s baptism coach, write a family mission statement, regularly bless their child, and more.
- Elementary, middle school and high school students are encouraged to invest in younger kids by serving in our children’s ministry.
I grew up in a church of 200. My parents weren’t selfish. They were followers of Jesus, who shared their love for Him with me everyday. They were involved in a church filled with sincere followers of Jesus, who took an interest in me and encouraged me to pursue Jesus. I’m passionately serving at my mega-church because my parents and the community of my small church faithfully discipled me. The size of a church is relatively unimportant; the engagement of Christian adults with children is critical.
About the Author
Tandi Thomas is director of children’s ministry at Grace Community Church in Fulton, MD. Prior to that, she worked for about 10 years on Capitol Hill as legislative director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert — and even longer than that as a homeschool mom. She and her husband have two grown children and one high schooler, and live in Ellicott City, MD.