How to Reach the Youth who Leave the Faith6 min read

Many of you may have read or heard about the loss of people in the church or are experiencing this phenomenon within your own congregation. As we watch our members fade away, we may experience a sense of hopelessness, not knowing what to do or how to deal with the situation. Some congregations have focused on our youth, and this makes sense. But are we missing part of the equation?

In the last decade, congregations have begun observing a steady decline with their youngest members. It has become a priority to reach these young people that are leaving the church. Here are some of the statistics that we, as a church body, are encountering today:

  • Millennials are leaving the church. Nearly six in ten (59%) young people who grow up in Christian churches end up walking away, and the un-churched segment among Millennials has increased in the last decade from 44% to 52%, mirroring a larger cultural trend away from churchgoing in America. When asked what has helped their faith grow, “church” does not make even the top 10 factors (Barna Group, April 2016).
  • According to an article recently written in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod blog, the writer notes: “You have probably read the headlines heralding startling statistics of teens and young adults leaving the church. 36% of young Millennials (18-26) and 34% of older Millennials (27-34) self-define as religiously unaffiliated, a number up significantly and which appears to be growing. Nearly six in ten (59%) young people who grew up in the church will leave the church or their faith for at least a significant amount of time, if not for good, in their 20s. On average, LCMS pastors say that 46% of youth are still active in their congregation four years after confirmation.”

The Struggle In Reaching Our Youth

Often pastors and church workers struggle to know what to do. As mentioned above, the primary focus has often been on how to reach out to these youth who have become ‘prodigals’ or the ‘lost’. In this day and age, churches are looking for new and creative ways to reach out to young people.

This is a good thing.

An article by the Barna Group reads, “The most unchurched Americans are Millennials, so it comes as no surprise that youth ministry is a priority for many churches. Six in 10 (61%) senior pastors say youth ministry is ‘one of the top priorities’ of their church’s ministry, and 7 percent say it is the single highest priority.” (The Priorities, Challenges and Trends in Youth Ministry, April 6, 2016).

Pastors and church workers are now, more than ever, focusing on youth and realizing how important it is to have solid programs established in their congregations. They are recognizing that youth groups can serve as a means to further instill ‘the faith’ in young people and are placing great emphasis on engaging them. But I wonder what would happen if we as a church body also began to consider reaching out to the parents of the prodigal?

Parents as Strategic Missionaries

Parents already have an established relationship with the youth; after all, they brought them into the world and raised them up from infancy to young adulthood. Many of these parents faithfully brought up their children, sharing their faith with them, passing down the heritage of faith in Jesus Christ and the tradition of what it means to be a Christian. Parents naturally have an “in” with their children, something that is quite unique and cannot be duplicated by the church. In a sense parents are, by default, strategic missionaries to these youth.

However, these parents are often buried under the secrecy of guilt and shame for “letting” their children fall away from the church. This failure causes parents to come to the conclusion that they are not worthy to make an impact on their children, especially when it comes to faith. Oftentimes, broken relationships between parents and their children result out of these feelings of failure. But what would happen if they could speak about it without worry of judgment? Could helping parents become more comfortable in being able to share their situation, receiving ongoing encouragement and support from others perhaps give them hope and confidence, helping them to better relate to their children?

Reaching out to the Parent of the Prodigal

Let’s start talking about it. Too often families are reluctant to talk about the circumstances they find themselves in as parents of prodigals. By speaking about the situation, it is brought out in the open. By sharing with others, parents find out that they are not alone and come to the realization that others are going through the same feelings of heartache.

What if …

  • Parents began talking about it?
  • Pastors/church leaders began talking about it?
  • The subject matter was out in the open and no longer a secret?

The Michigan District is partnering with Faith Family Reunion to offer two retreats on “Being a Parent of a Prodigal.” The first retreat will take place on October 21, 2017 at St. Matthew, Grand Rapids, and the other will be at Good Shepherd, Lansing on November 18, 2017. For more information and to register, click here. For more information on Faith Family Reunion and what they can do for church leaders, click here

Who Is Behind Faith Family Reunion?

We are a family much like yours: A prodigal daughter who returned to faith in Jesus Christ; her father, a retired LCMS pastor; and her dear loving mom, all of us with hearts for the hurting parents and their prodigal.

Our passion is to inspire and transform parents with prodigals by helping break down the walls of shame and secrecy.

When we place emphasis not only on our youth but on their parents as well, we are enabled to encompass the entire family unit. The church body, enabled to help unify the immediate family, ultimately helps to reunite the church family.

Bible Verses

Luke 15:5-7 (ESV)

“And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Ezekiel 34:15-16 ESV

“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”

Co-authored by Rev. Dr. Jakob Heckert

Photo (c) FluxFactory/iStock

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About the Author

Paula Isakson grew up in a wonderful Christian home, with loving and supportive parents who raised her in the faith. But life took Paula in a different direction. She abandoned the faith of her childhood to find her own spiritual way in the world. Paula’s family and friends never gave up on her. The Holy Spirit continued to work in Paula’s life. Now she brings Faith Family Reunion together to share the story of a God who never gives up on His people and encourage attendees never to give up on the lost people in their lives!

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