Children and youth: High priority means high performance

For many adults who’ve drifted away from organized religion, or who never had much of a bond to begin with, what brings them back is becoming parents. They look into the faces of their babies, their children ask questions about God and how the world works, and they want their children to grow up as moral people, with a sense of right and wrong.

But not all congregations do a good job of welcoming children and youth — even though doing so can be a definite strength. Caring for youth plays an important role in attracting young families to a congregation and makes it a place where people want to stay.

For congregations that score well on the Caring for Children and Youth scale in the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, three factors contributed to that strength.

First, the sons and daughters of the adults involved with the congregation — those children young enough to still be living at home — also came to worship there. In the average congregation, three-fourths of worshipers’ children attend there (77 percent). And that’s important because if the parents and congregation can’t get their teenagers or even younger children to come with them to worship, there’s not much chance they’ll choose to be involved in a congregation later in life.

Second, families in congregations with this strength are generally satisfied with the programs being offered to their children (in the average congregation, nearly six out of 10 expressed satisfaction).

And third, ministry for children and teenagers in these places is seen as one of the most valued pieces of the congregation’s work. That shouldn’t be taken for granted. In the typical congregation, fewer than one in five worshipers lists programs for children and youth as one of the things they value most about the congregation (perhaps not surprising if the congregation includes many young singles and empty-nesters who don’t have children at home). But those relatively low priority rankings raise questions about what kind of energy and resources people will commit to children’s programs if they don’t consider them to be particularly important.

The research shows, however, that congregations strong in caring for children and youth also tend to be places where people are growing spiritually and where they have a common vision about the congregation’s future. They invest from the ground up in the faith development of children. They look to the future.

Medium-sized congregations scored the highest on Caring for Children and Youth. In part it’s a function of numbers — small congregations with fewer than 100 in worship likely have fewer children as well. That can make it hard to offer a full range of programs — Sunday school at each grade level, for example, or a youth group with more than the familiar handful of teens. People in small congregations tend to be less satisfied with the programs offered their children, and their children are less likely to attend worship there.

Also, congregations with high scores on Caring for Children and Youth are likely to be numerically growing. It’s not surprising — if parents bring their children and are pleased with what they find, they’re more likely to stay, get involved, and tell their friends.

There are implications in all this for what happens down the line. Children who grow up in a congregation notice how they are treated. They’ll grow up, graduate from school, and go off on their own. When they are young adults many will stop going to worship, some permanently, others for a while. But one factor influencing whether they ever choose to come back is, naturally, whether their congregational experience growing up was one that stirred something within them. Was it just something their parents made them do? Or did it challenge them and make them think? Did it help them develop and understand their faith? Were their opinions respected and did they have a role to play in ministry? Was it a place where they experienced God? If not, then why go back?

Congregations that do well in this area experience immediate benefits. Parents whose children are having a good experience with a congregation are likely to be more satisfied, too. On the other hand, families whose children complain week after week about having to go to worship, whose kids say “It’s boring and no one listens to us or cares what we think,” are likely to think about going somewhere more exciting or giving up the fight and sleeping in instead.

In our increasingly mobile society, congregations also might be thinking beyond just the here-and-now. Young people who have a positive experience with a congregation might become valuable leaders down the road — the pastors or rabbis or Sunday school teachers in the years to come. Families may move from one town to another or across the country. But if the seeds of faith are planted and nurtured by adults who really do care, the fruits of believing may sprout elsewhere — in a time of true testing, years later and miles away.