Kids in the church often feel pressure to attend functions, to be or feel a certain way. A relationship should be completely pressure-free. Jesus knew this, and created both love and relationships.

Meeting the Kids First

When my husband and I first arrived in Casper, Wyoming he went immediately to meet the kids at church.

We sat down one day and decided what we could do to involve the youth, and we invited them to everything we could. (We didn’t sit down with the youth to get their input, a mistake often made by church leadership. As often as adults are dissimilar, youth are more so.)

Adolescents and young adults are still changing, so in order to be present for them, to understand their needs, we have to spend time with them. We figured out early on that if all of our time with youth was spent in Bible study, prayer, Pathfinders, and dinners at our house, we would never get to know them.

Sometimes They Don’t Seem Like Youth

Sometimes church youth are young couples starting families, single moms or broken families. They may be too old for Pathfinders, may not come to Sabbath school, and may have left the home by this age. They may be like Ethan and Katie Pendley, a young couple from Casper, who frequently miss worship services, and aren’t sure why.

A Word from Katie and Ethan

We slowly stopped coming to church after high school. I don’t really know why, and it didn’t happen overnight. It became easier and easier to sleep in and relax all day. When no one mentions your lack of attendance or seems to notice, it makes not coming easier.

A few members tried to encourage us to attend more by volunteering us to serve on a church committee. It feels nice to be needed, to have a “job” in the church. Though a good plan in theory, it failed because these committees are often filled with older members who are set in their ways. Our experience was no different, and we ultimately felt “pushed out” of our position by members who weren’t open to newer ideas.

We come to church now for our son. We want him to have good memories of Sabbath school like we had. We rush out the doors after his class instead of staying for worship service. Why we do this, we honestly don’t know.

Start Young

“Youth retention” needs to start while kids’ parents are still “making” them attend church. If strong relationships aren’t formed before church is a choice, it won’t matter. Give the kids a reason to come back, in the form of relationships with peers, staff and older members. If there are kids attending academy, make them excited to come back during their breaks. If some attend public school, make them excited to come to church even when they could be in sports. As soon as children are interested in other things, we should try to build relationships connecting through those other things. Make them feel at home in their home church.

Sometimes They Want to Be Kids

This is an important truth we’ve learned as a youth ministry couple. Sometimes kids just want to be kids, and not sit quietly in a study or committee meeting. They want to run down a hillside instead of hike on a trail, or babysit (and get paid for it) instead of volunteering to help with Adventurers, or play Capture the Flag in the backyard while the dinner on the table gets cold.

Oftentimes, in the midst of families involved in church leadership, school and church activities, the “youth” don’t get much of a chance to be youth. At the same time, their peers are changing and growing just as fast as they are.

Jesse Evert is one young woman from Casper, who we became acquainted with over several home leaves and summer breaks from academy, and then college. She’s seen the youth leave the church before her eyes, as she’s stayed put. But why?

A Word from Jesse

My experience is much different—I have stayed and attend church regularly.

What separates me from my close friends is not a difference in reverence or strong spirituality. It’s a difference of experiences. I have fought the urge to sleep in and miss Sabbath school. I’ve sometimes wanted to watch TV instead of attending communion. I’ve resisted the urge to check my phone in the middle of song service.

This is a topic I feel very strongly about because so many people I love are affected. We need people in the church to show they care about us inside the doors, and outside, especially during the preteen years. When we still don’t have a choice, we need to be shown why we should stay.

My friends each have different experiences–different stories: one stopped coming as an early teen, distracted by friends, her family’s non-attendance, and then boys. Now she has a beautiful baby, a job and her own apartment. When I asked her why she left, she said it was because she was afraid of the judgment.

Another of my friends went to academy, then left school, moved out of her parent’s home, and let her boyfriend move in with her—to the astonishment of the church.

We all have busy lives outside of the church, and church can become routine and then just as easily fade to the back burner. What we need are people to show us during our developmental teen years that our church family cares and loves us, and even wants to hang out with us outside of church.

Get to know the youth. We need more than a hug and a “Happy Sabbath.” We need someone to come to when life gets tough. We need to know we are still loved, even through the scars. We need to feel wanted.

How to Stop Saying Goodbye to Them

The only way to stop them from leaving—to stop us from constantly saying “Goodbye” to our church youth—is to say “Hello” to them, in their language, on their turf.

If they rodeo, watch their competition. If they invite you for pizza and game night, be there! Ask them how they are instead of where they’ve been.

Show them a relationship like Jesus.