We are down to a handful of kids in our church. Help!
In my work with churches through Convergence and my personal experiences as a leader in congregations, I have heard this lament many times. In some ways, this may be one of the hardest transitions for 21st century churches. To go from memories of full, multi-classroom religious education programs in the late 20th century to many Sundays when no children attend at all is painful and anxiety producing, to be sure.
The first thing to know is that you are not alone. Let’s do some math. By 2020, the median worship attendance at most churches was 65. This is declining over time. The average age of people in congregations is now 57. This means that if children are present, they may be brought by grandparents rather than parents. As of 2020, 13.8% of regular participants in congregations are under 12. This means that if you are among the 69% of churches in the US with 100 or less attending worship, you likely have less than 14 actively participating children.
But let’s not stop there. We are also seeing in our congregational assessments and national survey data (Pew Research Center) that there have been changes in frequency of attendance as generations move through the church, and particularly in young families. 69% of parents of children under 18 attended only once or twice a month or less, and this was in 2014, before the pandemic. Those in the Baby Boomer Generations or older were twice as likely to attend weekly than Generation X, and over 4x as likely as older Millennials. Since Generation X and older Millennials are the ones most likely to have children in the household these days, I bet you can begin to see the problem.
A dozen kids or less, attending 1-2 times per month, very rarely all on the same Sunday, means only a handful in your education programs each week at best. This makes it very hard to plan programming, particularly if you are still trying to have multiple classes by age groups. It can feel awkward to have 2 teachers for only one child in a class. Planned activities may not work with only 1-2 students. Teachers who show up to volunteer and have no kids attend that week become demoralized.
The situation is not hopeless, though, for those churches seeking to be intergenerational and support spiritual formation in young people. The solution doesn’t involve competing with the mega-church with expensive and shiny programming. And the solution definitely does not involve blaming the pastor, society, and everyone around for the lack of children in the church.
Here’s what you can do:
- Believe that God can call even the smallest group of believers to do amazing things. There is nothing wrong with your church just because you don’t have children present every week, or in numbers you had decades ago. Society changes over time, and the role of religion within it. You are called to be who God is calling you to be, right now, with your current group of believers, no matter how small.
- Focus on quality child care first. Make sure that you have child care during all adults-only activities and meetings, which means two trained, background-checked and reliable workers at all times. This will likely mean paying childcare workers if you are a smaller congregation. Budget for this. Families will never be able to fully participate in the life of your church if they can’t bring their children. A pastor or volunteer teacher can be available during this time so that if kids show up they can receive a spiritual formation lesson in the one-room-schoolhouse model. Seasons of the Spirit, Illustrated Ministry, and many other curriculum providers offer resources for multi-age classrooms.
- Make church life intergenerational. A fellowship hour with a lesson and a craft can bring 85 year olds alongside 5 year olds, making important connections between the two. Storytelling during worship can be enjoyed by all ages when framed as an essential part of the service rather than just “Time with the Children.” Consider a prayground down front so most kids are able to play and learn during worship, still providing access to childcare for the smallest or those who need extra support. Experiment with more family-friendly songs and worship elements so all can feel welcome. Train your adults to see noise and mess from children as a part of God’s good news for the congregation. Emphasize that you are doing all this so that “kids of all ages – 0-99” are welcome and included in your congregation.
- Rethink spiritual formation. Families today need ways to help their kids learn about faith that fit into their busy lives. Email a resource such as a weekly lesson or a monthly calendar of formation themes to all parents, grandparents, and caregivers in your congregation so that they can have daily devotional time with the kids in their lives at the dinner table or on the daily commute. Stay in touch with families outside of Sundays – kids love snail mail and seeing church leaders in attendance at sports and performances. Help parents learn about faith formation through sharing books, videos, and other resources that emphasize how all of life is spiritual formation, if we reflect on our experiences as a family or community and support that reflection with learning and prayer.
None of these suggestions are a magic bullet that will restore your childrens’ programming to its 1980s glory. However, all of them are a faithful way forward to sharing faith with young people and supporting families as they seek spiritual support in this ever-changing world.
If you need help brainstorming or implementing some of these ideas, please email me at email@example.com to learn about all the ways Convergence can help.
Faith Communities Today. Twenty Years of Congregational Change: The 2020 Faith Communities Today Overview. https://faithcommunitiestoday.org/fact-2020-survey/
Pew Research Center. Religious Landscape Study. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/religious-landscape-study/attendance-at-religious-services