Dr. Lovett Weems has taught many leaders of The United Methodist Church a phrase that is being repeated widely: we need more people, more young people, and more diverse people. I agree.
The average age of a United Methodist layperson is more than 57. The average age of people in the United States is in the lower 30s. There is clearly a problem here. If our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, and if the population around us is younger than we are and we are not reaching them, we are not as faithful as we should be. We need to find better ways of reaching young people.
Many United Methodists will respond by offering several relevant facts. Your particular community or your county may have a higher average age than the rest of the country. The young families in your community may be newcomers who don’t have a tradition of going to church and thus are harder to reach. Television and the internet provide greater distractions and competition for time that did not exist 50 years ago. School and sports activities now intrude into traditional church time such as Sundays and Wednesday evenings. More and more families are headed by a single parent who may be stretched for time and thus unable to participate in church. As our congregations have aged, the number of adults willing and able to volunteer for children’s and youth ministry has grown smaller. Effective children’s and youth ministry requires a higher level of technology — both equipment and expertise — than many of our congregations are used to using.
All of this is true. It all makes ministry with young people harder than it used to be. But for precisely these reasons, it is now more important than it has ever been. All of the busy-ness of young people today and the mobility of populations and the prevalence of divorce means that children and youth need Christ and His Church more than ever.
I have spent much of September visiting congregations in Nebraska as part of my new responsibilities as bishop of the Great Plains Episcopal Area. On many occasions I have had local church members ask me what they can do to reach children and youth. I have responded by pointing to many churches that are successfully providing Wednesday afternoon and evening children’s activities including a hot meal. One church I visited recently baptized 13 children, most of whom were newcomers to their small town. It was the caring involvement of the older members that made the difference. They told me their church decided to adopt all of the children in their community and to help them know Christ and be part of the church.
I believe effective ministry with children and youth is possible in many more places than we currently have it. It is not easy. It takes commitment and time from caring adults. It means adopting new ministries and investing much more time and money than we have in the recent past. But Jesus said in Matthew 19:14 "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." Let’s reach them for the Lord.