Ever wonder why it seems more and more difficult to connect or stay connected with young families? Have you perhaps heard comments from parents that the offerings the church has for their children just aren’t the right fit? Does your church face the on-going debate on whether to offer children’s church or keep children in worship with their families?

The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) directed by Dr. Christian Smith found that parents are the single most important influence in shaping the religious beliefs, values, and practices of their children. The common school-based approach that many congregations use lacks relevance and effectiveness as far as many parents are concerned. Similarly, the Vibrant Faith Survey revealed a disconnect between the parent’s expectations and what churches were providing when it came to faith formation resources for children and their parents. 

Families spent more time together during the pandemic. That time together allowed many families the opportunity to re-examine their priorities. As a result, we have already seen some resulting shifts in the workforce. According to Dion Hinchcliffe and Forbes, parents now place higher values on employment with flexible hours, hybrid or work-from-home options, more PTO than pay raises, jobs with high-impact outcomes, child care assistance benefits, job satisfaction, mental health and well-being, and work-life balance.

It is a well-known fact that the church is slow to respond to cultural shifts. The church was already struggling with a disconnect with families pre-pandemic. In many churches, the gap has only widened post-pandemic. Most churches I work with report they want to reach more young families. Great! The question becomes whether or not the church is willing to make the changes necessary to reach these young families. 

Too often, congregations expect young families to show up on Sunday morning (at a particular time and place) and engage in the same ministries the congregation prefers (and often has been doing for years or decades). Here is the truth: If those families aren’t showing up, what is offered isn’t relevant or effective.  If it were, they would be there. Those families aren’t at church only because they are busy playing ball or at a dance competition. Those families are finding community with other families playing ball and at the dance competitions. Those ball fields and dance floors have become their third places. The church used to be parents’ third places. But because many churches didn’t stay relevant, parents have found alternative third places.

What can churches do who are struggling to reach families? Here are five things to consider to better engage with young families:

  1. Gather some young parents and listen. If you have some young parents in your congregation, gather them and invite them to bring some of their friends. If you don’t have parents, go out into your community and gather some listening groups. What are they looking for?  What would be meaningful to them? What would be helpful to them as a family? What tools or resources would be helpful to them for spiritual formation of their children?
  2. Be flexible. What young families are looking for or need in 2024 is likely not what families were looking for or needed in 2020 let alone in 2010 or the 1990’s. For example, our culture has become very accustomed to most everything being available on-demand. Having only one option at one time, place, and day is confining to many.
  3. Use a different measuring stick. A church may have a vibrant ministry with young families, but they may not be consistently present on Sunday mornings. Family ministries may be most active off church property throughout the week at the convenience of the families involved. Just because congregants don’t see them present on Sunday doesn’t mean the ministry isn’t active or those participating are any less engaged, active, or growing in their faith.
  4. Don’t judge. The way young families engage in the ministry may look very different from the way other generations engage in ministry. For example, if a young family shows up and encounters judgment about their church engagement being deficit, the family may completely disengage. When in fact, the young family may be much more engaged than the one passing judgment.  The young family’s engagement just didn’t appear as the “traditional” type of church engagement the “seasoned” congregant had come to expect.
  5. Offer Community. More than anything else, younger generations are starving for a sense of community. In the listening sessions, ask what kind of gatherings the parents would value? How could the church facilitate those types of gatherings?

The bottom line to reach young families is to be led by young families. A church must be willing to let go of some of their own preferences if they are to engage with young families. What the young families’ needs and desires are do not always align with those who have had the honor and privilege of taking up space in the pews for decades. It’s time to move over and make space!