I’ve been a pastor of four churches that were very different from one another, but a thread runs through each that I’ve found to be troubling: when families with children leave a church because they believe there aren’t enough things going on for their kids.
Let me create a scenario that may help explain this a little better. A family with three children (ages 13, 9, and 4) attend a church of about 125. The church is barely able to pay the bills so there is no real budget to speak of. Because the church is about 100 years old, there are many older members – all of whom are getting older. There are a few other families with young children, but there hasn’t been much of a connection between them and each week the kids complain that they were bored at church.
Mom and dad – who both grew up in this church when it was “thriving” – understand. They’ve visited a few younger churches that have seemingly endless options for their kids. Sunday lunches are much more enjoyable when they attend these newer churches – the kids talk about how they saw friends from school and how the youth group and children’s ministries had all sorts of things to do. Mom and dad even like the worship music better because all the songs were Christian radio anthems.
Over a few months, the family pulls back from their commitments at their home church. They might tell a few folks – maybe even the elders – of what’s going on in their hearts. As they pull away, they are drawn to the younger church. Visions of their children enjoying church seem to make their decision to leave an easy one. They spend time in prayer, and they talk to their friends, all of which point them to what they believe God is leading them to move on.
I’ve been a full-time pastor for over a decade and I’ve been actively involved in ministry for about 15 years. I’ve seen this scenario played out at every church I’ve been a part of, regardless of size, age, or style. It’s always painful to lose people, but this way seems to be the most devastating. Why? Because this is a step closer to killing the ministry the family left behind.
Before I attempt to make a further case, hear me out: I trust in God’s sovereignty. If God wants to preserve a ministry, he certainly can. What I’m saying is that what we do as believers, who are prone to make mistakes, matters. We’ve seen pastors who lead poorly, and the church suffers because of it, sometimes leading to its decline and death.
In the scenario I described, the youth group, the children’s ministry, and any other ministry they were involved in are steps closer to death. “The youth group is dying, so we’re leaving,” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it does more than that. The parents, in their decision to leave, are doing what they believe is best for their kids and no one can blame them for that. Panic sets it for parents when their kids complain about church. Anything that will get them to be excited for church is good, they think. Great intentions but the results are often dreadful.
From what I’ve witnessed as a pastor, there are three very dangerous things that can come from this. First, it teaches our kids that church is about having a full schedule. Youth group, AWANA, and events every week are not bad things in and of themselves. But programs often serve to fill our schedules and not our hearts. The simplicity of worship, fellowship, and discipleship easily gets overshadowed by flash and busyness.
Second, it teaches our kids that church is primarily about our felt needs and preferences. We need a certain type of music or preaching to feel the Spirit move. We need a dynamic kids ministry. We need a youth ministry that is growing and drawing hundreds each week. No one needs those things. They are just preferences.
Third, it teaches our kids that our relationships with others matter just as much (or more) than our worship of and service to God. What is so heartbreaking in scenarios like the one I described is that in valuing personal relationships at the new church, the hole left behind at the old church negatively impacts those left behind.
When a family leaves a church for something that they think will be better for their kids, they are not only treating things that aren’t essential to be seen as essential, they are also contributing to the death of what’s left behind. Often, it’s a remnant of families who are working themselves to death to keep it alive. I’ve been involved in ministries that would have been spiritual thriving if everyone who left simply stuck around.
No pastor should seek to criticize a particular family working through a possible departure. Every family and church are unique, but there are often threads that run through these situations. Shepherding someone who fits this description is part of our calling, even though it’s often worse than pulling teeth. It’s painful, but good shepherding often means that we say things that are challenging to our people – difficult things that may not be taken well.
You know what I’ve seen a few times in these conversations? The families never considered any of this. Now, most still left, but at least they began to think through the impact of their departure. This had led me to believe that the best way to combat this is by regularly teaching that the church matters. It’s not about our preferences or how many ministries a church has. What matters is a high view of scripture, biblical theology, and preaching and teaching that seeks to glorify God by shining lights toward the good news of the gospel.