Can Small Churches Reach Youth?

youthPastor Andy Stanley, the faith leader of Atlanta’s North Point (mega) Church, made a big mistake.


He spoke out against two things—parents in small churches and small church ministries.


Here is the important thing. He is really, truly sorry. He made a heart-felt, complete apology that congregations rarely hear from leaders. He added no “buts.”


Enough said? Time to move on?


Before moving too fast, let’s look at what he claims were the roots of his comments. He and his church had just come from a successful youth retreat for middle school children. He was high from the experience and wishing every middle school child could have been part of the event. Stanley attacked parents not so much for attending small churches but for not giving their children the opportunity his church had just provided. His mistake was in thinking that the large church is the only environment that can serve this age group.


Small churches can serve youth. The problem is often we don’t. We don’t have the extra staff that are often dedicated to youth ministry. We struggle to find volunteers to lead energetic teens. But the potential is there. It is a matter of finding the way.


Middle school is a microcosm of life. A great deal of potential and dreams are bundled up in packages of hormones and insecurity. Some middle schoolers thrive in large groups. On the other hand, being part of a large group can torture other young teens. They can feel overshadowed by the emerging “A” personalities (who may be struggling with their own self-images). They can be bombarded by what they see as insurmountable shortcomings.


Again, Stanley has retracted his statement in full. He realizes that parents may know best. He realizes that small church ministries have value and good ideas and love their children. He points to the support money his congregation provides to other ministries. He even cites instances where his ministry borrowed ideas from small church ministries.


Small church ministries can provide opportunities for children. Young people can learn to serve, can be individually mentored, can develop faith and talents when they aren’t just another middle school kid. Small churches can do a great job at this.


Unfortunately, in many cases, small churches fail to reach out to this age group. They have programs for the very young. Volunteers to lead programs drop out when children hit — middle school! These days this can be as young as ten.


Before we totally dismiss everything Pastor Stanley foolishly said, let’s look at why and recognize the little bits of truth that prompted it.


Stanley said his comments were about caring for the next generation. His concerns are well-founded.


Small churches need to address youth—for the children’s sake and for the longevity of their own faith communities.


I would have no trouble making a list of why young people can and do thrive in small church ministries, but I’ve visited many congregations (some even fairly large) that have a huge age gap in attendance between the ages of ten and fifty! That is a frustrating cause of concern.


Let’s hope Pastor Stanley’s gaffe is a prompt for something good.