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No Silver Bullet but Worth Trying: Can Evening Services Stop/Slow The Exodus of Young People?

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A friend and I were recently talking about Bayside Anglican Church passing through the last formal ‘hoops’ before being declared a full parish by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney. We had been talking about her experience of driving down a main arterial road in Sydney early on a Sunday evening and noticing that all the churches were closed and in darkness. My friend had heard that our church had turned the corner—primarily through planting an evening service—so I’m writing this to encourage others to try the same.

First up, let me say Bayside’s story is encouraging but not extraordinary nor remarkable. There are more exciting and significant contemporary stories of ministry among young people out there. Nevertheless, what we have done at Bayside Anglican Church has turned out to be essential and timely. It was essential to stop the exodus of young people from our church and timely for the future of our church.

Bayside’s story is encouraging but not extraordinary nor remarkable. There are more exciting and significant contemporary stories of ministry among young people out there

Late in 2016, the search committee which invited me to consider becoming the church’s Senior Minister, expressed its concern that the church was about to lose all their young people. So very soon after I accepted the position, I invited all the young people for a pizza meal with me, and a chat. I asked them to tell me what their hopes and dreams were for their church. Then I gave a simple message: “Don’t leave! Hang on for a little while longer. Developing ministry for you and your peers will be my top priority. Stay, and give me some time to work something out with you.” Within my first few weeks at the church, watching the young people sit in the last three pews during the mid-morning service, with long faces and their arms folded, it was clear to me that a separate ministry needed to be commenced ASAP. Many of them had been members of the church since they were in nappies, yet they often referred to their church as “my parent’s church”.

Experimenting

We held five experiments during 2017 to gauge what format, style and meeting time would suit our target. Saturday nights were trialled, as were Sunday nights. Early Sunday evening was the clear winner. During the trials I told the parents of the teens and young adults not to attend. Someone remarked that this was the first time they had heard a minister tell people not to come to church. It was important that we created an environment with which the young people were comfortable and could own as theirs. Having parents there (despite every good intention to help) would have made it seem just like the mid-morning service—which the young people weren’t resonating with. When I announced the ‘ban’ and saw the eyes of one of the young adults light up in delighted surprise, I knew I had scored a hit.

But it was not going to be easy. Two attempts in the previous decade had failed to establish an evening service and, even now, I am mindful that this third attempt could go the same way, and so even though we have been meeting every Sunday evening for 17 months, I don’t consider that “we are there yet”.

Nonetheless, we’ve made a good start. We rarely get less than 30 in attendance and often get over 40. It’s not easy to get a crowd in our area, but we have made a good start: according to the 2016 census 20,539 residents live within the parish boundaries of Bayside. 800 are Anglicans (3.9% of the population; down from 6% of the population in 2011). Our church is a long way from the “Bible belt”.

Counting the Cost

This strategic move has not come without cost. We lost people! It’s been an unpopular development for a significant minority of older adults, who miss the vibrancy of having younger people around on Sunday mornings. My response has been “But we were going to loose them anyway!” Some young people left too, as we raised the bar on what it means to be a Christian and a member of our church. After several months, once the evening service developed its own ‘vibe’ and the young adults felt they had ownership of the ministry, we lifted the ‘ban’ on older adults attending and now a handful of them attend regularly.

Does your church have an evening service? When a church is struggling, often it’s the first to go, but it might mean missing out on a ministry opportunity, especially with young people!

The statistical reality is that we need young people in all our churches so that all our churches have a future. The Diocese of Sydney is about to enter a couple of decades of rapid decline in church attendance. What we have witnessed elsewhere is about to hit us. That is, unless we do something about it. The rate of newcomers coming to church has been in rapid decline right across Australia, including Sydney, for the last couple of decades. A recent diocesan study showed that Sydney Anglicans improved their newcomer retention rate through the 1990’s and peaked in 2001, when 12.4% of people in Sydney Anglican churches were newcomers (‘newcomers’ joined their current church in the last 5 years and before then were not regularly attending church). Since 2001 the percentage of newcomers has been in rapid decline (7.9% in 2016, and 6.4% is projected for 2021). Please read the last two sentences again. It’s alarming.

Many churches spend their growth energy on the 40+ age group. While I believe that reaching 64-year olds with the news of eternal salvation through trusting in Jesus is very important, and should not be neglected, I believe we need to spend a disproportionate amount of ministry energy on retaining and reaching young people.

Many churches spend their growth energy on the 40+ age group. I believe we need to spend a disproportionate amount of ministry energy on retaining and reaching young people.

Take the example of Sydney Anglicans: The National Church Life Survey has shown that 76% of Sydney Anglicans state they became Christians before they reached the age of 20, and 84% state they became Christians before they reached the age of 30. It would seem that God has shaped us in such a way that we are more open to change, and more open to hear the gospel when we are young, compared to when we are old and set in our ways! Yet in many of our churches, most of the ministry effort is poured into those in the 40+ age bracket.

The statistical evidence is that seeking converts from the over 40’s is ministering in a dessert compared to the oasis of the under 30’s and especially the under 20’s. It’s not because we have done youth ministry well, and adult ministry with mediocrity, it’s just the way God has shaped us.

What’s at Stake?

Why is ministry to young important? For the same reasons as ministry to adults is important. Young people who are outside of Christ spend eternity in hell. We don’t want that for them. So we seek to share Jesus with as many of them as possible in the prayer that those who God has chosen before the world was created will respond with faith and obedience when they hear the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Why else it is important? It’s also important for the future of your church! It’s a no brainer! No kids, no youth, no future!

Why else is ministry to young people important for any church or denomination? Our future ministers will come from their ranks! Suitably gifted young people are the ideal pool from which to recruit for ministry! The Bible tells us not to be hasty in the laying on of hands. Leaders need time to develop. So, for the sake of our recruitment needs into the future, we need a large pool of young people from which those leaders will arise. Could it be that the decline in numbers training at theological colleges is a result of shrinking youth and young adult ministries?

The recent welcomed growth at Bayside Anglican Church follows a few years of declining Sunday attendance, and comes largely as a result of the establishment of a Sunday evening congregation. The dream, based on demographic changes in the Bayside area, and the hopes of many of the church members, is to be a much larger church. Our church believes, like Jesus does, that every individual person matters to God, and so every individual matters to us. We also believe, as Jesus does, that our ministry focus needs to be both inward and outward. Inward because we all need to grow in Christian maturity, and we need to support and care for one another. Outwards because there are many people within a driving radius of Bayside church that are facing an awful eternity if they do not have Jesus as both their Lord and Saviour.

Under God, we pray that the new youth-focused evening service will be part of that. Maybe, if your church doesn’t have an evening service, it’s worth asking if it should?


For another perspective on generational ministry, see “Are Your Church Structures Undermining the Gospel?

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