Quite a few things have changed since the Rev. Scott Hearn was in church at Belvedere United Methodist in Decatur in the 1970s. He was young then, and said he went to church and Sunday school on Sunday mornings, choir practice on Sunday afternoons, youth group in the evenings and Bible study on Wednesdays.
He didn’t have much of a choice. It was “just what you did.”
He said those days are long gone, though. Now getting young people to church is a one-shot affair since they have a number of choices when it comes to how to best spend their time. Keeping them in church has been increasingly harder — but, he said, not as bad as believed.
“You have very limited opportunity,” said Hearn, now senior pastor at Gainesville First United Methodist Church. “I mean now, if somebody comes to church twice a month, that’s a huge win, where before, you came all the time.”
That’s why holidays like Easter are important to the church. Hearn said First UMC tries to offer as many outreach opportunities for the community and be as visible as possible so young people can get to know the church during those times.
He quoted the Bible verse John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”
Hearn keeps that verse in mind, remembering it’s all in God’s hands when it comes to reaching young people. But he still faces the reality of maintaining the church’s relevance.
The way a message is presented can determine if visitors come back.
“I think we have to remain on point with our message, don’t get cute, but make it relevant to their lives and what’s going on with them,” Hearn said.
Having a ministry that reaches middle and high school students is an essential part of keeping young people in church. The Rev. Jamie Willis is student pastor at Lakewood Baptist Church, which puts a lot of emphasis on its youth ministry by making sure there are opportunities for students to get involved and find community within the church.
“I think one of the things I realized a while back was that we really can’t compete with the glitz and glamour of the world,” Willis said. “We have great stuff, great facilities and all that, but I think what most people are looking for is authenticity, and they’re looking for community.”
Lakewood has many different ways students can get involved, ranging from large group meetings on Wednesday nights to smaller discipleship group meetings other days during the week.
Much like Hearn, though, it all comes back to how young people decide to spend their time. Willis said he didn’t have nearly as many options when he was younger. But now, young people have almost unlimited options to occupy their time. Thus a church must work to keep them involved.
Social media is one way churches try to stay connected with youth, and Corinth Baptist Church does it pretty well. As social media has developed, Corinth has been able to interact with students better, something Jarrett Thompson, a 10th-grader at Chestatee High, really enjoys.
He said Corinth’s activity on applications like Snapchat and Instagram has definitely made a difference. He’s seen the number of students going to the church almost double since he’s been there.
“I’ve definitely seen a lot of people coming,” said Thompson, who has been going to Corinth for about two years. “Now, all our chairs are usually full whenever we go.”
He grew up going to church but stopped going when he was in middle school. Eventually, a friend asked him to go to Corinth when he was in the eighth grade, and he’s been going ever since.
“The bad part is when you get so busy, you just can’t do everything, but you try to fit it all in,” Willis said. “I think people are just getting burned out on church and school and jobs and everything else. Not that one is bad, it’s just they’re getting burned out.”
So Lakewood tries to find ways to give students opportunities “to be part of something that’s bigger than themselves,” including a yearly mission trip, typically to Guatemala. This year’s group of 31 students left on Saturday, March 31.
For both Hearn and Willis, showing young people their potential to make a difference in their community and across the world is what they believe will bring them to church and keep them involved. But it’s something they know churches have to focus on as youth face growing demands on their time.
“We don’t think of teenagers as just the future of the church. We see them very much as the present,” Willis said.