Where are they?
When I popped into the local church to visit their children’s programme, the big hall was almost empty. A small group were gathered over in the corner. They looked like they were having fun - they were playing a game and it was loud and energetic. But there didn’t seem to be very many children. Where was everyone?
The sad news is that small groups like this one are a common sight in many churches on Sundays.
SUNZ has been conducting some research about churches and children and the research shows that in New Zealand, a typical Sunday programme for children will have 20 children or less in its primary aged programme. There are exceptions of course. There are a few stand-out big churches. But most churches, most of the time, have less than 20 children.[i]
That’s sad especially when you think about the number of children in New Zealand. We have over 750000 children[ii] and only around 10% of them will be found in church on a Sunday.
These are sobering facts and we need to have a good hard look at them. They indicate that our churches are failing to connect with large numbers of children and families and this disconnection means a massive shift is taking place in the spiritual lives of children across New Zealand. The declining number of children in our churches has implications for the future of the church, and the lessening Christian influence in our society, along with the growing influence of other faiths and secularisation will affect the way we live.
The Bible tells us “These words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up”. (Deuteronomy 6:6–7 NKJV)
We know these words and many of us take them very seriously. Yet in spite of all the effort we put into the children’s ministries, our children just seem to grow out of faith instead of into it. It’s like they learn the stories and make friends but they don’t actually engage with God and they drift away from church as soon as they get old enough to be allowed to.
We have to think about how we are going to retain the children who are already part of our churches. If we want children to develop into mature disciples connected and contributing in their faith community, then we need to be a lot more intentional about what we are doing. We must look for where God is at work and come alongside and help the connection between the child and God grow and deepen into a relationship that is for them at the ages they are now, and a relationship that they will carry with them their whole lives long.
But we must also consider those children who never come near the church. We need to ask ourselves how we can reach out into the community around us and connect these children and their families with the love of God in ways that are meaningful and life giving to them.
Take the time to think about these statistics. Let them speak to you.
They are important but thinking about them probably won’t be easy. We will need to draw on the Bible and our understanding of faith development. We will want to consider child development and educational theories. And we will certainly use our knowledge of our communities and our own personal experience.
But maybe, hardest of all, we will need to be willing to think critically about things we have always done or things that were done to us. And we will need to be willing to change. Change comes hard to all of us. But unless we are willing to change, the trajectory we find ourselves on will continue with devastating results. The stakes are high.
As Rebecca Nye says:
“Failure to nurture children’s spirituality not only threatens to harm them, it has deadly consequences for us, both personally and for the church community.” [iii]
Let’s all work together and allow God to use us in new ways to make a difference for the sake of our children and for the future of the church.
If you would like a copy of our research,
you can download a free ebook here on our website: www.sunz.org.nz
Or for hard copies contact us on
0508 423 836 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[i] Research done by SUNZ shows that more than 70% of our churches have primary aged programmes of 20 children or less.
[ii] Children have been counted as 12 and under. These numbers are as of 2013. www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013
[iii] Rebecca Nye: Children’s Spirituality: what it is and why it matters. London: Church House Publishing 2009, page 21