“I’m sorry, but there is nothing here for my kids.”
It is the phrase that every children’s/youth minister, director, or volunteer hopes they never hear. For that matter, nearly every member of the local church recoils when they hear it spoken aloud.
“I’m sorry, but we have decided we are going to leave the church. We love you all, but there is just nothing here for our kids.”
The phase echoes in our minds… nothing here for our kids… nothing here for our kids… nothing here for our kids…
Agitated church members retort from out of earshot, “I can’t believe that they would say that there is nothing here for their kids. We raised our kids here. Don’t they know how hard we are working to accommodate them and their children? Ungrateful is what they are.”
What Parents Are Actually Saying
But, what are parents actually saying whey they say, “I’m sorry, but there is just nothing here for our kids?”
Over the last 12 years, while working on developing the children’s and youth ministry in three small-medium sized churches, and serving as the Pastor of Discipleship of a larger mainline church overseeing the new discipleship programming, the phrase, “there is nothing here for my kids” is something that I have heard multiple times as a ministry leader. Some families are simply unable to endure the time it takes for a children’s discipleship opportunity to develop and grow.
In my conversations with parents who leave the church because they believe there is nothing for their kids in the church, parents are not saying that there are no discipleship opportunities for their kids. Instead, their comment has more to do with the relationship development potential for their children in the church.
Recently, while speaking with a family who told me that they had made the decision to leave a church because there was “nothing for their kids,” the conversation quickly turned from lack of programs, to lack of relationship. While the church offered age appropriate classes, with dedicated and trained teachers, the reality was that one of their children was often the only child in their Sunday school class. Their other child regularly was only one of three in their class.
The problem was not the program. The teachers were excellent, the curriculum was engaging and had a strong Bible base, and the classrooms were clean, hospitable, warm, and inviting. What this family openly shared was that the issue was not the program, the teachers, the rooms, or anything of that nature. The issue was the lack of relationship development for their children.
For the child who was in class by themselves, no matter how engaging the material, no matter how loving the team of teachers was, that child was still all alone in the class. In a one-on-one classroom, there is a mile of separation between the teachers and the world of a 6 year old. Three was also no place for an introverted child, no space to watch and listen because there was only one student to engage for questions and activities.
For the child in the class with two other kids, there was still a lack of community development, and energy. While many may believe that having a small group of 2-3 kids would create a deep and connected group of children, this is not the case. Consider the public school classroom.
Hypothetically, what is the likelihood that a class of 30 children will all become best friends? It is very unlikely. In fact, most kids are lucky to find 1 or 2 best friends out of 30 students in their elementary school classroom. This is not to say that these 30 kids are not friendly to each other. But, when we think about deep friendships, the relationships were kids want to spend the weekend together, these friendships can often be counted on one hand.
Not all kids like each other, or even get along well together. Friendships for kids, just like adults, often begin with shared interests and hobbies. In church, just like in school, some kids will not get along. They will simply tolerate each other. If you disagree with this truth, think about the people in your congregation that you simply tolerate.
Getting back on point, when this family told me that they were leaving the church because there was “nothing there for their kids,” what they were really saying was that their children were not able to build the deep spiritual relationships that they wanted them to have because there were not enough children in the classroom. The unspoken fear was that without spiritual relationships their children would struggle to grow in their faith.
Each time I have had this conversation with a family leaving the church for their children’s sake, the conversation begins with a confession of guilt. This family felt as though they were betraying their friends and faith community. While some may say that this guilt is justified, truly what parent would not sacrifice themselves for their children?
Consider this, if you believed that transferring your child to a different school would guarantee their prosperity as an adult, would you do it? The same is true for this family. The concern was more than that of Sunday morning classes. The concern was about the children’s ability to grow into fully devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. We all know that community and relationship are an important part of our life as a disciple. How much more so for our children?
When confronted with this conversation, my pastoral response is always the same. “We are sorry to see you go. But, I am so glad that you will be going to Church Wherever, and will be continuing your journey of faith there together as a family.” You see, as a pastor, I am less concerned about the name of the church that a family attends, and more concerned with the fact that they are involved in a faith community. Because a win for the Church is a win for the kingdom, and that is what matters to me.
A family who leaves one church for another because of the opportunities for their children should not be shunned by the church, but instead should be prayerfully supported. We are not in competition with other churches, we all play for the same team, and our calling is the same, to make disciples of Jesus Christ, living out the great commission, and thereby see the world transformed.
4 Ways to Respond
So, how do you respond when parents announce that they are leaving to go to another
First, do not criticize their decision. It took the family weeks, months, or even years to come to this decision. The parents have held out as long as they could, waiting for improvements, or increased numbers, or something greater for their kids. Nevertheless, the time has come. They are moving on whether you like it or not. You get to set the mood of their departure.
Second, do not take it personally. The decision to move from your church to another has nothing to do with your love for their kids, or your desire to serve, or your ability to inspire young lives. As hard as it may be to accept, it is not about you, it is about the kids, and the parent’s decision for what they believe is best for their life of faith.
Third, support their faith journey. As scripture says, some plant, some water, and others harvest. You have planted and watered seeds of faith in their children and have played a vital role in their faith development. Recognize that you have made a significant difference in their lives. Pray for them as they move on to the next step of their faith journey just as you would if they were moving to another city or community.
Fourth, do not try to talk them out of leaving. Guilt is not, and has never been, an effective tool for ministry. The parents did not need to tell you that they were leaving, but cared enough for you and the church to be honest with you. Honor that, and let them depart with your support, not with looks of guilt and disappointment. They are not leaving the church because they are turning away from God. They are leaving the church because they desire more for their children’s faith life.
A Note on Leaving
If you are a family in a small church, please understand that I am not saying that you should leave your church if the Sunday school class size is small. What I am saying is that if you feel God leading your family to another church, for the sake of your children’s spiritual development you should activity discern God’s leading in your life.
Moving churches simply to move is not the same as following God’s leading in your life. As you open yourself to God and discern God’s leading, listen to what you are hearing. God may be telling you to move on, or God may be saying stay the course. The Holy Spirit is at work in our lives all the time, and we must listen and obey. Pray about it, search the scriptures, open yourself to God’s leading, and don’t forget to talk to your children about their faith development. As a parent, you are uniquely qualified to assess where your children are spiritually as you are actively involved in their faith development.
Just because a Sunday school class is small that doesn’t me that it is not vital and thriving. Each situation is different, just as each church is different. The critical mass needed to have a vibrant, energizing, thriving faith formation experience is different with each grouping of kids.
3 Ways To Better Retaining Kids and Families
What can the church do to better retain young families so that there is “something” for their kids?
Make Families a Priority. It is one thing to say that families are a priority, it is something else entirely to actively put families first. Whether they are a baptized member or a professing member, kids and youth are not the future of the church, they are the church now, the church today. If ministry to families is a part of your church’s mission to make disciples, then discipleship of kids and youth should not be an afterthought but should be in the forefront of your mission and vision of the church.
Kids and youth do not need to be tolerated in worship, they need to participate in worship and be engaged. If worship is boring to you, how do you think the kids feel? It is not about entertainment, it is about engagement. If you want to know if your current families feel like they are a priority in the church, simply ask them. You would be amazed at what you will learn when you set your assumptions aside, and simply ask. Another simple diagnostic is to look at the church budget, this will give you an idea of where the priorities in your church truly lie.
Group by Class Size, Not Age. Most purchased curricula are organized into age groups assuming you have full class sizes. Our first instinct is to offer age groups for every age. However, there is a critical mass necessary to have thriving discipleship with kids. If you have classes with fewer than six participants, you lack a critical mass for relationship development, and energy, which is necessary for a thriving discipleship and faith formation event for kids. Six or more kids allows for kids to pair off, it’s enough for two groups, and it provides enough room for an introverted child to watch and listen, and an extroverted child to talk and connect.
So if you have less than six kids consider moving toward multi-age groups, at least until you have more kids involved. This means that you will also have to reconsider your age appropriate lesson plans because one size does not fit all. Consider simplifying the lessons and focus primarily on sharing a Bible story, then have some activates around it, and you can reach any age child, youth or adult. It is the stories of our faith that grow into our lives of faith.
However, remember that 6th graders will not learn or interact the same as 1st graders. So, if your attendance numbers are such that you only have a one room school house, it may be better to look at multi-generational groups instead, which would allow the kids you have to be involved and integrated with the adult discipleship program. You may think that kids would be unable to contribute in an adult conversation, but great spiritual growth can come from kids and adults sharing their faith together, and teaching each other. Yes, adults can learn from kids just as kids can learn from adults. So, do not rule out multi-generational opportunities instead of the one room schoolhouse approach.
Connect Faith and Family. While we want to believe that our discipleship and faith formation programs are the primary source of our children’s faith formation, the reality is that this is not the case. At the very best, as a church, we have 52 hours of contact a year for faith formation, one hour a week. Our influence is very limited. Parents have exponentially more opportunity to feed into the faith life of their children than faith communities have to influence kids.
Since parents have far more influence on their children’s faith lives, it seems unthinkable to ignore the greatest faith building resource kids have, their parents. If you truly want to see the faith of your church children grow exponentially then the church must help connect faith formation and the home. To do this, find ways to communicate what the children are learning to the parents. Send home activity ideas that families can do together which reinforce concepts and lessons learned at church. Encourage parent to be involved so that faith is not simply something learned about on Sunday, but is something lived every day of the week. The focus should not be on one hour on Sunday morning, but on the 167 hours a week families spend outside of the Sunday School classroom.
Twelve years of church leadership and Pastoral ministry have made one fact abundantly clear, people leave the church. People leave the church because they are upset. People leave the church because they get married and move. People leave the church because of career changes. People leave the church when they are hurt. People leave the church when things change. People leave the church when things don’t change. People leave the church when they pass on to the other side of eternity. The fact is that in any given year, people will leave your church.
The question is not if people will leave your church, the question is when. Understanding that people will leave, the question then turns to how will you respond? The way we act is only one part of how we live out our Christian calling. How we react to situations is equally as important. How will you react when someone says,
“I’m sorry, but we have decided we are going to leave the church. We love you all, but there is just nothing here for our kids.”
My prayer is that you will always show grace and love, and not part in guilty frustration. No one wants to see people leave their church, but the decision is not ours to make, it is the family’s. Leaving a church that you call home is not an easy transition to make. Often there is a fear that you will never be welcomed back again. Do not burn bridges with families that leave because your paths will intersect again someday. Love the families that leave, just as you love the families that stay, because we are all members of the family of God.
Jesus said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:34-35 NLT