“How do we attract young families?” Congregations ask. How tightly we cling to the illusion that scores of young families are out there searching for a church home; if we can only attract them to our church, all our problems would be solved. We will meet our congregation’s budget, expand our congregation’s pool of volunteers, and prolong our congregation’s life. So the church is on a quest for the perfect program and congregations seek to call the right pastor to attract young families. When young families don’t show up, congregations pin the blame on the pastor or the denomination rather than face the sobering truth that attracting children, youth, and young families is difficult and complicated and will not solve our problems.
There Aren’t Scores of Young Families
For starters, there are not scores of young families searching for a church home. Michigan’s population is aging while the number of births in our state declines. Michigan has more than 2 million residents over age 60, representing about 25% of the state’s population, and 37% of Michigan residents are 50 and older. Michiganders 85 and older are the fastest-growing age group of all. Our state also has one of the top 15 oldest populations in the nation.
Simultaneously, Michigan holds the second highest drop in the annual number of births since 2000. While the nation has experienced a 5% drop, Michigan’s loss approaches 20% (-24,745 births). Only Illinois has fared worse. Michigan had about 153,000 births in 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. Births dropped to 136,000 in 2000 and 114,000 in 2010. In 2017, the last year data is available, Michigan had about 111,000 births.
We experience this decline in closed maternity wards in northern Michigan, sinking school enrollments throughout the state, and certainly in the absence of children in worship. The last time so few babies were born in Michigan was 1944, when the state had about half as many residents as it does today. The trend is not likely to change unless lots of people decide to move to Michigan and have children. Regrettably, each year, 60,000 more people move from Michigan than to Michigan; most of them are younger with an above average education.
In an article for Second Wave Michigan, Erick Guthrie, Michigan’s official demographer, observes, “You can draw a diagonal line across the state starting at the crook of the thumb (a line that would include Bay City, Midland and Mt. Pleasant), and almost everything north is in natural decline (more deaths than births) already. Over the next decade, that line is going to creep south. Over the next 10-20 years, the entire state will have more deaths than births.”
If Michigan’s population is both aging and declining, declining congregations may not be the fault of the pastor or program, but the reality of the communities in which they are located. Like aging individuals and their families, church families may need to decide how they will negotiate their aging congregation. Will congregations deny their age? Will congregations become more “age friendly?” Will congregations acknowledge there are things they can no longer do? How will congregations weigh quality versus quantity of church life? Can they fathom leaving home and coming together with another congregation to preserve or enhance their quality of church life?
Young Families Are Staying Home – Even from School
To further complicate the matter, absenteeism in schools, what in my day we called “skipping school” or truancy, increased to an alarming rate since the pandemic. Nationwide, the rate of chronic absenteeism — defined as missing at least 10% of school days or 18 in a year — nearly doubled between 2018-19 and 2021-22, to 28% of students, according to Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford. Michigan’s rate was 39%, the third highest in the country. If parents are not sending their children to school, it is likely that they will not bring them to church, regardless of how good the pastor or program is.
The consequences of absenteeism from school include falling school achievement, deteriorating mental health, social isolation, and elevated youth violence. Less obvious, but equally important, school is where children are awakened to the world’s opportunities, learn how to be productive citizens and, for some, find a daily routine and regular meals.
Can we name the consequences of absenteeism from church? When Jesus is explicitly the heart of a congregation’s life, the losses include children hearing regularly that God loves them unconditionally, values them immeasurably, and provides a community in which they belong, no matter what. They are not taught the stories of scripture, especially the good news of Jesus, as their “family stories” that provide meaning and direction for their lives. They are not helped to embrace a way of life that exhibits love of God and neighbor and will sustain them in difficult times; acting as Christians on Sunday tends to make us better people during the week. Church can be a safe place where children come to appreciate music and exercise leadership. When congregations are healthy, families experience the fun of church life that reinforces belonging and commitment.
The reasons for truancy are numerous. During the pandemic, the suspension of in-person instruction for online education had the unanticipated consequence of rendering school less serious and therefore less important. Since the pandemic, many schools continue to offer online classes and material – and so do many churches. Is it possible that online worship has made going to church less serious and therefore less important? The slope from in-person to virtual to nothing at all can get very slippery. The church needs to consider whether online worship has this same unanticipated consequence as online education.
Thanks to online school, parents were delivered from dragging kids out of bed before daybreak, wrestling them into proper clothes, and getting them to the bus stop while trying to get to work. If parents don’t want that struggle for school, they’re certainly not going to undertake it again for church. Once children get to school or church, they face the discipline needed to sit through a school day or be on good behavior in a worship service. Rather than engaging in the struggle, many families now claim Sunday morning as “family time,” time to be at home, to relax, and to do things together. Congregations that want to attract young families need to decide whether they can provide family-friendly alternatives to Sunday morning and perhaps modify their expectations of acceptable behavior.
As some congregations know, sometimes kids stay home because they lack school clothes and school supplies. How can congregations better address those needs? And how can the congregations change their expectations of what it takes for families to come to church and lovingly communicate those changes to young families?
Attracting Young Families
Experts conclude that families need help to rebuild the habit of going to school. How much more do families need help to rebuild the habit of going to church, which, in fact, may not be a manner of rebuilding but of trying something new. Congregations desiring to attract young families should decide how they can and will be helpful. Here are 10 steps you might take.
- Decide how your congregation will participate in helping to rebuild the habit of returning to school. Discover whether absenteeism is a concern in your community. Some congregations might provide school supplies and clothes. Others might offer after school study and tutoring. Still others might decide to provide direct support to teachers. Reach out to a school near your church and ask what you can do to help.
- Decide whether your congregation truly desires young families to come to your church. Parents today do not want to drop their kids off in the nursery; ask them to do so and they are likely to leave. Young families bring noise to worship and leave Cheerios in the pew. If young families are going to volunteer, it will be a while before they do. Congregations also need to consider what they are willing to change, let go of, and give up to attract young families.
- Consider whether your congregation is better suited to become “age friendly” and attract seniors. Some experts contend that, except for their grandchildren, many seniors prefer not to worship with the noise and chaos that children sometimes bring. Only large congregations appear to be able to attract both seniors and young families simultaneously.
- Determine whether there are, in fact, children and young families in your neighborhood and community to attract to your church. Research your community’s demographics, including school enrollment. Consider the ministries to young families of neighboring congregations. Are there enough young families in the neighborhood to support more than one congregation’s ministry?
- Treat young families as gifts entrusted to your congregation by God rather than as resources that will serve your congregation. “At that same hour Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will’” (Luke 10:21). Jesus does more than command that disciples must not hinder children from coming to him. Jesus makes children a model for adults. Jesus set a child in the midst of the people as an example (Matthew 18:2-5; Mark 9:36-37; Luke 9:46-47). Jesus teaches that unless we turn and become like children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17). Welcome children and those who bring them as our teachers. Expect nothing from young families and be open to and surprised by what you receive.
- If you want children and young families to come to your church, go to where children and young families live their lives. Public school activities such as sports games, plays, and band concerts are a place to start. The pastor cannot do this alone. A relationship with the pastor does not automatically transfer or extend to the congregation. Seniors sitting in the stands wearing church t-shirts and cheering while expecting nothing in return is powerful for families whose grandparents may live far away.
- Help families connected to the congregation reinforce the habit of coming to church. Phone calls, emails, cards, and texts are all appropriate means. The approach must be genuinely loving rather than judgmental and certainly not judgmental dressed up as loving.
- In time, visit young families at home in such a way that they experience love rather than judgment. These visits are not just the pastor’s responsibility. Again, a relationship with a pastor does not automatically extend or transfer to a congregation. Share the story of Jesus. Ask about the family’s desires and needs and how the congregation might help to meet them. Ask to pray with the family.
- Provide opportunities to participate in the congregation and ways of connecting to the congregation that cater to young families. Do not ask the young families you are trying to attract to develop the program and take charge of it.
- When you know a young family, and they have become part of the congregation, invite them into service and leadership.
If this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. It is a lot of work. This is not a “quick fix” for congregations seeking money and volunteers. Each step takes at least a couple of months to organize, a few months more to implement, and some steps, like going where young families are, are ongoing. Congregations are therefore wise to consider whether they have the commitment, energy, and resources to undertake this work.
The Rev. Craig Alan Satterlee, Ph.D., Bishop
 Estelle Slootmaker and Patrick Dunn. Special report: Michigan prepares for a rapidly aging population by becoming more “age-friendly.” Second Wave Michigan. April 27, 2023. Run French. “’Where Have All The Babies Gone?’ Michigan births lowest since 1944.” Bridge Michigan. March 11, 2019.
 Alec MacGillis. “Skipping School: America’s Hidden Education Crisis.” ProPublica. January 12, 2024.