22 March 2023

So, your teenager no longer wants to come to church?

You're dealing with seemingly a crisis of faith. What do you do?
Youth minister Jimmy Young works through some steps to responding well. Picture: iStock

By Jimmy Young

17 October 2022

Welcome to “Curly Questions” a monthly column written by experts dealing with tricky conversations that touch on faith, in a compassionate, practical and biblical way. 

So, your teenager no longer wants to come to church?  

You’ve tried your best to faithfully raise them, shown them the Bible, taught them to pray, brought them along (sometimes kicking and screaming) on Sunday, and now you’re dealing with seemingly a crisis of faith. What on earth do you do?  

First, a moment to pause. Hearing the news that your teen is no longer keen on attending church can feel like a personal attack, particularly if you didn’t see it coming. In those moments it’s easy to be snarky, defensive or dismissive and shut down future conversations.

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The most helpful thing to do might simply be to thank them for telling you and ask whether you could have a conversation with them another time once you’ve thought about what they’ve said.  

Then, pray for yourself and them. This seems like Christian 101, but it’s also likely the thing that we move past quickly. I’ve always loved John Calvin’s saying that by prayer we “reach those riches which are laid up for us in the Heavenly Father”. This situation may seem overwhelming to you but it is not overwhelming to God. Prayer reminds us that our lack of control does not mean that things are out of control, so spend time with God in prayer.

After this, ask curious questions. One of the most helpful things we can do with our teenagers is to ask them to fill in the gaps for us. We’ve all sat through services that felt like full days, but, for whatever reasons, we’ve stuck it out. What is going on for your child that means they would rather stay home? Do they feel accepted at the church? Is it to do with the preaching? Is it hard to understand? Are there people they connect with? The aim is not to solve their issues at this moment but to connect with them and be curious.

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And, advocate for them. In most churches, teenagers have very little influence. They don’t pick the music, they are not the target audience for the sermons and they don’t sit on parish councils. They need advocates to make sure that their concerns are heard and listened to. By virtue of your conversation asking questions, you can advocate for them and their concerns. Churches are not always that quick to change, but I’ve found a helpful question is to ask others “What would you change about their church if it meant you could sit next to your son, daughter, or grandkids every Sunday?” 

But also, challenge your child. My dear old mum had a classic saying growing up whenever my brother or I would complain of being bored: “If you’re bored, it’s probably because you’re being boring”. Harsh, but fair. Sitting in church as a passive spectator is far more boring than being an active participant. Can you challenge your teenager? Could they join the music team, the sound desk, the welcomers, the morning tea? Could you challenge them to sing louder than anyone else? Could you challenge them to tell the preacher three things they found interesting and three they didn’t understand about the sermon? Having something to do every Sunday is far better than sitting and wishing the service was over already.

This advice is not a surefire way to get your teen back through the front door of a church, but I am certain that a teenager who has been connected with, advocated for, prayed over and even challenged to be more engaged stands a much greater chance. I know it helped me.  

Jimmy Young is an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, a fourteen year veteran in youth ministry and is praying for many more years talking about Jesus with young people.

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