By Garrett Best
I need the past to ground me. I am often tempted to think that the challenges and experiences I face are somehow unique. In one sense, they are. But, the more I read from the past, the more I realize that there truly is “nothing new under the sun.” Most of the issues we face in the church today have been debated in the past. Lately, I have been concerned why so many of my fellow Millenials are not in church. Why is the youth leaving our churches after high school? Why are our worship services not connecting with them? What can we do about it?
I was reading through the May issue of the 1886 Christian Evangelist journal. An article entitled “Our Young People” on pg. 322 by J.H. Garrison caught my eye. I want to share that article with you. Some points you will probably find more relevant today than others.
It begins, “There are many congregations which are composed almost entirely of the middle aged, or old men and women. No children are present at the Lord’s day services, and it is rare to see those that are young. From some cause the church seems to have lost its hold, even upon the children of its own families. It seems probable that when the faithful old veterans, who have stood at their post through good and evil report, have paid the debt of nature, the candlestick will be removed. This has been the fate of too many churches.”
“Such a state of things prevails too widely, and is lamentable. It is a prophecy of evil for the next generation. Nine-tenths of all the conversions are made before men have reached middle life. The world must be saved by saving the young. The church is the instrumentality God has appointed to save each neighborhood. If it fails to reach the young it signally fails to fulfill the trust committed to its charge. It behooves each congregation where the condition exists which we have described to carefully search out the causes.”
Garrison lays out some causes of the problem and some proposed solutions:
- “Many Christian parents do not encourage their children to attend the services of the church.” When children form the habit of being away from the church, it is no surprise that they will not want to be a part of a church. “Parents! help your children to form the habit of going up to the house of God.”
- “Some seem to think that the Sunday-school is a sufficient substitute for church attendance on the part of the young.”
- “The objection is made that the regular services do not interest the young. That is often too true. All is rigid as if cast in an iron mold. The songs are lifeless; the sermon long and prosy and above the understanding of the young. If they are compelled to attend they are doomed to the torture of sitting still for an hour and a half or two hours, without a single green oasis to relieve the dry Sahara of tediousness. No wonder they want to escape the torture… If the services do not interest the young there is something wrong.”
- “When we have the diagnosis of the disease the remedy will be more easily found. If the young stay away from the Lord’s house, because they are not interested, it seems certain that the methods ought to be changed.” Garrison believed that the long, wordy sermons were one of the main causes of children losing interest at church. He pointed to the example of Jesus, “He talked to the people. He talked in plain and simple style. He was a converser rather than an orator. He used simple illustrations and told simple stories. He adopted the means that were requisite to reach the people, old as well as young.” He said, “Fine orations, or profound logical sermons are not what is needed. The young like the music, the songs; they do not dread short fervent prayers; but when the sermon begins they assume the air of social resignation to a hard fate, and when it is ended they draw a sigh of relief. We need such a change in the nature of the sermon that this dread will give place to eagerness to hear.” Garrison believed there were congregations that were successful in reaching the younger generation. He believed the sermon should be shorter and simple to understand. “A half hour sermon of such a character that all listen to and all understand is better than ten thousand words in a tongue unknown to two-thirds of the audience.” He said, “It will not do to follow stereotyped methods. The great end is to reach, instruct, and save the people, old and young.”
As I was reading this, I couldn’t believe it was written in 1886. There really is nothing new under the sun. Even then, the church struggled with the disappearance of young people and debated how best to win them back. Those from our past remind us that it is incumbent upon every generation of Christians to discover how best to pass the Christian faith on to the next generation.