My dream is for every church in Northern Ireland to shape their activities with the next generation in mind.

Families shape their activities around what their youngest member can do. Often when families spend quality time together, the focus will not be on the needs, desires or likes of the parents. Instead the focus will be on the youngest members of the family.

You don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains.

I now realise that when I was a child most of my parents’ decisions were taken around what suited my sister and I.

  • Mum and Dad didn’t choose fine dining restaurants or the most expensive places for us to eat, but most of the time we ended up either in McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or somewhere with a good children’s menu.
  • Our family trips to the cinema incorporated Disney classics and feel good family stories, rather than the latest Horror Blockbuster or the recent crude comedy.
  • The choice of music on long car journeys wasn’t Tschicovshy, Pavarotti, Cliff Richard or Daniel O’Donnell, but instead was a dubious mix of Psalty Kids Praise Songs, Thomas the Tank Engine stories & the commentary of the major sporting event taking place at the time.
  • Our choice of family activities were often more energetic things such as ten pin bowling, crazy golf or ice skating, rather than traipsing around a museum or marvelling at an art gallery.
  • The conversation around the dinner table didn’t revolve around politics and philosophy, but was more likely to include playground incidents and problematic friends.
  • And when we were teenagers our holidays didn’t involve lying at the side of a pool, as much as my mum would have loved that. Instead knowing how much energy I had we ended up at hotels with tennis courts, tickets to some sort of sporting event and parks with large grassy areas where I could play football with a tired dad.

You don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains

So how should it be for the family of God?

This is in no way a call for all age worship all of the time. Of course we need age-appropriate teaching, and specific space for young people to develop in their faith.

But the Jewish people believed strongly in passing on their faith to the next generation. They rightly grasped that unless they as a people effectively passed their heritage, beliefs, cultures and faith on to their children, that within one generation their whole identity as a people group would be gone. Their faith would be dead. And so they shaped everything they did around passing their faith on to their children.

That was their focus. Their priority. Their dream.

The book of Ezra beautifully portrays this dream in reality as the people of every generation come together to listen to the book of the Law being read. They followed the words of their patriarch David when he wrote: “We will tell the next generation the praise-worthy deeds of the Lord, His power and the wonders He has done.” Psalm 78:4

I dream that the church in this nation would be radically re-shaped with the next generation in mind. I believe too many decisions taken in our churches are about passifying the generation above rather than attracting the generation below

One example of this is a common approach to church music:
Sing one old hymn and a more modern number in each service
Or use the organ for half of the songs and the drums for the other half

This approach is based on a flawed principle of tokenism or the false ideal of keeping people happy. It certainly isn’t missional & it simply doesn’t work.

Consensus causes church to wait around for everyone to get on board.
Consensus doesn’t lead people anywhere.
Consensus is over-rated.
Balance is over-rated.

Of course we need to hold on to our heritage.
But we need to make sure we are holding on to the right things.

You don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains

I am part of a church that has made a conscious decision to shift its vision and it’s practice to reaching the next generation. It has led to discontent, misunderstanding and disagreements, but it has also given us clarity, focus and the tools needed to reach out to those younger than us who remain outside or on the fringes of church.

So let me share 3 key ways we are trying to do this:

We need to be prepared to not just share some of our leadership, but also give it up from time to time. We have tried to do this by:

  • Finding ways to allow younger people to lead ministry at every level
  • Letting younger leaders have a go – having them lead things, speak at the front, host gatherings, own projects
  • A focus on developing leaders in their 20s & 30s right across our church createing a pathway for the next generation to see & relate to. It is not the minister that the kids are looking to on Sunday morning – it’s the teenager leading actions or the student playing guitar

We don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains

I’m not sure why this is important but it is. Too easily we scream that it’s not about the outside when we know deep down that it does matter. Not to God, as Samuel was told, because He looks on the heart…but God also reminded Samuel that man does look on the outside. And for young people atmosphere is hugely important because it is the world they have grown up in. We have tried to do this by:

  • Transforming the look and feel of our Sunday gatherings
  • Adopting a musical style in our services that unapologetically pushes the boundaries
  • Pushing for quality in our graphics and visual representation
  • Creating spaces & using venues that young adults, students, and those younger are attracted to and are comfortable in

These might seem surface and peripheral but in a world where we now have accepted standards for what is okay, we have got to be consistent. But actually we have found that devoting time in God’s presence brings life and vibrancy to our gatherings meaning that the atmosphere goes so much deeper than it just being about a style. In the end, I think this generation just want to know that it is real. It creates an environment into which younger people want to belong.

We don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains

It has to be about church and not about young people. The whole direction is to prioritise winning the next generation to faith and discipling them within the context of church. We don’t want to encourage young people into remaining as young people or as an isolated generation. We want them to be alongside the generations. And so church has to be accessible and somewhere they can understand. We have tried to do this by:

  • Emphasising that youth stuff always has a place at the table – we try to make our church a place where kids feel like they belong.
  • Our themes and topics need to be punchy, relevant, well presented and easily understood.
  • Development of a One to One mentoring programme for older Christians to meet up with young people, supported by Exodus.
  • Investing so much time, volunteer capacity and funding towards our youth provision.
  • We choose not to run separate groups for young adults or students. Everything done in church should be accessible and relevant for this age group. Often this age group brings the most life and vitality and so they should be brought into the centre of the church.

Over the last 2 years I have most been encouraged by the increasing presence, and over time, participation of our 15-16 year olds in our evening gatherings. They have to feel it’s their church, not just the organisation attached to their YF. The onus isn’t on the young people – the onus must be on the whole church.

We don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains

In no way am I wishing to diminish the role or the place of the generations above me. On a regular basis I serve with older leaders, listen to the advice of elders, and laugh with retired friends from my small group. I am humbled by the prayers of the elderly, amazed by the generosity of faithful followers and thankful for the mentoring from those who have seen it all before.

But instead I am calling for us to release this older generation into a new dream, a fresh calling and a different reality. As role models, mentors, dreamers, providers and Patriarchs to the coming generation.

Instead I am urging us not pander to the needs of those who are older at the expense of those who are younger. If we do we may see neither of them around church in 20 years time.

So instead I am stating that my dream is for the whole church to realise their calling to reach the next generation and to shape their approach and activities around this.

Don’t expect toddlers to climb mountains