Michael Wagenman, the Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., worked with Western Campus Ministry students to gauge local churches’ experience of youth participation over the past 40 years. He shared their findings at a recent meeting of Classis Ontario Southwest.
The investigation was prompted by awareness of a national survey, conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, showing a 50% drop in church attendance in youth since 1980 ("Renegotiating Faith," 2018, p. 103). With Wagenman’s guidance, six students created and sent a brief survey to 25 churches to learn whether this trend was true for their local Christian Reformed classis and why.
The churches who responded to the survey (11 of the 25) confirmed what had been seen in the national trends and the numbers Wagenman shared in a presentation to classis show an even more dramatic decline: an average of 67% drop in youth attendance among four responding congregations.
When leaders were asked why they thought this was, many responded that they didn’t know how to engage youth or believed there was simply a lack of commitment among young people. The church leaders tend to fall into two camps, according to Wagenman: those who are meeting the drain of youth from their congregations head on, and those who are simply stymied into inaction.
Church youth were given an opportunity to respond to the survey as well. One student replied, “The church expects us to be present but doesn’t seem to be committed to welcoming us as individuals. We’re looking for a place where we can be known for who we are.” Feeling the church is inauthentic or unwelcoming were some reasons youth expressed for why they think their peers are leaving the church.
Students also expressed the desire for true community, rather than the social media groups and networking some churches use to connect to their young people. Some responding churches continue to engage youth in ways similar to those used 40 years ago, through programs like Cadets, GEMS, and Bible study groups.
Wagenman said, “We can look at the drop in attendance and get discouraged, but I see this instead as an opportunity to engage the next generation. We can transition from doing ministry for youth and young adults to doing ministry with them.” He said there is desire for authentic relationships and community-building in both church leaders and youth, and that brings with it the hope for the future.
The campus ministry-led survey was conducted between May and August 2021. Wagenman said he analyzed the results in preparation for sharing with the classis at its February meeting.
Related: Other Christian Reformed congregations have considered the 2018 Evangelical Fellowship findings, learning from the report that Connection Is Key in Renegotiating Faith (May 17, 2019).