Five ways to make your church more youth-friendly (without putting the older people off)

Our churches are ageing, and I'm not just talking about the buildings. It's hardly revelatory to point out that the average church is seeing fewer and fewer young people in its congregation. A combination of factors, from the increase in school pressures and entertainment options to the decline in specialist youth workers, means that many churches struggle to attract anyone under 25 who isn't being dragged there by a parent. But if the Body is weak in this regard, in most cases the spirit is still more than willing. We'd love to see teenagers in our churches; we're just not sure how on earth to get them there.

Perhaps the first step we need to take in attracting more young people to church, is to try to make our churches a bit more attractive. Or at least to become aware of, and begin to dismantle, some of the natural barriers that prevent them from feeling like a church is a place in which they can belong. However, when we make changes to engage one group of people better, we inevitably risk creating barriers for another. It's a tightrope, but it's one worth walking; here are a few ideas for how to make your church feel more welcoming to young people, which won't put the rest of the congregation's nose out of joint...

1. Explain everything

It's a simple place to start, but one of the biggest reasons why young people won't feel a sense of belonging in a church is if they don't understand what's going on. This especially applies to young people who haven't grown up in or around the church; to them our traditions are bizarre and need a bit of explaining. So do that, and don't stop doing so. It's one of the things that the Soul Survivor youth festivals – which attract more than 20,000 young people each Summer – get right; even though the event looks very similar every year, the leaders always work hard to explain the rituals, routines and idiosyncrasies of what are essentially huge church services. By doing so – and when we do so in our local contexts – we move young people from feeling like they're on the outside of something strange, to being included and valued.

2. Don't point them out

As a service leader, you notice a rare joy: a group of teenagers who've somehow found their way into the back row of your church. You think: it would be really encouraging to them if I make a special point of welcoming them from the front. In no circumstances do this; if you do it's possible you'll have them reeling for the exit within moments. It's not good to generalise too much about the teenage years, but in many cases they're a period of insecurity where the last thing you want is a room full of people looking at you. So by all means make them feel welcome and say hello in person, but don't turn them into a public spectacle.

3. Embrace the smartphone

If you're a preacher you'll probably find this particularly counter-intuitive; especially if you've experienced the frustration of presenting a well-crafted sermon to a room full of people who are staring at the screen in their hands throughout. To young people though, the mobile phone isn't just an accessory – it's much more like an extra limb. So instead of asking your congregation to switch off their phones, why not encourage them to make use of them in a complimentary way? Young people growing up in a culture where a secondary screen is a natural part of the way they process ideas and stories; that's why social media goes crazy during TV reality shows. So encourage them to use a Bible app; to take notes on their phone, or even Instagram their favourite quotes from the sermon. Giving permission to include technology in this way can help limit the threat that it will simply become a distraction.

4. Use story

Young people love listening to and engaging with stories. That's why TV and cinema are both enjoying something of a Golden Age; it's also why so much of our current popular music has replaced vacuous lyrics about imaginary love with genuine storytelling. So make sure church is a place where young people are given an opportunity to hear really good stories. In part that's achieved in the way we handle the Bible and help them to see the extraordinary sweep of the Scriptural narrative; in part it's about making sure that our leaders and preachers make an effort to connect the Biblical story with the stories of our culture.

5. Give them causes

This generation of young people is marked by their commitment to activism and the fight against injustice. They're idealistic, they're motivated, and they were born into a world which has come to realise its many flaws. The average church is usually already involved in campaigning, serving the poor, and making a positive difference to the local community. So don't be quiet about the fact – give them a chance to hear about your overseas mission partners, your night shelter or your food bank, and give them an opportunity to get involved! And going a step further, could you even listen to them, and ask them what they think the church should be getting involved in? Young people are often the prophetic leaders of movements of justice; there's no reason why that can't be true of the teenagers in your church.

There are a whole list of other things you might think about changing, but which in my experience both alienate older congregants and don't make much of a difference to young people. So don't try too hard to use youth-relevant language (which has almost certainly changed since you last checked), and don't go to pains to update your worship from Hymns Ancient & Modern to a Hillsong/Bethel mashup, especially if your worship group isn't mainly made up of session musicians. Instead, focus on creating an authentic home for young people where they're truly welcome. Make what you do clear, and don't patronise them; acknowledge their culture and engage their sense of activism. Doing so will make them feel much more at home than trying to jazz up the service a bit, and you might just avoid alienating the rest of the congregation, too.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders