An in-depth look at how the church is failing to reach kids in poverty[dropcap]T[/dropcap]oday’s church is missing one of society’s most vulnerable groups; poor uneducated kids.
Tragically, this growing segment in America is the very same group of people who most need help and hope from churches, yet the church is losing contact with them faster than any other population group.
Recent research reveals a trend that poor, uneducated kids are most disconnected from religious institutions. We at Transform Minnesota believe Christian leaders need to pay special attention to these kids.
What worked for evangelicals to reach kids from a suburban middle-class upbringing, left poorer kids in the inner city behind.
According to Harvard Sociologist and New York Times Bestselling author Robert Putnam, nowadays, poor families are generally less involved in religious communities than affluent families, and the involvement gap is growing with poor kids losing involvement with church faster.
Since the evangelical boom of the 1970s and 1980s, weekly church attendance has fallen twice as fast among kids from the lower third of the socioeconomic hierarchy as among kids from the upper third, Putnam writes in his book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.”
“Evangelicals grew by having a seeker approach. But most of the areas where the well-resourced church programs are located are not easy for poor kids to get to,” said Carl Nelson, CEO of Transform Minnesota.
The Church has to go to them. We can’t expect poor kids to find their way to our buildings, especially churches that aren’t accessible to impoverished areas.
According to Pastor Luke Swanson, lead pastor at Community Covenant Church in North Minneapolis, “It used to be if mom wasn’t taking kids to church, grandma was. But we’re not seeing grandma anymore.”
We often feel like we need to wait until kids showed up at church, but we need to get out into the community.
Swanson believes the church has stopped being intentional in getting kids to church.
“We often feel like we need to wait until kids showed up at church, but we need to get out into the community,” he said.
So Swanson and Community Covenant Church have adjusted the way they reach out to youth.
“We just bring kids from the neighborhood to church first, then we get parent’s approval. We first reach out to the kids and sometimes the parents will follow,” said Swanson.
The doors of Community Covenant are flung wide open for youth, they attract the neighborhood kids by offering art classes, knitting clubs, sports and choir.
Pastor Joe Sutton, of Minneapolis Believers in Christ Church, also reaches out to kids and teens through his program, Three Deep Leadership Academy. He believes his mission on the Northside is to raise up the next generation of pastors and leaders by providing leadership training, ACT prep courses, and summer sports camps for hundreds of young people.
Bridging the Funding Gap through Partnerships[dropcap]T[/dropcap]here is a huge resource gap, which limits many inner city churches abilities to reach youth living in poverty. Almost half of Sutton’s church budget goes to youth missions work.
By investing in the next generation I am working to raise up my future board members.
“It’s very hard to fund urban ministries, we don’t have powerful board members who can fundraise for us. By investing in the next generation I am working to raise up my future board members,” said Sutton.
Although very grateful for donations of any amount, Pastor Swanson said Community Covenant Church doesn’t have the resources all the time, and has to look beyond his community for support.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for generous people outside of the community. I have grandmas bringing in $10 a week, but we can’t run a ministry only off that,” said Swanson.
Community Covenant Church has found a revolutionary solution to their financial woes by teaming up with more prosperous Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. Rather than send another missionary to Africa, Wooddale’s missions pastor Richard Payne offered to pay half the salary of an inner city youth pastor for five years.
“They realized they wanted to do something in their own backyard, in North Minneapolis,” said Swanson.
…when we come together around issues of disparity, especially around children, it’s more effective.
In the inner city, Swanson believes collaborating with churches outside of the area can revive many failing ministries. He points to his partnerships with Hospitality House Youth Development, Young Life, and through hosting a Vacation Bible School with Sanctuary Covenant Church, also in North Minneapolis.
“If you’re trying to spearhead ministries on your own, and save the world on your own, you’ve got a tough hill to climb; but when we come together around issues of disparity, especially around children, it’s more effective,” said Swanson.
At Transform Minnesota we encourage churches to follow this model of missions work. If you are willing to contribute towards how God is working in places other than your own congregation, we will help you facilitate a partnership between congregations that have a lot of resources and those that don’t.
“We know not all churches are prosperous, we have to move past caring only about our local congregations. Refusing to address the financial disparity between our churches, will fail to make the Kingdom of God stronger,” said Nelson.
Looking Outside the Local Church
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]t Transform Minnesota we believe failing to reach out to youth in poverty and focusing only on the people inside our church buildings could be devastating to the spread of the gospel.
We’ll have an out-of-touch gospel if we continue this trajectory…
“We will end up with churches preaching good stuff, but that’s irrelevant to the people in our society who are the most vulnerable, neglected, and needing of help,” said Nelson. “We’ll have an out-of-touch gospel if we continue this trajectory of being disconnected from the growing number of poor kids in our society.”
If churches don’t take care of other churches, we are not serving each other as our brothers and sister in Christ.
“Churches are even not taking care of churches in their own denomination,” said Pastor Sutton. “We’ll treat a foreign church like a mission field, but not one in America. Not every church in America is prosperous,” said Sutton.
Sutton says other faiths are taking care of their own, better than Christians in America do; pointing to the way Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) invests millions of dollars updating mosques in the inner city, to look appealing to Muslims looking for a house of worship.
Community Covenant Church has a long history of trying to be attentive to the needs of the nearby community not just its own congregants, especially the children.
“Who does the world’s injustices fall most heavily on, those who don’t have the power to stand up and fight for themselves, children. And children are the least responsible for the world’s injustices,” said Pastor Swanson.
And although reaching out to poor kids is the calling of his church, he says it’s still a struggle; these kids come to his church without their basic needs met like food, clothes, and rides.
“It’s a lot harder lived out. I just don’t have a lot of workers in the harvest,” said Swanson.
Training the Next Generation[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he gradual drift of low-income people petering away from the church happened over multiple decades, so Sutton believes the solution is multi-generational.
Through Three Deep Leadership Academy, Pastor Joe Sutton believes if he empowers today’s youth to get an education and develop a spiritual foundation, they’ll make something of themselves and come back to North Minneapolis ready to mentor the next flock of youth.
“We’ve gotten away from training the next generation, everybody wants to do their own thing and build their own kingdom,” said Pastor Sutton.
Swanson said 50 years after his church was one of the first churches to offer early childhood programs in North Minneapolis, kindergarten readiness is still one of the greatest needs today.
We’ve gotten away from training the next generation, everybody wants to do their own thing and build their own kingdom.
But education alone won’t solve everything. Youth need a more holistic approach, and churches need to focus on advancing their spiritual formation.
“A lot of times we’re talking about education with kids, and we need to be talking about training. We’re trying to instill values of grace, forgiveness, justice, hope, and at the top of that list is a culture of worship,” said Pastor Swanson.
Joe Sutton and Luke Swanson are just two ministry leaders working with youth living in poverty. Often times the best way for a church to help is to follow the lead of a ministry already serving poor kids. If you would like to find out ways to serve beside them or help resource what they are doing, contact Transform Minnesota.
Read more on how Christian leaders are collaborating to discuss and work on this issue at the Catholic-Evangelical Summit on Overcoming Poverty in Washington D.C. on May 12:
Watch Video of the Summit