Church growth Amish style

The number of Amish has grown 84% since 1992, to a total of some 231,000. To deal with that growth–and also to escape the suburbanization that has encroached on some of their traditional rural settlements in the Midwest–Amish are migrating, buying land, and establishing settlements in seven new states: Arkansas, Colorado, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Washington and West Virginia. See Surging Amish Spreading Out.

Why the church growth? With their rejection of automobiles, electricity, computers, and other conveniences of modern life, they aren’t winning many converts. But they have, on the average, five children per family. And though the children have a choice of whether or not to stay with the church when they grow up–getting to spend their late teen or early adult years sampling the outside world–a larger number of them, 85%, are staying with the church.

Strangely, contemporary churches don’t seem to credit bringing your children to faith as evangelism. And, sadly, many evangelicals I see who were raised in strong Christian homes and knew Christ for their whole lives sometimes doubt their salvation, not having had the dramatic conversion experience many of their friends claim. But God blesses the evangelism that takes place in vocation, and He is powerfully at work in the vocation of parents when they bring their children to Christ–via Baptism, going to church, the day to day teaching and example that goes on in ordinary families. Actually, I am pretty sure that this is the way MOST Christians have come to faith, so it is not to be despised.

What we need to work on is KEEPING young people in church. One of my students told me recently that of all the kids in his youth group–which focused on emotionalism and superficial games–he is the only one who is still in the faith. He credited his interest in apologetics and his realization that Christianity is TRUE. We need to admit that what I have called the stupid youth group tricks have failed and that we need to give our teenagers and young adults a Christianity that stands up to their lives. A good model is Higher Things.

UPDATE: By the way, I am NOT minimizing the importance of evangelizing non-believers. We need to do that. And I would say the same thing to the Amish. (I think that lame attempts to make Christianity fun are just as ineffective with non-believers as they are for youth in our church, and that presenting Christianity in its truth, in its depths, would be more effective for both.)

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://puttingoutthefire.blogspot.com Frank Gillespie

    The Higher Things model is one that we are using down my way. It takes a LOT of work to get parents who’ve for the last thirty years been told to follow the “tribe apart” model and gimmicks that rely on emotionalism model to understand that such things don’t produce young adults who want to go to church. The failure of the “tribe apart” model is not all that hard to understand as it always seems to strive to make church not look like church.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    Veith wrote: “We need to admit that what I have called the stupid youth group tricks have failed and that we need to give our teenagers and young adults a Christianity that stands up to their lives.”

    That’s a main reason we left our Evangelical megachurch for a small orthodox Lutheran church. My kids traded “Wednesday Night Live!!!” with its awesome pastor-led rock band and Alpha curriculum for a quiet and three-years long, pastor-led confirmation class which involved much study and memorization.

    Six years later, I recently received word that my old church has abandoned their fun-filled format for formal confirmation using Luther’s Small Catechism. The only sad part to that good news is that parent-demand drove both the abandonment of formal study and the return of formal study. What will the next trend bring?

    I’ve studied the topic of youth groups for a while and I think that, overall, they are not helpful to keeping youth in the church. My idea of a youth group is strong family involvement in worship, service and study. Kids need to hear their family say: This is who we are and what we do. If you aren’t standing next to your child or teen (in worship, service or study) when you say that, don’t bother saying it.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    FWIW, I lived near Amish for a few years when we were first married. Color me NOT impressed. It’s not as idyllic or grace-filled as you might think.

  • Arfies

    As someone who lives near the Amish now, I second TK’s comment. Some–maybe most–of the Amish are fine, hard-working, honest people; others are not so fine, hard-working, or honest. That’s to be expected, given that we’re all sinners. What bothers me more is that there are so many genetic problems with the Amish, resulting from their small genetic pool. A family with five children might easily have four with serious problems. It’s hard to see where this trend will take them, but the outlook seems bleak.

  • CRB

    #2 TK,
    I completely agree with your statement:
    My idea of a youth group is strong family involvement in worship, service and study. Kids need to hear their family say: This is who we are and what we do.”
    Our cong. has no youth group because they are all busy, but your statement has been proven out in that even those youth who have gone off to college now come back whenever they are in the area. In fact, all of those who are still in the area (all males) are quite faithful in attendance at the Divine Service. What I have found to be sadly true is that those youth who’s parents may or may not have been actively involved in the church are seldom in attendance anymore. It seems that the key factor is the father seldom attends or is indifferent to the Lutheran faith being practiced at home.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Yes, what a blessed (and hard) vocation it is to bring children up in the faith (and have children!).

    I wholeheartedly agree with Veith’s critique of “stupid youth group tricks”. You can have fun without making the Christian faith a ridiculous laughing-stock. In my experience there is no substitute for faithful, dedicated parenting! Parent volunteers in church and home can trump the work of the hired youth worker (no offense to our extremely hardworking DCE’s who are there often when parenting is really not) any day of the week.

  • http://castingoutnines.wordpress.com Robert

    A related problem is how the evangelical church (and probably a lot of non-evangelical Christian churches) conceive of youth pastors. I wish youth pastors would be serious-minded in what they do and help develop young people into tough thinkers about, and compassionate doers of, their faith. But most of the time it seems like the youth pastor training programs, and the expectations for youth pastors, amounts to keeping youth pastors in a state of arrested development for as long as possible, with a premium placed on being more hip, more wacky, more adolescent than any other youth pastor. Yes, you might get more kids in the door with that kind of person — but then what?

    When I was a teenager, all the youth pastors I met were like this, and it was a continuous process of having my intelligence insulted by the very people who, outside my family, ought to be training me in the faith. Thank God for one guy, who eventually went on to work full-time in college ministries, who worked as a youth pastor in my small rural church who saw me for who I was and gave me a book one day — that book was called “Loving God With All Your Mind” and it was by some guy named Veith.

  • Joe

    The entire concept of a “Youth Pastor” is annoying to me. I understand that youth are an important part of the Church and the teenage years are challenging for many and for the Church, but we artificially divide them from the congregation when we have a special pastor just for them. One who is different from the other pastor – you know the boring one the adults have to deal with. Why on earth would any youth grow up and say, “okay, now I am ready for the boring guy.” The regular pastors, parents and the congregation need to teach the youth why they need to be in the Word and in Church. Trying to fun it up is just a losing battle. You are never going to out fun a secular society that makes all forms of gratification immediately available.

  • CRB

    Does anyone know what the early church (in the days of the apostles) “youth pastors” did? ;)

  • http://www.lutheransandcontraception.blogspot.com/ Erich Heidenreich, DDS

    “What we need to work on is KEEPING young people in church.”

    I couldn’t agree more. But to keep youth in the church, you must first HAVE youth in the church. Contraception has prevented a whole generation of youth.

    As for keeping the few youth that made it past the Pill, the IUD, and the abortionists’ hands, the key is parents taking them to church. What keeps us in the faith? THE MEANS OF GRACE!

    If parents do not take their kids to church on a regular basis as they are growing up, the chances go down dramatically that they will continue as adults to avail themselves of the means of grace.

    Simple stuff, really… Procreation and the means of grace. Allow God to bless you with many children (they are, after all, “blessings”), have them baptized, and then bring them to church with you every week, also catechize them, and then bring them to the Lord’s table with you every week.

  • Anon

    Hear, hear! I’ll do my part, God willing.

    Youth do need a functioning social group with other believers. But they also need to be prepared for the war. (The local congregation isn’t a country club, it is a firebase). We really haven’t been doing that last part very well. Someone who is just confirmed should be considered a page, not a knight, to extend that metaphor. We have to tell them not so much that “this is what ‘we’ believe’ (which can degenerate to identity politics) but that we believe that it is just as true as 2+2=4 – and here is why. If we don’t, they -will- be led astray by MTV, their college professors, their peers and their hormones. Some will come back, but some 80%, I am told, do not. And I’ve seen that with jr highers. Some *already* think that it isn’t true, just something that their family does, and their parents in some instances then teach them *against* what the church teaches when they go home (in an Elcan direction). Memorizing your confirmation verse and going through a class is just getting a toe wet, not being prepared to be a lifeguard (to use another metaphor).

    DCEs are not just youth workers. That is an incorrect understanding of that commissioned ministry. They are to organize and disciple across the lifespan, including the youth – but so many Lutherans follow the large church model and think of them as ‘youth pastors’. Tain’t so, even if they might also lead the youth group as well as many other things.

    CRB, the youth would typically be married in that age.

    Further, in that Jewish tradition, they would have seen the faith as something not only to experience and practice, but to -learn-.

  • CRB

    #11 Anon
    Yes, that’s true!

  • Pastor Tim Pauls

    My compliments to this entire thread, and thanks to he who told me about it. We do well not to skip past that repetitive subtitle in Luther’s Small Catechism, “As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.” Rather than create children fully independent and knowledgeable, the Lord ordained that they be born as helpless blobs in need of constant service; and as we are created by God to do good works of service (Eph. 2:10), what a joyful service parents have from day one! From the very beginning, parents can care for the soul of their kids, as well as bodies and minds. And that’s the start of keeping kids in the church, long before the pastor gets hold of them in confirmation class.

    In a sincere desire that children remain faithful, adults in my experience have fallen prey to a few errors that defeat their intentions. One is, “If I make my child go to church, he won’t like it because it’s mandatory.” But faithful attendance teaches a good habit, and I’m all for teaching good habits. Inconsistent attendance teaches that the means of grace aren’t any more important than the soccer game or the fishing trip, and suddenly these lovely recreations become false gods. Is that Law? Sure. There’s Gospel, too: faithful attendance exposes children to the life-giving, faith-building Word; this ultimately isn’t about habits, but the Savior’s presence with His people in His means of grace.

    Another error is, “Children like to be cute.” Actually, children want to be like grown-ups. Sunday school songs are okay, assuming the doctrine is true; but we don’t want to stunt their growth when they’re capable and willing to learn substantial hymns. (It’s especially painful to watch when 7th-graders, who cringe at being considered “children,” are lined as before a firing squad to sing a simple song!) If Mom and Dad are repeating the Catechism at home, little children will, too.

    A third would be, “Youth group should be an informal alternative to formal worship.” Why would we expect youth to stay in a “formal” church when we’ve trained them to be informal?

    Personally, my parents made me go to church—so much that when I got to college, I still went every Sunday, if only because “that’s just what the Pauls family does.” (What a dirty trick by Mom and Dad, those instruments of God—hee-hee!) Thanks be to God for the good training. I also spent very little time in youth group, because its atmosphere was so dissonant with the Divine Service that I couldn’t reconcile the two.

    I’m all for strong youth groups. They can be a rich blessing. Those fragile adolescent years should certainly NOT be the time when we say to youth, “We really have nothing to tell you right now.” But in care for children, youth groups can’t hold a candle to the daily catechesis that parents can give to their children through the years, nurturing them with Gospel, grace and life. God grant that we faithfully and continually shower on our children His holy Word, with both the simplicity of the Gospel and all of its rigorous depth!

  • Anon

    Pastor Pauls,
    And that is something that our DCEs need to be doing. Or should I say that our congregations need to direct our DCEs to do: Discipling/educating the parents so that they -can- do what Luther wanted them to do!

    Now, some would say that is the job of the elders, and I don’t disagree with that, but DCEs can be utilized to serve the pastor and also the elder board to use their knowledge and education to do the educational portion of discipling the parents.

  • TK

    What is a DCE and what is their role? I’m in a large ELS church and we don’t have that. The pastor takes the lead role in discipling and educating the parents.

  • CRB

    Speaking of youth, here is a sermon from yesterday (10/12) that cites a statistic of 70% of young people,
    age 18-22 drop out of church. Excellent sermon on Eph. 6:10-17!
    http://www.stpaulbluepoint.org/page1/page3/page3.html

  • http://lutheransandcontraception.blogspot.com Erich Heidenreich, DDS

    Here’s a link to a 45 minute mp3 of Pastor Tim Pauls teaching at our youth retreat 10/5/08 about this exact subject:

    http://tinyurl.com/46hjg7

    Every parent and future parent should hear it!

  • Anon

    The DCE is something unique to the LCMS, as far as I know.

    The way I understand it (correct me if I’m wrong) is that when the LCMS decided to have female school teachers, they couldn’t let male teachers do the ministerial things that they used to do. Yet there was still a need. With a lot of historical complications, the Director of Christian X (Education, Outreach, Family Ministry, etc) is a sort of diaconate, a servant to the office of the public ministry in the area of the ministry of the Word, but not of the Sacraments.

    A DCE by serving the pastor in taking over the educational ministry of the parish – under the authority of the parish – allows the pastor to focus on such things as the liturgical ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, counseling, more time to prepare sermons, and so forth.

    In practice, these commissioned (not ordained) ministers are used in lots of ways.

    Due to history, ELS and WELS don’t have this role, though if they still have the commissioned male teacher, they might be performing some of those roles.

  • Anon

    Um, that should be “under the authority of the pastor”

  • TK

    Anon,

    I believe this issue might have been discussed recently in the ELS. ;)

    I think that our principal serves in the function you have described. I will check with him. I’m on our school board, but we deal more with numbers, staff and curriculum. Our K-8 school is quite large (192 students), so we are blessed with teachers and a principal; our pastors also minister to the school.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Ok, I’m still around, but no politics…

    Here in SK (as well as MB, AB & BC), the observation on the Amish growth also holds for the Hutterite Community.

    (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutterite)

  • Anon

    I’ve encountered ELS pastors at a conference, and I felt pretty good about them. FWIW.

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