Where Young Christians Should Go To Church and Why


When I first read these words “Where young Christians should go to church and why” I thought to myself, “They can go wherever they want to!” As I read on, I realized that the person making the recommendation was one of the leading Christian churchmen of our time, and so I kept reading. Let me share what I learned with you.

This past fall Dr. Eugene Peterson celebrated his eighty-first birthday and was interviewed on that great occasion. Besides being a past Hebrew and Greek professor, the founding pastor of Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, MD where he ministered for 29 years (anything but a small congregation), the author of The Message translation of the Bible in its many editions, and some 20 other books, he has been the constant counselor of young people throughout his ministry. That background and lifelong ministry experience caused me to stop, take seriously what he had to say, and meditate on why he said it.

The interview was with Jonathan Merritt in his blog On Faith and Culture, Sept. 27, 2013. When asked, “What do you tell young Christians who are longing for a deeper and more authentic discipleship?” Peterson responded,

“I tell younger Christians who long for a deeper, more authentic discipleship to go to the nearest, smallest church and commit yourself to being there for six months. If it doesn't work out, find somewhere else.  But don't look for programs or entertainment, and don't look for a great preacher.  A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place... Sometimes it doesn't work.  Sometimes pastors are just incompetent and some are flat out bad. But it is a better place to start out than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.”

Now the question is why would an experienced person such as Dr. Peterson feel so strongly and what reasons are behind his strong and exclusive convictions? I think what is in the good pastor's mind is that the young or newly saved Christian is like a newborn baby. An infant needs close attention, watchful care, immediate help, loving and familiar faces around all the time, a steady routine that is not a hassle, and regular feeding. The simple fact is that the smaller the church, as long as it is functioning properly, the more likely all these needed items will be present in abundance for the new or young believer.

The smaller congregation specializes in TLC [hands on authentic and caring relationships] and that is what we all, young Christian or older saint, thrive on.

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Another thing about a small church is the opportunity to serve.  You don't have to have an awesome voice to sing in the choir and if you're willing, you'll be asked to fill in for a Sunday School teacher or nursery worker after a few months.  There's nothing like being involved to help a person, young or old, feel like they belong in a church family.

Agreed! We recently moved our family from a large church to a smaller one. My husband and I, after 6 years of not being able to use our gifts, are now using our gifts in service on a weekly basis. But the more interesting fact is that our three teenagers are thriving now in a small youth group where they didn't in the large one with all the"glitz". After the first over night youth retreat, our oldest came back and said, "I know everyone's name now". The once shy, uninvolved teen is now at every youth event- where eveyone knows his name too. 

I think you're right on George, but another reason Peterson might have said that is that smaller churches do not allow a new believer to disappear into the woodwork.  The smaller church needs its members to be active in carrying on the ministry of the church.  Larger churches can become comfortable places where one's faith is not exercised and stretched.

Size doesn't matter. A willingness to engage the younger generation is at the heart of this issue. I've been to small churches and just the opposite is true. I don't think the issue is as cut and dry as this makes it to be.

I serve a medium size church that is one of the few growing... and we can find places and opportunities for younger people to find their voice, but we're willing to engage.

I will add my input on this because I do think it's an important one. I will speak with regards to my experience, and perhaps this is reflective of other young adults.

Does size matter? It certainly changes how social interaction happens, and this is applied in all types of settings. I immediately think of class sizes at college. Small is focused, communicative, personal. Large tends to be generic, less personal, and less-focused. Now, I know this doesn't apply in all situations, and context matters. So how has this played out in the church in my experience?

I have attended large congregations where I could show up and walk out without saying a word to another soul. I have similarly been to small congregations who were so focused on their conversations with their long-time friends that they neglected my presence in the room. The opposite is true too- for showing up and being welcomed by large and small congregations alike.

I have attended a church my whole life that is medium in size where the aspect of authentic relationships is key. It's great that I can show up at a place I can call home, where I can be involved, while still drawing on the gifts from many members.

The word I like to use is intentional. If you act and say with intention, you will reap the benefits of it, instead of happening upon the optimal outcome by chance. Smaller churches are provided with this flexibility where large churches cannot do this as easily (although able). It is my hope that both large and small churches can execute with intention in their ministry.