Unless you’re a church leader in a very large church, you’re probably aware that your congregation has limited resources (and in today’s economy, even large churches are struggling with decreasing resources). During those times when resources are exceptionally limited, it’s more important than ever to be very careful where you invest them.

Every investor wants to ensure they get the maximum return on their investment (ROI), and the church is no exception. If you’re committed to growing your church, then you’ll want to maximize your ROI. The question is … where do you make that investment?

When it comes to ROI, let’s begin with one of the biggest and most common mistakes churches make. Though we’ve been saying it for more years than I care to share, contrary to popular perceptions, the youth are not the future of your church. I know, I’m hearing howls of protest from coast to coast, but hear me out. Study, research, and experience tells us that there are darned few youth who continue their affiliation with the capital “C” church once they’ve left high school. Indeed, in Already Gone by Ken Ham, et al, we know that the we’re losing the kids from church (at least mentally and spiritually) long before they’re eighteen … and that as young adults they don’t just leave the church, they’re committed to not returning ever. In other words, the majority of existing youth ministries are failing investments.

But what about those that are able to engage and disciple youth? Let me ask you: in your experience, how many of your eighteen-year-olds are still regularly attending your congregation when they’re twenty-five? The fact is, we live in a highly mobile society and “staying home” isn’t the norm any more. Youth and young adults head for college or the military or for a career in some other locale. It’s a small percentage of youth who remain in their hometowns anymore. All that’s to say that even successful youth ministries that imprint the gospel on the hearts of their youth don’t realize much return on their investment to the local church. The youth aren’t the future of their churches, but of someone else’s church.

That’s not to say that a church shouldn’t invest in their youth ministry. They should. They must. But if you’re planning on growing your church by investing in your youth programming let me ask you one final question. How many teenagers do you know who want their parents to show up at anything with them? This is one of the reasons we get regularly get requests asking for advice, like this jewel we received not too long ago: “Our youth group is really growing with kids who have never been in church before, but we’re finding it difficult to get their unchurched parents involved.”

Studies, research, and experience tell us that if your congregation is committed to growing, an investment in youth ministry with the hope that it will grow your church is simply a bad investment. Yes, you must provide a youth ministry. No, it will not grow your church. So, how can you maximize your church’s ROI? By investing in young adults – and specifically, in committed and discipled young adults. If your congregation doesn’t have any (yet), then your first investment will be in making some. If you’re looking for high-yield investment of your congregation’s limited resources, then you’ll want to invest in the following Four Investment Pockets, listed below from least to most important. 

The Four Investment Pockets for Maximizing Your Congregational ROI

1. Convenient, Indigenous Worship Opportunities This investment returns the highest dividend of all, but note this: without an investment in the following three pockets, the ROI is temporary. Let me unpack what I mean by convenient, indigenous worship. First, although we all know of a church in town that is busting at the seams during their 8:30 AM alternative worship service, the fact is, most of those attending these early morning services are long-time church members. Sure, they get some visitors, but primarily because they come on the arm of a current attendee. The fact is, most early alternative services fail to attract the unchurched because they are not convenient. Although you’ll want to do your own local research (by leaving your church office and actually speaking to at least a hundred folks who fit your young adult target group), we know that most young adults aren’t willing to attend a service earlier than 10 AM. Indeed, ask those in your community what day and time a typical worship service is and they’ll say something like “Sunday at 11.” In most communities, the sweet spot for the beginning of an alternative worship service is between 10:30 and 11:00. Indigenous worship means that the service focuses its presentation on the proclivities of the target audience (for more on targeting worship, see the Church-Talk episode Targeting Worship). In other words, the worship service uses the language, vocabulary, idioms, analogies, metaphors, images, technologies, and yes, even the music style and sermon content that can communicate the gospel in ways that the participant can fully understand, consider, and implement.

2. Dynamic Integration and Small Group Ministries The second investment pocket ensures that those who visit a convenient, indigenous worship service have ways to connect with both the existing church and others in the worship service. This used to be called Assimilation Ministries, but Star Trek’s Borg images pretty well took care of that for us. If a church only invests in convenient, indigenous worship, they will experience the Revolving Door of membership. People come, get excited, and hang around, but they don’t experience life transformation, so they drift away. By providing dynamic integration and discipleship ministries, participants move from being a consumers to becoming discipled followers of Jesus Christ who are committed to their congregation. In general, this investment is in life-changing small groups, but it includes more than just these. Integration ministries include mixers (we used to call them fellowships), short-term mission and ministry opportunities, affinity groups, and so on all help connect participants to each other as well as to the church.

3. Exciting, Fun, and Meaningful Children’s Ministries The adage “Momma decides where the family goes to church, but children decide if they come back” has a lot of truth to it. The third investment pocket is in a dynamic, life-changing, discipling, exciting, and fun children’s ministry. If the kids have a great time, they’ll bring their parents back. But if it’s nothing more than a play date, parents will see through it and you’ll lose the family. Exciting, fun, and meaningful children’s ministries have two primary goals that are intertwined with the words “Fun and Exciting.” (1) To introduce the children to Jesus Christ and disciple them effectively, and (2) For the children to experience indigenous worship and spiritual development.

Because children’s needs and learning styles and intellectual maturity are different than adults, insisting that they attend adult worship services to “teach them how to worship” has little to redeem itself with. First, if you listen to children’s music you’ll realize right away that it’s not adult music. It uses simple vocabulary, bright tonal qualities, and simple melodies. Compare that to ‘Tis Midnight and On Olive’s Brow (I didn’t even know olives had eyes, let alone brows). Second, children rarely sit still when they’re bored. Take a look at the kids in your worship service about twenty-five minutes into it. They’re coloring, doodling on the bulletin, playing a handheld video game, and their parents are frazzled trying to keep them quiet and behaved – which means that the parents aren’t getting much out of the service either. All that’s to say, those churches getting the highest ROI on their children’s ministries are scheduling these ministries to run simultaneous with their parents’ worship services. Again, for more on effective children’s ministries, see the Church-Talk episodes Already Gone and Ministry With and For Children and Youth

4. Significant Relationships with Models and Mentors The fourth investment pocket is probably the most important, but this time you’re not able to invest much from your treasury to ensure its success. One of the key reasons the North American church is in so much trouble is because it lacks high numbers of authentic, committed disciples of Jesus Christ. In fact, the number one observation by the unchurched is that the “church is full of hypocrites.” Whether or not that’s true, it’s an image we have to live with… for now. One of the realities of our culture is that there is a high interest in all things spiritual. Young adults are aware of their spiritual need, but many have tried church in the past and found it irrelevant and unfulfilling, so they’ve looked elsewhere.

When a young adult visits a convenient, indigenous worship service, they look at the existing congregation for signs of authentic spiritual maturity. The only way you can identify mature spiritual disciples is through their behavior, so be aware that you’re being watched. In any event, young adults who move through worship and into integration both need and want authentic, meaningful relationships with mentors and models of the faith. If a guest hangs out long enough to discover that spiritual practitioners are few and far between in a congregation, they’re not going to long for the church. But if they see spiritual models and experience spiritual mentoring, they sink roots and are likely to make a commitment to the congregation. This is one of the most important areas where older adults can make a significant impact by interacting with younger adults. When the spiritually faithful rub shoulders with the spiritually yearning, a synergy takes place that encourages and matures both.

If you’re looking to maximize your congregation’s investment – and who isn’t these days? – then look no further than the Four Investment Pockets. When well applied, your investment will return lasting dividends.

Question: How have you seen growth following greater focus on these investment pockets? Share your experiences and ideas in the Comments section below.