While churches remain concerned over aging congregations and the exodus of youth, one organization has been "shaking it up" by getting kids to evangelize kids.
For the past six years, the evangelical organization Awana has been equipping parents and kids to reach out to non-believers and bring them to church through its annual event, "The Great ShakeUp."
According to Awana (Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed), preschool to middle school is the most responsive age group to spiritual matters – particularly coming to church, trusting Jesus Christ for salvation and learning biblical truth.
Its kid-to-kid evangelism initiative has been going strong, helping churches improve attendance among youth. In its 2005-06 debut alone, 19,000 first-time visitors attended ShakeUP events at more than 2,000 churches nationwide.
The Great ShakeUP "gives kids tools to use to reach their friends and get them to church, and most importantly to ask God to help them do it," said Chris Hunt, corporate program marketing manager at Awana.
Churches that run Awana clubs require participating youths to invite a friend to church at least once for the opportunity to hear the Gospel. The Great ShakeUP knocks that up a notch, Hunt said.
During the first two weeks of the monthlong ShakeUP, kids learn how to invite friends, classmates and neighbors to Awana using the Pass the SALT method: Search (identify friends to invite who don't go to Awana or church), Ask (pray to God for those friends to be able to come to Awana), Link (be a link for friends to know Jesus by inviting them to the ShakeUP), and Transport (offer to give friends a ride to the ShakeUP if possible).
Week three is Parents' Week. Parents help their children succeed in bringing friends to Awana. Finally, week four is ShakeUP, when kids, volunteers and parents pull together to share God's message of hope with visitors.
While churches and youth pastors lament a growing dropout rate, Awana touts that most kids trained in its programs continue to faithfully follow Jesus as adults. According to a 2007 survey by the group, 92.7 percent of adults who participated in Awana for at least six years still attend church at least weekly as adults.
Explaining the high retention rate, Hunt said, "I believe it has mostly to do with the power of God's word. Awana is Gospel based. We're very focused on the Gospel, focused on reading, memorizing and understanding God's word. By the time a child or youth has been in Awana for 6-10 years, they have memorized hundreds of verses.
"Really, God's word does not come back void."
He continued, "If there is such a high biblical illiteracy that's coming from somewhere because people aren't reading their Bibles, aren't memorizing key scriptures and that's a very important part of the Awana club experience."
Hunt counts himself as one of many believers who left the church as a young adult largely because of a lack of grounding in the word of God. He returned to God at the age of 32 after doing his own thing for more than a decade.
"I don't think that's a terribly unusual story," he said of the experience of stepping away from the Christian faith and returning years later.
For Awana alumni, however, such an experience is less usual, he said.
"It's not so much Awana; it's what they're doing in Awana," Hunt emphasized, "which is learning God's word."
A sixth grade boy in Hunt's Awana club recently trusted the Lord. And Hunt feels a sense of assurance about the young student's future as a Christ follower.
"When someone trusts in the Lord there's going to be a battle around that heart," Hunt explained. "I'm thankful that he's part of the Awana clubs because I know he's going to continue to be discipled."
This year, Awana celebrated its 60th year of ministry. Churches are encouraged to host the Great ShakeUP in September – the start of the ministry year – or after Christmas break. But participating churches are able to set their own dates to run the initiative. Today, the ministry reaches 1.5 million kids in over 100 countries each week. Over 12,000 churches in the U.S. and more than 8,000 internationally run Awana programs.
Christian Post Reporter Lillian Kwon in Washington contributed to this report.