When I was in high school, I quit my church’s youth group. All the activities they hosted were social events with no spiritual component. They didn’t even pray before meals. If the only reason to go to church youth group was to hang out with my peers, I didn’t want to be there. I had nothing in common with the other kids in the group. We weren’t friends outside of church. Our faith was the only thing that tied us together, and youth group events didn’t address that faith.
What I experienced is symptomatic of a trend that has prevailed in youth ministry for several decades now. Churches often try to provide a youth group experience that is entertaining and provides a parallel experience to what young people could find in the secular world. There are two primary problems with this approach, as I see it. First, the world will always win. Secular groups will always be able to provide something flashier, more adventurous, more well-organized and better funded. Eventually the church will fail at this model of youth ministry, because there is simply no way for the church to provide parallel experiences for all the opportunities available in the world. Second – and this is very important – kids don’t want a church that only offers them lip-service. Young people typically want to know that their lives make a difference in the world. It’s what keeps them engaged in church if they are there already, and what attracts them if they are newcomers. Helping kids find ways to share their spiritual gifts with the world in a way that matters is perhaps the most important part of youth ministry.
Young people are very discerning. They’re smarter than many adults give them credit. They know the gist of the Christian message, even if they’ve only learned the basics from secular media, and they expect the church to live up to what it claims to be. They don’t expect to be entertained at their youth group events. If they are going to church, they expect to learn about God. They hope that they will be welcomed in the radical way that Jesus welcomed people.
One of the most effective ways to do ministry with young people, in my experience, is to treat them like you would any other member of your congregation. Why should youth be the only group to be segregated because of their age? (Yes, I’m well aware of age-based groups for older folks… but these are usually open to anyone post-retirement, meaning there is often a 30-year age range in these groups, spanning two generations!) Here I use the term “youth” very broadly. The examples below come from my experience with middle and high school youth (roughly age 10-18), but I have used this same basic idea with younger children and with young adults.
- When you serve Communion in worship, ask any worshiper who has already received her first Communion to be the server alongside the pastor. The 5th-grader doesn’t have to be relegated to collecting the empty cups used when serving individual portions of wine (at one church I served, kids called this the Communion “garbage can”). Let the 5th-grader serve the wine. Or even the bread, if your tradition allows for such a thing! In your denomination, is any adult member allowed to help serve Communion? Then as soon as a child begins to commune, invite her to join the ranks of server.
- When you ask a high school student who is recently confirmed to be a Sunday School teacher – let him teach the class! Don’t make him be the assistant. He probably has more biblical knowledge in his short-term memory than most of the adult members. Isn’t that why we put kids through confirmation in the first place? Once he is confirmed, help him keep that knowledge fresh in his mind by teaching it to others. Give the younger students a role model closer to their age than than their parents. And maybe encourage that high schooler to work at a church camp in the summer, too.
- Resist the tendency to force all young people into one particular type of service to the church — instead, match their service to their God-given gifts. In my tradition, it is typical to require confirmation students (age 10-14) to serve as acolytes in worship. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to let the children play with fire in the Sanctuary is beyond me! I am not a fan of this requirement, and it actually goes much deeper than the fire risk. Some students are self-consciously short, and can’t reach the tall candles. Some are afraid of fire. Some are not well-coordinated (seriously, who was at 13?) and get nervous about being the acolyte. We don’t expect all adult churchgoers to serve as ushers or lectors or bake sale coordinators as a requirement of their membership to the congregation. Why should we expect something similar of our youth? It is crucial to get to know our members – ALL our members – and offer them ways to serve that match their spiritual gifts. If a person is bad at reading in public, don’t ask them to be a lector. But when you discover that one of your 6th-graders could be a professional storyteller, by all means, give her the chance to read in worship! Don’t make her the “child lector” on a special youth Sunday. She is important enough to be considered for leadership in the church 52 Sundays a year, and on any of the other 365 days that the church offers programming.
- Follow through with the promises we make and inspire them to do the same. Young people often see the world in black-and-white. They know that Jesus said to love their neighbor, so they expect to be loved by their church… and they expect the church to give them opportunities to love others in return. They expect the church to follow through on the promises that were made to them at their baptism or dedication or confirmation or at whatever other rituals the congregation took vows to pray and care for the children. Youth take these promises seriously — when they see that they are not fulfilled by adult members of the congregation, they see no reason to follow through for themselves.
Ironically, while in college, I served as a high school youth director for three years. I can’t say that I avoided all the pitfalls my home congregation had discovered, but I was able to lead differently after having the experience of seeing things done poorly. I have learned a lot since those days, and there is so much left to learn; but my basic recommendation to those interested in re-imagining a way of ministering with youth is simple: treat the young people like members of your church. Help them find their spiritual gifts and create ways for them to share those gifts with the community. When you do that, and believe it, then there’s a chance to expand that practice to the staff and members. When all churchgoers are given the opportunity to share their God-given gifts with the world in ways that matter, we will finally be the church that our youth believe we already are.