4 Ways to Incorporate Youth Into Church Life

The church I’m currently at is at a sort of crossroads. On the one hand, we have a great core group of youth that come to youth group on Sunday morning, come to events on Fridays, and are stoked to go to New Orleans next summer for the Youth Gathering. And then on the other, we have a very active community of worship and discipleship. But the two seldom overlap. I have a feeling my experience isn’t the lone case of this happening. In fact, it’s been going on at every church I’ve worked at, so I know it isn’t. The kids get confirmed and become “an adult member” of the church and are then exiled to the “youth room”. If you can see the inconsistency, then you can feel something’s wrong. So the question then becomes: How do we help youth become more involved in the greater life of worship in the church? I have an idea of four things that can help.

1. Involve youth as leaders in the church service itself.

A couple months ago we had a couple of youth help out as readers during the service. It was great. They felt like they were actually a part of the community. And then they’ve been completely absent since. It made the one day they did read almost seem gimmicky. Invite the youth of your church to read, usher, serve communion, do special music… Heck, even get up and tell a story that’s important to them in the sermon time. To involve people of all ages in the community’s time of worship is to really understand what it means to be in ministry together.

2. Invite youth to youth leader meetings.

I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in with other youth leaders and the first question we ask is, “Well what would the youth like to do?” And then we hear crickets chirp. You know who is great at answering questions like that? The youth! Incorporate them into meetings with the pastor/leaders and honestly ask for their input. That way, the youth group becomes more an agent of ministry and less an object of ministry. Huge difference.

3. Blend adult small groups with youth small groups.

Small groups have become all the rage in the church. And that’s great. I think any time people commit to gathering together to talk about their life and faith is a wonderful thing. But I think we would get such a richer portrait of the fullness of life in the congregation if we invite youth into our small groups. If we create small groups based on common interest and not common age, we’d get people interacting with each other that maybe have never said a word to each other. And, call me crazy but, I think that’s pretty cool.

4. Have youth serve on church council

Don’t be quick to dismiss this one. I think there would be a lot of good in having a youth representative on your church council. Find a couple solid, mature teenagers and invite them to be a part of the bigger decisions of the church. Teach them how a budget operates, how the values of the community play out in the decision-making process, how inner conflicts are healthily resolved. These are great lessons for kids to learn and are often exhibited in council meetings.

The key point here isn’t just to concede some of the lesser responsibilities of young people. It’s to get a little bit uncomfortable. It’s to take seriously the responsibility they are given in their confirmation and have the same stake in the church that adults do. If we set a higher standard and hold them to it, I suspect many would step up to it.

Cheers,
Eric

The #1 Problem in Youth Ministry

When I was working as a volunteer with senior high youth at a church back in Fargo, one of the young people pulled me aside one night at a lock-in and asked if he could talk. As we started talking, he told me about all kinds of bad stuff happening with his friends at school and with some family stuff at home. There was a girl he liked, but she didn’t like him back. This guy had a lot on his mind.  I could see that he was really struggling with these things, and that he wasn’t able to have a good time because of all of his worrying. I kept listening to him and as he finished his story, he looked up at me and said, “That’s why I started coming to church. I heard you guys can fix these things.”

Ummm… What?

I’m not going to tell you what I said to him, because it frankly sucked too much to remember. There were a lot of uneasy pauses and me saying “yeah, that’s hard”. But I had no idea what to say to this kid who had heard from someone that I had the quick fix to all of these really hard things that were going on in his life. I think this is the main problem with youth ministry as it’s viewed by the wider church. A lot of times, we can be so quick to diminish or explain away the very real challenges and difficulties of young people, because we’re afraid to exist in that space of darkness. We can’t deal with that darkness, because that means that we don’t have the answers. This is where some pretty lame platitudes can come into play. We can say things like “Everything happens for a reason”, but that gets us nowhere fast.

There’s a really great video that talks about a solution to this problem. What would our ministry be like if it was primarily characterized as a group of people who aren’t afraid to sit in the darkness with other people? We don’t have to have easy answers. We don’t have to give cheap platitudes to escape dealing with the pain of the person next to us, but rather we can take that pain into ourselves. Check out the video. I think it’s truly inspiring. Shout out to Mike Friesen for introducing me to the video. Check it out!

What did you think of the video? Was it helpful? What bits in there caught your attention?

Cheers,
Eric

In Defense of My Generation

I recently read an article that described the new wave of young adults as the “Peter Pan” generation. It described a generation of kids who refused to grow up. I know I’ve talked a lot about this in a couple recent posts. But this struck me in a different kind of way. It seems incredibly pejorative. Now there is some merit to these claims if we look at specific instances of my generation — Jersey Shore comes to mind. Easy target, I know. But embedded in this “Peter Pan” label is the broad, sweeping implication that we’re all childish, immature, petulant children who are afraid to grow up. I think it’s far more complicated than that. These implications spread much further than simply the church, politics, or education.

With the rise of technology and the internet, we are able to know more than ever before. Because of this, my generation’s view of authority is different than any other generation in history. A general mistrust of societal institutions has become commonplace. One could even make a case-by-case argument that every cultural institution that we have been taught to hold in high esteem has given us ample reason to question their integrity and their motives. Our coming of age has involved a massive re-assessment of the meaning of responsibility and accountability. The fact that we have to employ a fact-checker in our political discourse (and that most of what is said is, at least somewhat, false) is seen as reason enough to submit to the tempting call of apathy.

Our generation has and will continue to struggle to create meaning in a time where there is almost nothing we can be sure of. Every generation is messy, complicated, and has its own obstacles to overcome. In this way, I think we are just like every generation that has come before us.

The course of history — not misplaced apathy or optimism — gives us hope that we will get by. We will welcome the responsibility of adulthood on our terms and in our own time. We grew up with loose ends, inaccurate labels, and exceedingly high expectations. I think we’re going to do just fine.

Cheers,
Eric

What To Do About Extended Adolescence?

I’m not going to call John Mayer a prophet, but there is something of a quarter-life crisis that’s spreading throughout the youth of America. A lot of people in this age-range are going to school longer, delaying marriage and family, job-hopping and apartment-swapping. They’re moving back home after they get their degree to save money, traveling to faraway places to work and taking some general “me” time to decide what their future looks like. They’re looking for their “dare to be great” situation. But what is behind this phenomenon? Is it an individual or a cultural phenomenon? Or perhaps more importantly, how is this going to affect the generations ahead?

Some of the newest research in adolescent studies has said that adolescence now lasts from 11 years old to 29 years old. This is a far cry from the industrialized childhood of even just 80 years ago. When kids were on the farm, they became an adult when they were old enough to do the work. Then after the second World War, teens left the factory jobs and started going to high school and youth culture was born. Now with a bad job market, higher educational requirements, and the glorification of what can only be called the “frat boy” persona, there doesn’t seem to be any urgency to do things like “grow up” and “take responsibility”.

Early adolescent theorists describe adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” in a person’s life. Then it was thought that this storm would last only a few years — say from age 12 to about 17. But what do you do when that storm now spans 18 years? The storm and stress is a childhood unto itself. That can’t be good. At the same time, questions about the so-called “helicopter” parents play a role as well. They’re called this because these are parents that are always hovering over their child as a helicopter over… well, whatever helicopters hover over.

At the end of all of this, I have two sources and three questions:

Sources:

  • Check out Robert Epstein’s book Teen 2.0. It’s an incredibly in-depth analysis of this phenomenon and offers a unique way forward.
  • There is a conference on this called Extended Adolescence Symposium. Click on the link to check out the information and support a great cause.

Questions:

  • What role does individual responsibility play in extended adolescence?
  • If you serve in ministry, how do you help parents who seem to show these co-dependent tendencies?
  • What role do you think our predominantly consumer society plays in this?

I hope you can engage with some of these questions and share some experience you’ve had surrounding this prolonged adolescence.

Cheers,
Eric

What Vanilla Ice Can Teach Our Youth Ministry

I know that judging by this picture, most people would think the idea that he could teach you about church to be silly. And it breaks every mantra I have to trust anyone over the age of five with strips shaved on the side of his head. But I think that as another year of Sunday school, confirmation, and youth group begins, there are a few things we can remember from the immortal words of the man himself.

With the start of each year it seems there is the re-commitment to doing our best. Here are three words of wisdom from the man himself that we can do as a church to better serve the youth in our congregations (and really everyone else as well).

Stop

Unless you’re in the rare 1% of church people who are really dynamic leaders, we need to stop with the idea that it’s up to the leader to have a successful youth program. The type of education where one person is the expert and they impart information onto the eager learners is a thing of the past. And it’s only going to deliver the results that we’ve been getting in the past. And that’s not great.

So if we want to improve, we need to stop doing autocratic, leader-centered ministry.

Collaborate

I think collaboration is one of the primary things that will save youth ministry. It does put the pressure on one expert. It also allows for all viewpoints to be heard and discussed (there is room for this in the church at large too, not just the youth wing). The common fear that most pastors have about collaboration is that irrelevant conversation will somehow seep into the the group if we allow more than the leader to speak. That’s just not true. Sure there will be people who say some things that are out there, but if they’re not even allowed to engage in conversation, then going to church becomes an even more passive act and easier to abandon.

Collaboration is the way forward in ministry because it acknowledges that everyone is an expert on faith in their own right. You want to make ministry relevant? Let young people in your church have a voice in it.

Listen

Of course the whole “let the people have a voice” thing doesn’t go very far if the people in charge aren’t listening. I think listening is the most important thing that a person who works with you can learn to do. In order to lead a group of people anywhere they want to go, you have to know where they’d like to go. You have to listen to what young people are dealing with, the things that they’re concerned about. A “relevant” ministry is one that comes out of the concerns of the community. But the first step in creating this, is to really listen to what people are saying.

So as the new school year is upon us, I would beg of you to remember the words of Vanilla Ice and stop, collaborate and listen.

Cheers,
Eric

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