Thoughts from the Grey-Haired Youth Minister

One of the things that’s happened recently that’s kept me from blogging, or doing much of anything else, recently, is that my job at the church was expanded to pick up our youth ministry and programs. I’ve said many times that being a second-career pastor, and attending seminary with students who were mostly younger than some of the oldest items of clothing I own, has always made me feel a lot younger than my actual age. If anything, because of my seminary experience, I actually feel younger now than I did when I was in my late thirties. Lori agrees with this, claiming that when I was 35, I acted like I was 65. So now, I get to keep feeling younger than my chronological age by rubbing elbows with the kids in the congregation from 6th through 12th grade. As part of this, I’m teaching Confirmation (8th and 9th graders); overseeing the leadership of a Sunday School class for 6th and 7th graders; heading up two youth groups, one for junior high and one for senior high; planning and leading a week-long summer work/mission trip; and a host of other related things. I have to admit that there are a few things that I worry about, hoping that I do a good enough job and that I serve the kids and their parents well in trying to deepen the kids’ faith development. But I’m really excited about the challenge, and by and large I think we’re off to a good start. Plus, this week I was able to get the youth pool table repaired, and I got a replacement power cord and new pucks for the air hockey table, so come this Sunday, I’ll be seen as a god in the eyes of some of the kids. So I’ve got that going for me… which is nice.

When picking up this part of our congregational ministry, the Confirmation class was meeting Sundays at 9:00, just before the 10:00 main service. There was one youth group that handled all kids from 6th through 12th grades, and it was scheduled to meet Sundays at 10:00 – at the same time as the service. In addition to making some changes to the syllabus for the remainder of the year for the Confirmation class, I split the youth group in two, as previously mentioned, and changed their meeting times to Sunday afternoon and evening. I didn’t establish a Sunday School class for the high schoolers, but I did make one for the 6th and 7th graders, and set it to meet at 9:00, at the same time as the Confirmation class. Historically, there had been a class for this age group, but it had been eliminated some time before.

These changes were consistent with my overarching philosophy of youth ministry. If you’re a youth ministry nerd, you’ll know what I mean when I say I’m an adherent of the thoughts of Kenda Creasy Dean and Rodger Nishioka. If those names mean nothing to you, keep reading and you’ll see where I’m coming from. I explained this philosophy, our goals, and how we were going to try to get closer to those goals, in a handout I gave the parents at an introductory “kickoff” meeting, copied below:

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There are many goals that a Christian youth program might have, but most people would agree that the most important goals include:

  • Providing  age-appropriate instruction in the “head knowledge” of our faith;
  • Encouraging further spiritual development;
  • Fostering healthy socialization skills, both “youth-to-youth” and “youth-to-others” within the faith community; and
  • Long-term retention of youth in the Christian faith and the life of the church

Of those, I believe that the last item – long-term youth retention within the life of Christian faith and within the church – is the most important goal. Some youth ministry experts have called this goal one of creating “sticky faith;” that is, a broader faith that sticks with them throughout their life, and doesn’t disappear after they’ve run the full course of youth-oriented church programs. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, the church as a whole has done a terrible job of developing that kind of “sticky faith” in our youth. To be blunt, I believe that if the church had set out to drive youth out of the faith and the church, we could hardly have done a better job than what we’ve historically been doing.

Many, if not most, youth ministries’ interrelationship with the rest of the church community, resembles the following diagram:

 Image For obvious reasons, this has come to be called the “One-Eared Mickey Mouse” approach to youth ministry. In this model, the youth activities and programs are very distinct from the main portion of “Adult Church” – some might even say, “Real” Church. There may be some common touch points between the youth and the remainder of the life of the overall worshiping community, but for the most part, the youth have their programs and the adults have theirs, and there’s very little overlap – there’s very little feeling among the youth that they’re an important part of the larger worshiping community.

 In considering this situation, Rodger Nishioka, a Presbyterian professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary, writes:

In too many congregations, our children are “dismissed” to go to “children’s church” or something like it either a few minutes into the congregation’s worship or in place of being present in the congregation’s worship at all.  As far as I can tell, this is a 20th century phenomenon.  In reviewing session minutes from Presbyterian congregations in the archives here at Columbia Theological Seminary, this action of sending children out of worship began in the 1950s at the height of the post-war baby boom.  Prior to this, no such thing existed.  Children were in the whole of worship with their families.  But in the years following the second world war with the tremendous influx of newborns, congregations began looking for immediate and cost effective ways to gain more space in the sanctuary to accommodate all these young families and their children and some inventive pastor or church educator thought about sending the children out to make more space for adults and thus, the phenomenon of “dismissing” children from worship was born.  If a generation runs approximately 20 years, then we are into our third generation of this experience and it has become normative for us all.  Indeed, when I have preached in congregations where there is now plenty of room for all ages to worship together, church after church still sends children out of worship because “that’s what we have always done.”  The truth is, that is NOT what we have always done and even more, we are now reaping what we have sown.[1]

The way to avoid this problem – to enhance group-building in the hearts and minds of youth with the larger worshiping community – is to establish a more connectional form of youth ministry. And the first piece of achieving that is to remember that the primary purpose for our gathering together on Sunday morning is to worship God – together, as the whole family of worshipers. This means that ideally, every youth beyond a certain age and temperament should actually be in worship, and not dismissed to other youth-specific programs that diminish or dissolve this important aspect of belonging to the overall worshiping community. People have debated what this precise age is, but there is no question that the youth that we’re talking about at the moment – those in the 6th grade and older – are well past that age.

And it is critical that these youth are not just present for worship, but that they are also actively and regularly a part of it. By rotating into various parts of assisting in worship – whether reading scriptural passages, or leading responsive parts of the order of worship, ushering, etc. – youth begin to organically understand what church is about, and they begin to see how they fit within it. This is truly Christian education in its purest, and best, and unfortunately most-often ignored, definition. This is every bit as important – arguably, more important – than structured, sit-down, classroom-style “Sunday School” and the social/recreational activities of a traditional youth group. Those are important aspects of youth ministry, but if we ignore incorporating youth into the life, spirituality, and worship of the entire community, these other aspects become little (if anything) more than glorified baby-sitting, and spiritual malpractice against our youth.

In order for our youth to become followers of Christ exhibiting and modeling “sticky faith,” and who feel a real bond with the larger community of faith, I believe that our youth program should be built around the along the following overarching principles:

  • When the church family is called together to worship, this should include the youth. With a few exceptions detailed below, we won’t schedule any youth-specific programming that takes them out of, and away from, participating in the corporate worship of the community of faith. This is NOT a default in order to simply avoid having traditional classes for youth of this age group. To the contrary, it is to give them a more appropriate and effective youth ministry experience, if youth faith development and retention is really our goal – and of course, it is.
  • Youth will participate in rotation in not only attending, but assisting in, the worship of the community.
  • In addition to attending and participating in worship, youth will further enhance group-building and their sense of being an important part of the larger community by participating in particular service initiatives to the larger worshiping community, whether younger or older, through specific structured activities.
  • Opportunities for both socialization and some form of structured teaching/learning will occur at times outside of the time set aside for corporate worship. In our case, this will be accomplished as part of our youth group programming.
  • Youth group programming will be offered in two distinct groups: one group for 6th through 8th graders, and another group for 9th through 12th graders. These groups will meet on Sundays – the younger group from 2:00 – 3:30, and the older group from 3:30 – 5:00.
  • Similarly, Confirmation classes, when in session, will occur outside of the time set aside for corporate worship. In our case, Confirmation classes will continue to be held at 9:00 in the Youth Room. This will enable both Confirmation education, as well as youth attendance and participation in corporate worship.

In the end, there is no magic wand that we can just wave and eliminate the problem of youth leaving the faith and the church. We’re facing a problem that has developed over generations, and which will in the best of circumstances take at least a couple of generations to fully correct. Still, the first steps in correcting the problem – and in doing justice to the spiritual lives and development of our youth – involve reinforcing the fact that they are an important, valued, and integral part of our worshiping community. Oddly, we may need to learn, or re-learn, this fact for ourselves. But if we do, and if we model  that in our own lives and in the life of the church, our youth will benefit.


[1] Children’s Church is the Church, online article at www. http://nextchurch.net/childrens-church-church/#.UvFKTvv-ZPg . For an excellent in-depth explanation of this idea, watch the following youTube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-jXe-v4iiI (Beyond Soup Kitchens and Sardines: Youth Ministry as Practical Theology)

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Of course, every change to a congregational system will ratchet up at least some anxiety, if for no other reason than the change is an unknown – and sometimes, the change may be flatly opposed. In making these changes, I expected some hesitance from a percentage of parents – and I was correct – but by and large, the parents understand what we’re trying to do and are very supportive.

The most common concern voiced has been that having youth attend, and even be regular participants in, the worship is a new innovation that cheats the youth of what they supposedly “should” be doing. But as I’ve pointed out, having youth, and even younger children, being present together in worship was historically the norm in the Christian church, from its very earliest days until some churches began to vary from that in the middle of the 20th century. Even at that, many, many churches maintained, and still continue, that earlier model of having a designated educational hour separate from the worship time. Interestingly, looking at most of the churches that follow that model today, the age break-point for assuming that the child is mature enough to appropriately be in worship generally falls in the range of seven or eight years old. What we’re discussing here is the maturity and appropriateness of youth ages 12 and up being in worship.

Most of the concerns about having youth this age in worship center around two points:The first is that the youth lack the intellectual capacity/maturity to be able to understand and appreciate the nature of worship and the concepts and issues being raised in the sermon and the rest of the service. The problem with this argument is that the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction. We begin to instruct our children from the youngest ages in various sports, musical expressions, and other extracurricular activities. As they progress through the years, we gradually develop an increasing level of understanding of the particular activity. By the time our youth are 12 years old or so, we know – and they demonstrate – that they have the intellectual capacity and maturity to understand how and when to steal a base, when and when not to bunt a baseball, what a smart way to field a ball would be; how to play a zone or man-to-man defense on the basketball court; how to memorize and carry out various plays on a football or soccer field; various ballet or tap dance steps and techniques; how to play a musical instrument or sing a part in a choir; the requirements of various gymnastics routines; and on and on. And we typically expect them to participate in these endeavors at least weekly, and sometimes more frequently, and in group activities that often run 2 or more hours at a stretch. There’s really nothing about the content of a worship service that should be inaccessible to any youth that has the intellectual capacity and maturity to do any of those other things.
The second concern that has been offered is that they’ll think that the service is boring, and that they’d rather be doing something more fun. They may even see attendance in worship as a kind of punishment. Sometimes, this concern is extended to the claim that by being bored in worship, they’ll be driven away from church.
Here again, evidence points otherwise. As parents, we all know that there are all sorts of examples of things that our kids complain about, that they don’t want to do, or that they think is boring or otherwise undesirable. Whether it’s eating certain foods that are nutritious but not to their liking; or doing their homework or their chores; or paying attention in a class that isn’t being taught by the most inspiring teacher; or practicing their chosen sport, or musical, or similar activity; we all know that we have to guide our kids to have the discipline of doing something that at the moment seems to be unappealing, in order to have long-term benefit. Attending worship is just one more activity that youth are more likely to gain a longer term appreciation for, by being exposed to it, and participating in it, over the long term. Certainly, some will still not retain an affiliation within the faith even if they do that. But the evidence is clear that the danger is far greater that the youth will leave the faith – not just the congregation, or the denomination, but the faith in general – if they are not incorporated into regular communal worship, beginning at a relatively young age.
An interesting thing is that often – and completely contrary to the expressions on their faces and their comments – the youth are very much picking up important things by being in worship, which will stick with them, and which we only recognize much later. This kind of faith development by osmosis is a very important part of a child’s overall faith development, and it can only occur over time, on its own.
But I’m quick to point out that merely attending worship, while better than not being there at all, isn’t enough by itself. It’s very important for them to not just attend, but be actual participants in the service. They need to see, and internalize, that they are actual stakeholders in worship, and not intrusions to be tolerated or to patronize. Part of the tweaked youth ministry model is that youth will be assisting in worship in some manner virtually every Sunday.
The idea of overlapping educational activities with the time set aside for corporate worship is often adopted based on the argument that everyone has such busy schedules these days, that we have to keep our time commitment to faith development to an absolute minimum, or people won’t participate in the faith community. That may indeed be a determining factor for some people, but if we adopt this concept in order to increase membership, at what expense are we doing so? Will we end up with a bigger roster, but shallower faith development and overall congregational commitment? Time is critical these days, for youth and adults alike, so we must use it wisely, respectfully, and effectively. It’s that “effectively” piece that we’re trying to improve upon with this approach to youth ministry. Trying to condense our Sunday morning time commitment by overlapping our classroom time and our worship time for youth is kind of like baking a pizza: if the instructions say to bake it at 425 for 25 minutes, we can’t just bake it at 850 for half the time and get the same results. Across all denominational boundaries, we’ve seen how that attempt at time compression has been detrimental to the primary goal of youth faith development.
Anyway, those are just some things that have been on my mind.
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