One of the questions I am often asked is how do we get youth into our church? How do we welcome them as part of our community? One of the best things I find about youth ministry is in thinking about how to welcome and incorporate youth into our communities, we can become better churches for
, not just teenagers. So with that, here are some of the key things I’ve learned both as a parish youth minister and now as the Diocesan Youth Missioner.
This is vital. If you read much about the “nones” and current trends amongst millennial church goers (of which I count myself one) and the emerging Gen Z, you’ll find that most youth and young adults end up in churches where the people are genuine, where folks aren’t trying to be “hip” in some way they think young people will like. So, for example, if you’re a church that does traditional choral music and liturgy really well, keep doing that really well! That’s an expression of who you are as a community. If you’re a church that has a praise band and where the services are less formal—keep doing that if that’s who you are! Teenagers can spot people being disingenuous in a heartbeat (Holden Caufield, anyone?). They want us to be true to ourselves, particularly as they work through figuring out who they are going to be. The more our communities live into their unique characters, the more you’ll see young people respond.
Everyone is the Church now.
You know that line from Whitney Houston’s, “The Greatest Love of All,” “I believe the children are our future?”
Youth are not the future of the Church. They are the Church now. The same goes for our children. And our young adults. There is a tendency I’ve seen amongst church leaders to think about how we have to preserve the Church for the future, or look to our youth and children as people who will be leaders someday. The truth is, though, that we are all members of the Body of Christ
. We can’t tell our youth to keep their ideas for some undetermined time in the future. What are they saying about your community now? How do they envision the church of tomorrow? In what ways can we start working towards that today? We shouldn’t be thinking about training our youth to be future leaders. We should look to them as leaders of the church in the here and now. What are they trying to tell our communities?
When I was in parish ministry, someone gave me
The Christian Century
. I remember reading it in my office saying “YES!” out loud and sending it around to the parents of the youth in my youth groups. There’s an experience of many youth in the Episcopal Church that is all-too-common and tacitly accepted: young people come to church as children, get confirmed, leave, and don’t come back until they have kids as adults. Often the strongest college ministries I run into are those in which many of the members had strong high school youth programs that focused on building a lifelong relationship with Christ,
as opposed to social clubs for young people. There’s
absolutely nothing wrong
with having fun together. This is a key part of our relationship as brothers and sisters, and it’s important to have those times set aside for rest and recreation, as well as community-building! But at the end of the day, all of our ministries should be grounded in our faith in the Risen Lord. It’s helpful to check in from time to time and make sure this is really the case. Are there places your community has lost that vision? If so, it’s never too late to get “back on track” and help build “sticky faith” for everyone—from those who have been coming to church every Sunday since they were born, to the person who has just walked into a church for the very first time.
Failure is hard
One of my favorite collects in the Prayer Book is one for young people: “God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals.
Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start.
Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(BCP 829; emphasis mine). Failing is not something that has gotten much easier for me as I grow up. I often encounter church communities who are putting a lot of energy into keeping particular programs going because they can’t stand to see them fail, even when there are other ministries going on in their congregations that are growing and could use the energy being drained by the failing one. We have a tendency to see failure as a measure of our worth, or our “success” as Christians. The beauty is, though, that God loves us no matter what. If we fail at something, God loves us. If we succeed at something, God loves us. Our young people are looking to us to see how we respond when things don’t work out the way we’d like them to. Will we see those failures as value judgments of our worth? Will they see us holding on to our faith in Christ even as we struggle?
Most of all, love one another intensely
When I think back to being a teen, I remember how intense my emotions were. The good days were amazing, and the bad ones were really bad. I’ve found this to be true with many of the youth I encounter. But in the midst of it all, I find that the youth with whom I work love one another completely, in a no-holds-barred kind of way that we so often leave behind as we enter adulthood. Jesus calls us to live into the unconditional love shown to us in his life, and while I wouldn’t go so far to say that youth love unconditionally or perfectly, they love with an intensity that reminds me of Jesus. Where are we holding back love in our lives as followers of the Jesus movement? How can our churches be places that love one another intensely?
Churches are blessed with being one of the truly intergenerational spaces in our society. We are all on this faith journey together, and youth bring joy, energy, and authenticity to this journey. I am blessed and honored to get to learn continually from the young people in our diocese, and I invite you to learn from them as well.