Young people regard the wider church as “their” church and are engaged and involved in its activities.
I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:9)
Years ago, a girl in our youth ministry stopped attending. As we followed her up it turned out she was in a relationship with a young man who had no interest in church, and not surprisingly she had decided that she no longer did either. “That was one we lost”, I thought.
About ten years later I was asked to speak at a youth pastors’ training conference and when I walked into the room I was shocked to see her there. Not only was she back following Jesus, but she was also preparing to serve Him in youth ministry.
Of course, I asked her to fill me in on the last ten years! She explained that she became pregnant to this man at which point he lost interest in her and she felt deeply hurt and alone. As she reached rock bottom she reflected on a time and place in life where she felt like she belonged. She returned to our church.
She realised of course that few of us from her youth group days were likely to be there. I’d moved on as had her peers but others in the church remembered her and made her feel welcome. She was back at “her church” where people cared.
One of the characteristics of a healthy youth ministry is that the young people have a strong sense of belonging, not just to the youth group but to the wider church. Such a youth ministry sees itself, and is seen, as an integral part of the wider church body – not simply an add-on or a separate “church within a church”.
If all that our young people know of their church is what happens within the youth ministry, and if the only adults they know in the church are those on the youth leadership team, then the chances are slim that they will stay involved beyond youth group, regularly attending Sunday services. Why would they, when the church has never felt like “theirs”?
Too often our youth ministries have been the victim of their own success. We’ve established a programme for young people which they enjoy and where their needs are met, and in doing so have created the expectation that the wider church will similarly meet their self-centred needs. When it doesn’t, they look elsewhere.
As youth leaders we can comfort ourselves with the thought that “at least they are going somewhere”, and while it’s true that “somewhere” is better than “nowhere”, if it’s not “here” then perhaps our youth ministry is not as healthy as it could be.
There are several things youth pastors and key leaders can do to stop the drift of young people away from our church.
The first is to provide instruction and encouragement. Young people won’t automatically see themselves as part of your church just because they attend the youth ministry. There are ways to subtly raise awareness such as including your church’s name on any youth publicity, communicating that the youth ministry sees itself as part of the wider church. You can also be more direct, encouraging them to attend Sunday services perhaps planning the occasional lunch and time together afterwards. You could tie this in with special services that are likely to have appeal to them. In addition to this, talk positively and enthusiastically about your church and stress the importance of them seeing themselves as part of the wider body.
All of this of course is futile unless youth leaders role model commitment to the wider church. They should regularly attend your church, both because it is a good thing to do but also as an example to the young people. If young people are coming with their parents to church but never see their youth leaders there, their own motivation for attending will be affected. If young people are not attending church regularly by the time they leave the youth group they are unlikely to ever do so.
A third area to focus on to give young people a sense of belonging to a church is to help them build relationships with others in the church. Studies continually affirm that the more relationships young people build with older people in the church, the more likely they are to see the church as “theirs”, and consequently the more likely they are to keep attending after they finish youth group.
Therefore, we need to be proactive in creating opportunities for them to meet and get to know older people, including church leaders, and to be in caring, supportive relationships with them.
As part of our Sunday morning programme for pre-teens, we would invite older people in the church to come and share with them how they came to know Jesus. There were some fascinating stories shared and good questions asked, as these young people got to know our church members a little better and more closely identified with them when they saw them on Sundays.
A final way to increase this sense of belonging for young people is to involve them in service within the church. As they finish high school they are more likely to stay at a church if they are serving, or invited to serve in a role that is meaningful to them. When young people see other young people involved in serving on a Sunday morning and at other times they have a greater sense that the church belongs to them too and not just older people.
Many may be unaware of opportunities that exist so compile a list of ways to be involved and then help young people recognise their gifts and passions so together you can match them with tasks that will provide a sense of satisfaction and belonging.
As you see young people getting involved, make other young people aware of what they are doing and encourage others to contribute too. Peer pressure need not always be negative!
Finally, a good way to give young people a sense of involvement in the wider church is to listen to their ideas and opinions, providing opportunities and encouragement to share these with leadership. This might mean attending congregational meetings or inviting the pastor/elders to talk with the young people and listen to what they have to say. You may even consider forming a “think tank” of young people who formulate ideas and regularly feed these on to the elders for consideration.
CHECKLIST: TEN INDICATORS THAT A YOUTH MINISTRY ENCOURAGES A SENSE OF BELONGING TO THE CHURCH
- The church leaders see the youth ministry as being a vital part of the wider church, not an add-on to it.
- The youth leaders see the youth ministry as being a vital part of the wider church, not an add-on to it.
- The young people know the name of their church and the name of the minister/pastor.
- The young people have a positive view of their wider church.
- Publicity for young people and families includes reference to the church name.
- Leaders actively encourage young people to attend Sunday services and let them know of any special services that may have appeal.
- All youth leaders regularly attend Sunday services.
- Opportunities are created for young people to meet and mix with older people from the church.
- Opportunities are created for young people to get to know the church leaders.
- Young people are encouraged to serve within the wider church and given opportunities to do so.
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.