closing the gap between “big church” and youth ministry.

Giraffe_family_by_valkyrjandisclaimer: originally i had no intention of having a photo that was at all related to this post. i just wanted a picture of a giraffe because it’s my patronus. but this picture seemed to fit. now it feels childish and cheesy. oh well. moving on.

how do we address the increasing number of individuals leaving their faith communities after they graduate high school?

it’s been well documented that today’s students are graduating high school and leaving their faith communities. i have experienced this myself in my years of doing ministry: students are highly involved during middle school and high school – even join the student ministry leadership team – but then vanish after their first semester after graduating. sometimes they ditch even before they make it to graduation. often times students finish their time in the youth ministry and don’t have a reentry point into the church until they’re married with children.

in the past, we’ve tried to cure this by creating a “college ministry” or “young adult” ministry or “20somethings ministry”. typically these are underfunded, understaffed and unattended. in short: they quickly become massive failures. they develop a lot of hype, kickoff with a bit of momentum, then just turn into cliquish small groups. it’s not working. i think we’ve been doing it the wrong way for a long time now.

when i was growing up, i called the main worship gathering “big church”. it wasn’t for me – it was for my parents and my sunday school teachers and the old fogies that get up and speak at the congregational meetings. there was a distinct dichotomy set up: the main gathering was for the adults, and the sunday schools/youth ministry was for the kids/teens. they were separate, age-appropriate spaces; there was no blending between these groups.

while i believe strongly in age-appropriate spaces, i think we miss a terrific opportunity to include our students in the congregation as a whole. yes, we create a place for belonging at that age-level, but we unintentionally communicate to our students that the main worship gathering is not for them. no wonder they have no interest getting involved at their church after they graduate high school! they’ve had 18 years of non-verbals telling them that “big church” isn’t where they belong!

personally, i don’t believe the answer to reaching young adult populations begins with a new program directed at that age group. i think the answer begins in elementary school. and in middle school. and in high school. the answer is found in integrating our children and teenagers into the community at large in whatever creative ways we can. let the kindergartners play tambourines in the worship band. let the middle schoolers run the slide projector. even let a few high schoolers help preach!

i think the most important thing youth pastors can do is integrate their students into the rhythms and practices of the entire congregation. add the men’s breakfast to the high school calendar. get some middle schoolers to do the call to worship. have students serve communion and read scripture during the service. even pausing weekly events and gatherings to engage in community-wide practices is important.

when we are able to give our students ownership of their church congregation throughout their childhood and teenage years, they will feel a sense of belonging when they graduate high school and enter the adult world. we need to begin valuing our students’ lives beyond high school, and i believe that beings at age 0.

– what ways do you engage your children and students in your congregation’s rhythms and practices?
– what ideas do you have for how to engage them in worship gatherings in the future?


One thought on “closing the gap between “big church” and youth ministry.”

  1. Yeah, I think early and often integration is important, but not just for retention reasons. We need those kids around as much as they need us. If a kid grows up and leaves church, but felt loved and at home and part of something while there, that is enough for me.

    But even at Jacob’s Well we’ve struggled with inviting the youth into service. They have typically found it irrelevant and unengaging. And JW is a pretty hip church. Should we then further modify the service to appeal to kids? I don’t think so. That is pandering, and kids especially can sniff that out. You could, instead, invite kids in as full participants, but that would be giving up control, and would open up the service to change, neither of which are popular, even if they could be wonderful.

    I am also wary of the fear of losing kids as they grow up. In my experience, for the most partt, kids who grow up into the church they come from stagnate. It is the ones who go out and find themselves and their own new homes that thrive in their faith. No matter how awesome the church is, it may be neccessary for its children to leave to find their identity.

    This is separate from kids growing up and out of faith, too. Most people I know who don’t got to church after high school are in two categories: those who still believe, but find themselves unprepared for how leaving home drops all your barriers. By that I mean, that you no longer run into those invisible walls that keep you from doing ‘bad stuff.’ Your parents and teachers are gone, so you now have to face moral challenges in a whole new way. A way they were wholly unprepared for in church. A purity talk is nice, but if it doesn’t treat teens as sexual beings, and goes beyond oversimplistic moralizing, it will be ineffective. Fear is an unsustainable motivator of moral behavior. These kids will avoid church out of shame. To address this, you have to have a non-fear based, even grace-based, curriculum of morality. There can be no paradigm of sin management. You have to concentrate on goodness, not on not-sinningness.

    The other main group I have experienced are those who lose their faith, either fully, or mostly. For these kids, you need a curriculum of transition from unquestioning faith, through doubt, into mysticism. You have to go through the doubt, and really engage it uncritically, or you will lose those kids into the doubt. This, of course, has to be differentiated, but mentoring can help with that. In other words, in a youth group, if you want to retain your kids past high school, you have to seriously engage doubt, and also be willing to lose those kids for the sake of their own internal integrity. The church is the one prime place besides a counselor’s office that people can hope to bridge between these stages (read Scott Peck’s A Different Drum for more on them), and perhaps there is no better place than a youth group. But only if we are willing to risk losing the kids. The tighter you hold on, the more likely they are to leave.

    One more way to engage both of these main leaving groups is ritual. Give them consistant spaces to comfortably drift off into liminal spaces where they can find God in their rote practice. I love mindfull, and engaging spiritual practices. Do those, too. But well crafted prayers and rituals will give the kids a sense of place and rhythm that a normal evangelical model, with its prayer requests and bible studies cannot replace.

    There’s some of my thoughts. Sorry for any typos, I am on my phone. Any one else have any thoughts?

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