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?