Don’t Banish Your Students to the Kids’ Table

When people are getting up during the meal to take smoking breaks, it is probably time to stop calling it “the kids’ table.”

My aunt and uncle hosted Christmas Eve each year. Not everyone could fit at the dining room table, so the kids ate at the smaller kitchen table. This set up worked great until nobody at the kids’ table was a kid anymore.

Unfortunately, youth ministry is sometimes treated as a permanent kids’ table within the church. It exists to keep the younger crowd satisfied and the older folks undisturbed. But a healthy youth ministry aimed at making life-long disciples must work to facilitate intergenerational integration.

Intergenerational integration is an essential part of faithful youth ministry. Although many youth ministers agree with that statement, many don’t find it doable. I want to convince you that it is both essential and doable. A youth pastor is in a prime strategic position to facilitate this integration.

The Gospel Creates a Family

Throughout the New Testament, the church is referred to as a family or household. Paul insists that although church members come from wildly disparate backgrounds, through Christ we are all “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). The gospel declares that all people, no matter how sinful they have been or what family they were born into, are adopted as children of God. Different backgrounds often form a barrier between people. Old grudges are hard to put aside. But Christ died to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). This means that church is meant to function like a family, which means members should be connected to one another. This is why a healthy youth ministry should not isolate students from other church members, but instead work towards intergenerational integration.

Talk Like It’s Normal

If a church wants to see different generations integrating, leaders must talk about it like it’s normal. As a youth pastor, you’re in a great position to point out how weird it is that the experience of some teenagers in the church is almost entirely with other teenagers. How odd would it be if everyone in the church only interacted with those within a few years of their own age? What if all the 40–45-year-old adults had a catchy name for their group, their own worship band, and well stocked game room?

There may be good reasons to have these things for teenagers, but it should not be their only experience of the church. It should not be surprising when young people leave the church after graduation if we did not expect them be a real part of it before. Find regular opportunities to talk about intergenerational integration. I bring it up at every parent meeting. I occasionally write about it in our church newsletter. I mention it when I get the chance to preach and drop it into impromptu conversations in the lobby. Students hear about it. Adults hear about it. We need to talk about integration if we want to have a culture of integration.

Provide Practical Opportunities

Besides talking about it, you should also provide practical opportunities. Identify the easy ways to integrate students into the fuller life of the church. Ask yourself: Are there places it is already happening? Draw attention to them. Where can it happen easily? Pass along any and every need for volunteers in the church to the teenagers.

In my church teenagers help in the nursery and children’s church. They volunteer with the AWANA program and VBS. Little scheduling changes can go a long way too. We recently gave a 10-week stretch of Sundays to combining the high school Sunday school class with the main adult Sunday school class. We hope to do this at least once a year. Although it gets crowded, these classes remind the young and the old alike that we are fellow members of the same household.

Connect Adults to the Youth

Traffic should move in both directions across the bridge between teenagers and older adults. In in recruiting adult volunteers for our weekly youth group meetings, I go out of my way to seek out older adults. I love the twenty-somethings who volunteer. They are incredible. But I also want the retired empty-nester (who feels out of touch) and the mom (who may have to miss more often than she’d like because her kids are sick) to both know they have something to offer the youth ministry.

Many older adults have too many other responsibilities in life to be part of your weekly program. Find other ways to draw them in. We have some adults who are experts on specific relevant topics. For example, we have a psychiatrist in our congregation who spoke one Sunday to the high schoolers on mental health. About half his time was spent fielding questions from the students. A youth pastor should always seek to bridge between generations.

One personal way we help our church integrate is by connecting students with a specific adult in the church committed to pray for them regularly throughout the year. Depending on the student and the adult, this relationship sometimes blossoms into something much bigger. Praying adults will come to track meets or musicals, send birthday notes, and keep in touch even after graduation. Yet even for the pairings that don’t take off like that, running this program helps set the tone for the church. It reaffirms that it is normal for teenagers to connect with the older generation.

Sometimes Less is More

Other opportunities for integration may require youth pastors to prune their own ministry. A few years ago, we stopped having a youth worship band. Instead, we pushed our teenage musicians towards the main worship teams. Now we have teenagers serving alongside musicians of all ages each Sunday. Other times we may just need to have fewer events. For high schoolers to help with AWANA, youth group must be at a different time. If we want teenagers at a women’s ministry retreat, we can’t fill up that same weekend with youth-specific stuff. Each of these decisions are specific to my situation and may not be the exact thing you need to do. But keep your eyes open for what may be getting in the way of intergenerational integration.

A Youth Ministry That Unites

In our culture, generational differences are assumed to be a big deal. It is an unquestioned truth that Gen-Z is in tension with Millennials who are in tension with Gen-Xers who are in tension with Baby Boomers (and on and on). But, in the church, this ought not be so. No matter what generation we are from, we are “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” If a church’s youth ministry only reinforces these generational divides, it is not serving the ultimate mission of the church.

Thankfully, youth ministry programs and youth pastors have a great opportunity to facilitate intergenerational integration. It is not easy. It may require big shifts in a church’s culture. Those shifts take time. It requires us to change our expectations and the expectations of those around us. Those adjustments do not happen overnight. It also means letting go of control in many places. Teenagers will find discipleship and mentoring in places besides the youth room. That’s okay. Intergenerational integration is not easy, but it is worth it.

Dan Montgomery is Jane’s husband, Micah & Molly’s daddy, and the Youth Pastor at First Evangelical Free Church in Sioux Falls, SD. Before moving to Sioux Falls, he helped lead a College/20s ministry for eight years. He has an MA in Historical Theology from Wheaton College. A native of the Chicago suburbs, he misses living close to a place with good deep dish pizza. He also loves running (for fun!), playing the piano, and hanging out with his family.

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