In my first years as a youth minister, my co-workers and I had a plan for helping our students transition from youth group into the next chapter of their lives in the church—at least, I thought we did.
We held the requisite events to celebrate and commission our seniors. We talked with them about how to find a church if they were leaving the area. We did what all youth ministers do every year—we grieved another goodbye with another class we loved.
Only those graduates never left.
On the first Sunday of the fall semester, the students who were staying local turned up in the youth room ready to participate in our high school ministry!
We were baffled. Hadn’t we explained that they would now leave the youth ministry and participate in our church as adults? Unfortunately, our youth group was the only part of the church they had experienced. They didn’t know what else to do.
A Generational Disconnect
I love Mark’s account of the people who were bringing their children to Jesus. Apparently concerned that these little ones would be a bother to the Lord, the disciples rebuked the children’s parents for disturbing him. Mark tells us that Jesus was indignant and told them “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).
In the same way Jesus dignified children, the Gospel writers tell us that he also welcomed and trained up young men and women—many of them likely teenagers—for service in his Father’s kingdom. They weren’t in the minor leagues waiting to be called up, but serving right alongside him in all the messiness of their adolescent development.
As we considered our failure-to-launch experience, my teammates and I realized that we had neglected to include students in the life of our church as a whole. And isn’t that the point of youth ministry—to help teenagers become followers of Jesus and connect to the church?
Not only had our students been left out of corporate worship, most of them didn’t know any adults beyond the youth leaders. Even when we commissioned them, it was in the youth room rather than in the presence of the whole church. We had effectively exiled our teenagers from the body without even realizing it.
I had to acknowledge that in this way, I had hindered rather than helped the teenagers I loved.
Practical Ideas for Integration
In the years following that failure to help students find their place in the church, I got connected with Rooted and learned more about intergenerational integration, one of Rooted’s five pillars of youth ministry. Here are some of the values that have been helpful to my current congregation on the journey of including students in the life of our church.
Prioritize corporate worship.
Sunday worship is arguably the most important part of our calling to gather as the people of God (Acts 2:42; Col. 3:145-16; Heb. 10:25). But many churches actively choose to focus on age-and-stage based programming instead. Others have built-in structures that keep teenagers out of corporate worship, however unintentionally.
In my previous church, for example, our Sunday morning youth programming was offered at the same time as one of our church’s corporate worship services due to a space constraint. Most families opted to have their teenagers attend the youth program while parents participated in worship. Prior to the experience with graduates showing up to the youth room, I never thought to encourage families to worship together, nor to talk with church leaders about considering another structure. My co-workers and I needed to do both in order to increase our students’ exposure to the life of the whole church
The church I serve now has a Sunday morning schedule that more naturally encourages families to worship together in addition to attending age-specific Sunday school classes. But not every church can adopt this kind of a structure due to space, time, or language constraints. Our friends in multi-lingual and immigrant churches, for example, often have generations worshiping separately in order for each generation to worship in its heart language.
Whatever our church’s constraints, we will need to be intentional about connecting the generations in worship. Maybe you could offer breakfast in between services to encourage students to stick around for a service after youth programming. Perhaps you could work with other church leaders to hold a bi-lingual service at strategic times throughout the year, or reschedule small groups so students can participate in corporate worship more regularly. There’s no one-size-fits all approach; integration is deeply contextual.
Provide opportunities to serve the body.
Teenagers can serve in many of the significant ways adults can. Include them as nursery workers and Vacation Bible School staff, as ushers, greeters, sound booth facilitators, and YouTube creators. In Sunday worship, ask them to read Scripture, lead the call to worship, or share a personal story of God’s grace. (In a multilingual context, perhaps you could do an exchange on occasion, having members of different generations participate with a translator.)
If you have a student leadership team, include these students in leader training your church facilitates. Invite student leaders to share an account of their experience serving, either in writing or verbally at an all-church event. Help adult leaders understand what student leaders are contributing so they can personally encourage them. Echoing Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, we want to say to our students, “we have need of you.”
Partner with other ministries of the church.
When I asked students several years ago to think about how we could join forces with something our church was already doing to help fundraise for our summer service trip, one thoughtful freshman suggested our annual church picnic. This was one of those events that everyone loved to attend, but no one wanted to plan . With a whole team of students and their parents engaged, it became an easier lift. Each year as students serve our church family by bringing people drinks or cleaning up their places, they have opportunities to share about our partnerships in the communities we visit each summer—conversations that bridge friendships and prayer across the generations.
Finding a creative way to partner elevates teenagers by including them in the life of the whole church, rather than adding an event to the church calendar or creating another program.
Sometimes it’s equally meaningful to have other ministries of the church serve teenagers. One of our elders has graciously helped to recruit a group to send our students off on their winter retreat. It is a beautiful thing to see our other pastors and elders welcome students and their families at check-in and help to load their luggage on busses. Their sacrificial service frees youth leaders to get settled on the bus with their small groups—but even more significantly, it communicates our church’s commitment to our students.
If you are just beginning this journey of intergenerational integration, take heart! Our gracious Lord Jesus longs to welcome teenagers to come to him. May our churches join him in this gospel welcome that is for people of all ages.