Floor-to-ceiling murals cover the three walls of the elementary school cafeteria where our small church gathers each Sunday morning. As a now established, self-running church plant, we’re still growing. Our metal folding chairs, about 100 of them, face toward the stage, and you never know what you’ll get up there – most recently there were fluorescent stars, remnants of the fifth grade party. To say the aesthetics are lacking is an understatement. At the same time, the informal setting is a welcome invitation to the congregation’s posse of pre-school girls, who have a proclivity for twirling in the aisle during the singing. The five-and-under crowd tends to run the place – and run all over the place.
It’s a different story for our teenagers, of which there are seven. That is seven teenagers spread between six grade levels; seven teenagers involved in equally as many diverse activities. Three of these seven are my own kids. The other four represent just two other families. So, while I would love to have a formalized church youth group, it’s not something we’ve been able to do yet.
Because of this reality, what I often hear from friends is they would come to our church, BUT…
- “But…We need a youth group for our kids.”
- “But…Once our kids go away to college we’ll come.”
- “But…Our kids are happy with their friends in their youth group, so we just have to sacrifice not getting the deeper teaching we would want.”
Statements like these make me want to scream.
Why do people equate not having a formal youth group, in the traditional sense, with a nonexistent youth ministry? Even more disturbingly, why do we elevate youth group over gospel-centered preaching?
My contrary experience in our small church was evident on Senior Recognition Sunday when one of our elders, who presented my daughter with a book, choked up while talking about watching her grow and the impact she has had on their family – specifically, his elementary-aged girls. And then our assistant pastor, whose wife has been my daughter’s mentor, echoed similar sentiments.
Youth ministry is happening in our church. It just looks different than youth group.
Without the comfort of many other teenagers, our youth are faced with a choice: they can either stand off to the side with their arms crossed, waiting for mom and dad to finish talking after church, or they can embrace the body as their own. Because the latter is taking place in our church, our youth have gained the ability (and desire) to fluidly interact with both adults and young children. Therefore, unlikely intergenerational friendships have developed, including mentorship relationships with adults who truly know my kids.
These personal and weekly interactions have instilled in our teens what it means to be faithful church members, because they participate in worship and engage in the mess and muck of life as involved fellow worshippers. As a result, having a like-minded church with families to do life with was a huge factor in my daughter’s college search.
But this is not unique to her. What I have noticed in the teens at our church is an invested ownership and willingness to serve the body – not when they become adults, but now as teenagers. They do so by setting up communion, singing on the worship team, tithing, volunteering in childcare, and babysitting – all integral roles in the life of the body. And in focusing on and ministering to others, their eyes are temporarily taken off of themselves.
Despite the unmistakable ministry taking place currently, it will still be nice someday for our teenagers to have more peers and a weeknight group of their own for support. I say “support” because a youth group is not the crux to which the church is built or attendance is based (although it so easily becomes this). The cornerstone is Christ, and therefore the priority of the church should always be the preaching and teaching of the gospel of Christ.
Too often, the youth group becomes the main event or the exclusive connection of a student with the church. When this happens, our teenagers are robbed of the ministry happening within the larger context of the church body – ministry that leads to a deeper life-long love for the church.
Additionally, if the youth group is more about fun and games or prone to
moralistic, law-based teaching, more harm than good is fostered. This may sound harsh, but studies indicate 70-80% of kids raised in the church abandon it upon entering adulthood. I believe the biggest contributing factors are the missing message of the gospel of grace, and the neglect of incorporating students into the larger body of the church.
So whether you belong to a church with or without a youth group, it would do us well to expand our thinking, to realize that we are what we feed on. In other words, if our church and/or youth group is about gospel growth in people’s lives, we will see teens dealing honestly with the depth and reality of their sin, teens who know their constant need for Jesus, and teens who long for community with other believers. These will be the teens who stay involved in church, not out of an obligation, but out of a love for it. On the contrary, for those students feeding on a steady diet of self-justification and self-righteousness, they will grow tired of bearing the weight and wearing the masks, and instead of running to the cross, they will run away from the church.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.