Four Things to Help Youth Leaders to Attract and Keep Youth
More and more youth ministers of all denominations are expressing concern about the future of young teens and families in the Church. There is no good night for youth groups, no one shows up for Sunday School, there is no commitment to Confirmation classes. I have heard all of these—even from my own mouth in the past few years. I, like many, am concerned for the future of the church and for the faith lives of youth in today’s busy, hyperconnected society.
Reflecting on my own Episcopal upbringing and my own feelings towards the Church as a teenager, what teens say they want now from church are not much different than my own in the 1990’s. Across generations and across the nation, teens have continually expressed a desire for their churches to offer worship that is applicable to their lives, to feel a sense of belonging, and for adults to practice what they preach. These are basic ideals, not ridden with high-cost technology or fancy, unattainable theatrics. They are a call to meet youth where they are, in the culture of their lives instead of making them try to fit in a model that does not resonate with them. Instead, we continue to use outdated models for faith formation and insist that tradition is more important than innovation in our Church. Both of these hold great importance, but there has to be ways to marry the two concepts in order to retain young leaders in our congregations. I am continually reminded (partially though the inability to recognize half of the music on the radio) that I am aging quickly, but I offer a few suggestions on how to keep youth interested and engaged in our congregations.
Imagine if five adults in your congregation went up to a certain youth after a worship service and greeted them by name and said “Hey, nice to see you! How is school going?” or “Great to see you here today!” . How awesome would that be? The youth may feel welcomed and that they are a part of the church. Think about how good it feels to be welcomed somewhere, and extend that to the youth in our congregations. Often, we adults are scared silly of teens. Why? Why do we always feel like we are not cool enough to talk to teens? Teenage years are the most stressful, most self-conscious years of most of our lives. By that rationale, it should be teens that are nervous about not being cool enough to talk to us, but we have somehow gotten this confused. Instead, as adults, we tend to walk right by them, look past them for leadership, and only use them when we need a job done that no one else wants to do. We get nervous that they will look at us awkwardly or think we are weird. Too bad. We are the adults, and we have to change this. I make it a point every week to just go up to youth and say, “Hey! Glad to see you!”, so they know they are noticed, appreciated, and counted. I encourage you to find four other adults who are willing to do this “experiment” in greeting youth and see how it changes the dynamic of your congregation, your youth’s attitude towards church, and your own outlook on being radically welcoming. You don’t have to discuss the lyrics to the new Lacrae album to start, just a simple “Hey, I forgot your name but it was great to see you here today” can make a world of difference to a kid who may not otherwise feel like anyone noticed they were there.
Youth in today’s society are far more technologically savvy, far better at multitasking, and far better at promotion and marketing of things that are important to them than almost any of us. They are more connected to the world around them and to people near and far than most of us adults ever will be. While all the technology can be overwhelming (I have embraced the fact that I will never understand Snapchat,) it is actually a huge win for the Church every time our youth post pics, videos, status updates, etc. of the times they are there. What better word of mouth advertising can you get than a teen who wants to post pictures at church?
Don’t even know how to use an iPad? Ask them to help you. Ask them to teach you how to change the ringtone on your new phone or download the new Jamie Grace song. They possess great knowledge in these things, and if they don’t—they know someone else who can. I often make jokes about how technology hates me (it’s true. My electronics break constantly), but I have found that the youth with whom I work LOVE to help me figure out new gadgets, download stuff for me, or fix the picture quality on the projector. Looking for someone to run the soundboard or set up microphones for your lectors? Ask youth to help. Need a video for insurance policy of all the “stuff” in your church? Ask youth to help. Need images for a slideshow to present to the vestry about scholarships for camp? Ask youth to share theirs. There are so many ways to use their gifts and talents in ways that didn’t even exist when I was a kid. Make them feel needed. Give them ownership in things that they are good at and things that matter to them. Offer to write them a letter for community service hours or be a reference for a job for them in exchange. You will both benefit from the arrangement.
Some of the best faith formation happens when we get away from our day- to-day routines. Speaking from my own experiences of nine years of summer church camp, I can confidently say, that I would not be where I am today if I had only gone to church on Sundays. It is when we step outside the normal, everyday, hustle and bustle that we can truly focus on what it is we need from God. We need to stop thinking that Sunday School during our worship services is the best or only time for formation. It has become an antiquated system likely developed when parents needed a break from their children and a moment of peace for prayer. Study after study has shown that separating children from the adults for worship has failed in producing deep faith in young adults in almost every denomination. While we may see benefits of bible lessons repeated, it is usually less effective than hours together with our youth to develop lasting friendships, Christian role modeling from leaders, and make profound impacts on deep faith formation. It need not be fancy, or maybe it will be, but the important part is living out our faith, as leaders, in ways that teens recognize as true and real.
I realize, as a leader, that the friendships that are being formed through camp and retreat ministries that I’ve organized are invaluable. I am giving the same gift to the next generation that I was given at that age; the gift of true Christian friendships. It is the opportunities for lasting Christian relationships between youth, more than my own leadership that has become central to my ministry. My best friends in life to this day are still the youth with whom I went to camp every year during my childhood, not necessarily the leaders. These are the people I can still call in the middle of the night with a heavy heart or a need for prayer. I barely remember the youth that went to my church every Sunday but never came to camp or retreats. I don’t remember the focus of any particular Sunday School year, but I could probably tell you most of the themes of my nine years of church camp, and I can recite Compline with my eyes closed. I even married by camp boyfriend, who became a priest at the age of 25. This is not an unusual situation. Many people I know met their best friends or spouses through camps or retreats. Many, many more have found their calling from God during these times. Retreat times, even once or twice a year, can be life-changing for the youth who attend. They can be a time of inspiration and the discovery of God-given gifts.
For all those that still struggle with the absence of youth in our pews, take a deep breath and let go of that anxiety. Consider picking up the phone and connecting with another youth leader at a nearby church. We need to remember that they goal of our ministry is helping youth find God, not in which church has more youth. As leaders, we need to be asking other leaders for support. If you only have two youth, why not go over to the church a mile away to join for youth events? In fact, invite four other churches to join you for an event. Instead of trying to compete, join together. This falls to us, the adult leaders, to humble ourselves, make a phone call or email, and make connections. I have seen this work wonders with youth who have otherwise stayed on the fringes of youth programs. In fact, on the island of Oahu, we have a monthly gathering rotating between different churches, in which all Episcopal, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ congregations’ youth are encouraged to attend. The gatherings vary from a Bingo night, to outreach projects, to formation on topics like forgiveness. It has been relatively easy to plan and we have usually 40-50 kids a month from churches that might otherwise only have a handful of youth. All it took were a few dedicated leaders to decide to work together.
Youth work can be draining. In a given week, I can go from loving it to hating it, but there is always the passion that remains for youth to find God as I did at their age. All I need to do is sit back and watch at a gathering or event to know that what we are doing does make a difference. By trying to stay true to myself and true to those I serve, I see the change in them, and I encourage you to do the same.