Often times, churches get confused about the purpose of their youth ministry. Kids have sports, schools, and after school programs to be involved in that’s all about them and their space. But in the congregation, I’d say it’s a different thing.
In the church, the congregation as a whole is called to raise children from infancy to adulthood in a wide, extended family.
This means a few things:
- The church guides teens to mature Christian adulthood through mentorship, rituals like Confirmation, and initiation into the congregation’s service ministries.
- The church makes space for teens to be teens with each other.
- The church supports parents of teenagers and families as a whole to seek fulfilling family lives.
The work of helping these young people become mature Christian adults is the task of the whole congregation, but not everyone is called to organize trips to Skyzone or sleep on the youth room floor. Luckily, though, that’s only one of the ways to support the youth ministry in your congregation. With a model of full integration, youth ministry extends beyond high-energy social productions into worship, service, and every day conversation.
At the church where I serve, plenty of adults in the congregation work alongside youth at the State Fair Dining Hall and help them acclimate to their first jobs. They incorporate the young people into service at the Dorothy Day Center. There are armies of logistical supporters as well. For nearly every meeting of junior and senior high formation, a parent brings food for hungry brains. The Women’s group raises funds for mission and camping, and the whole congregation comes out to support the mission trip groups for fundraisers.
All of these things are youth ministry, too. Youth ministry is also about letting kids know that their contribution matters, and that this community is their community, which both respects and nurtures them.
The key there is both respecting and nurturing. Kids aren’t just things to be ‘reared’ or told what to do. They are independent and valuable voices in our communities to be respected, at the same time as they are mentored and guided by mature adults into their own adulthood. So, it’s important to let them know that their contribution to the wider community matters. There are three things that I think the whole congregation ought to approach as ministry.
First, incorporate them into the ministries of the whole church.
When youth are incorporated into Sunday Worship (in adult roles, not ONLY acolyting!), congregation-wide service ministries, and adult matters within the church, they’re told that their contribution to the life of the community matters. When adults wonder with them about the sermon, or about the Bible reading for that day, or have genuine conversations about what they think—that’s youth ministry too.
Second, support them in the ministries that are their own.
When the youth take on service projects, special worship services, or fundraisers, each and every member of the congregation who supports them sends the message that their work is important in the wider context of the community. When folks help feed the youth on retreat, or provide snacks for class, a parents meeting, or guide an activity with them during class—that’s youth ministry too.
Third, talk to them seriously about their faith and yours.
Giving young people a language to talk about faith is huge. Youth learn about faith by comparing and contrasting what they can observe and what others demonstrate to them through words and action. Adults who are capable of speaking about these things, be it their parents or any mature member of the congregation, add to kids’ repertoire of information about faith.
That said, not everyone who does youth ministry needs to be leading night games and sleeping on the youth room floor. Not everybody needs to be able to bust out a Taylor Swift song. The church as a whole has contributions to make to the youth ministry of initiating young people into their faith lives as independent adults.
Here are some tangible suggestions for non-youth directors and non-youth ministers to participate in the youth ministry of the wider congregation:
- Strike up a conversation with one of the kids at coffee hour, and figure out who they are and what they care about. Ask him or her seriously about what they thought of the church service that Sunday, or the sermon, or the liturgical choices.
- Does your youth program need logistical help for food, set up or take down? Does their service ministry need donations?
- Next time you serve alongside a young person, pay attention to the way that you guide and facilitate their participation. Be aware that whether or not you are being intentional, you are mentoring that person in the living out of their faith.
- Do you coordinate one of the lay liturgical ministries at the church? Are there any young people on your rolls? There are plenty of young people who like reading, serving chalice, or assisting liturgically.
[A version of this post appeared in the January newsletter for Hamline Church. These ideas are heavily influenced by Mark DeVries’ Family Based Youth Ministry and Kenda Creasy Dean’s The Godbearing Life.]