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Make teen ministry intentional

Think for a moment about the youth group at your congregation, that group of teenage girls who seem so inseparable or the boys with the impossibly messy hair and quirky clothes.
Imagine them all seated together on one side of the auditorium during worship. Singing with us. Listening to the minister.
Now consider this statistic: Between 70 percent and 85 percent of children raised in evangelical churches in America won’t be sitting in a pew by the time they reach their late teens or early 20s.
So say statistician George Barna, author Josh McDowell and others who have exhaustively studied this age group. It’s a crisis, they say — professing Christian teens who, for whatever reason, walk out their church’s front door and either don’t come back at all or wait until they’ve married and had a child to reconnect with organized religion.
These figures should be especially sobering for Churches of Christ. Nationally, we’re failing to keep pace with population growth. Our congregations are quickly graying. And now we’re confronted with the prospect of losing the vitality of the future, slowly hemorrhaging.
How is this happening, and why?
Most adults don’t speak teenager, so their logic doesn’t always make sense to us. Our personal preferences and pride oftentimes become an obstacle, too, as we stroll along our own comfortable path only to look around and see no one with us. This generation seemingly doesn’t want to walk with us.
Instead, these 16- to- 22-year-olds say they want to run. They crave a church without walls that extends into community and daily life, not restricted to padded seats on Sunday mornings. They long to experience Christianity and live it with others, not just hear about it from a pulpit. Meaningful relationships instead of polite exchanges are what captivate them.
Simply put, our vision for them in church life — much like choosing whom they date or what career they might pursue — isn’t always their heart’s desire.
The congregations that realize this and respond by providing ways for teens to engage in outreach, worship and meaningful relationships will be the ones that defy the odds and keep this age group from exiting.
Responsive churches will:

Place adults in leadership who are honest and transparent, those who let teens into their lives and their homes so that they can see for themselves there’s no hypocrisy.
Emphasize a solid, faith-based approach to teen discipleship instead of a watered-down, entertainment-focused one.
• Encourage better parenting and provide mentoring opportunities for adults and teens alike — especially those in single-parent homes.
Reach out intentionally to the kids who are bored, making a conscious effort to understand them.
Create an environment where parents and other adults partner with youth ministers, rather than one in which the youth minister is expected to “raise” a teenager for the parents.
Empower teens to become leaders, to participate in the decision-making process when possible as it relates to their ministry and service opportunities.
Spotlight what Christianity is “for” rather than what it is “against,” actively promoting Godly relationships. When the church ignores poverty, social justice, abuse, pornography and other issues, teens are turned off because they have friends that struggle with these issues.
Pray for younger members, for the age-specific challenges they face on a daily basis and for the friends and family members working hard to love them through it all.
Challenge teens by addressing the difficult questions they want to talk about and that relate to the world in which they live.
Listen, listen, listen to what young people need in their spiritual journey.
With sensitivity and planning, we can make real progress toward helping teens as they face challenges to their young faith. And in doing so, we provide a challenge like the one issued in I Corinthians 12:27: to feel so bonded to Christ and the body that leaving — for whatever period of time — is simply unthinkable.

  • Feedback
    We are losing the war it is time we change our battle plan. The church huddled together on Sundays, offering “the invitation” to people who are not there serves no purpose, singing 3 of 4 verses of songs to save time, speeding through the Lord’s Supper in record time, praying for ourselves, not reading the Bible to save time, is not working and has not been working for 40 years. Time to wakeup..
    May, 19 2009

    Joel Hester
    Franklin, TN
    4th Ave CofC
    I am very encouraged by many of the suggested steps your article points out. It is extremely important that parents and other adults play a role in the development of our teens. For our young people to truly access their leadership potential, we need to provide opportunities for parents, church leaders and youth to share perspectives and mutual worship.
    Often leaders are at odds with their teens and left confused when communication lines meltdown. This, in large part, results from limited interactions and practice. Teens feel they have no voice, no opportunity to lead or their social position is disrespected and both parties lose out on valuable opportunities to connect.
    One major need that is not listed in the article is the need for leadership training for our youth volunteers and teens. It is encouraging though, that many churches are reaching out and looking for ways to develop leaders in thier youth ministries. I get the benefit of seeing this commentment on a daily basis as a contributor to a leadership development company. As a third party observer with ALOC Group we have been able to help bridge the gap and work with groups to devise sustainable development plans to experiencial learning.
    I appreciate so much the ideas expressed in your article. It is an encouragement to the work that I am blessed with doing everyday.
    April, 7 2009

    This is a very good article. However there is a point missing. The model of teen ministry must change if we are going to reverse the trend of our teens leaving church when they graduate.
    The current model has an inward focus and, as the article points out, they need and want more than that. They want and need to see that Christ is for everyone and that it’s not all about them. When any ministry (teens included) focus it’s attention outward to the lost world it becomes about fulfilling Gods will instead of ours.
    If we are going to keep our kids, we need to give them a mission that is bigger than this world has to offer. What better mission is there than to be about fulfilling the will of God and bringing hope to lost people?
    April, 3 2009

Filed under: Editorial Staff Reports

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