[This post inspired my ebook, A Church for All. I encourage you to check out the information page to find out more!]
Engaging people in ministry isn’t enough. And neither is attending a church. We need to be the church. And nowhere is this more important than with our youth.
Here are my keys for engaging youth in church:
- Authenticity. This has begun to sound like beating a dead horse, but the importance of seeing this concept as primary is essential. For the WWII and Silent Generations, one’s most important attribute is responsibility: doing one’s duty and being responsible. For youth and young adults, the primary attribute is authenticity: being who you say you are, doing what is best, not what is expected of you. Until the church reorients away from its complete focus on responsibility and gives greater attention to authenticity, we are bound to disengage our youth as they grow.
- Read Almost Christian. Drop what ever you are doing and go read Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian. Then order copies for all the Christians you know and get them to read it. This book should outsell everything in the Christian section at Barnes & Noble because we must all engage its contents. We can no longer leave the preparing of young people to the one or two people we lock in the youth room with our youth. If youth aren’t engaged in church, it isn’t their fault or the outside world’s fault: it is ours.
- Create safe space. Most churches know this one pretty well. We know that youth need to be together. But more important than that, is to have the opportunity to band together. To make the relationships essential and practice Christian community safely. This doesn’t just mean being safe from the outside or safe from one another, but to experiment and fail. It is essential that youth feel as if they can test things out and not get so thoroughly punished if the group doesn’t like it.
- Integrate into the congregation. Just as youth need their own space, they also need to be full participants in the wider community. They need both. We need to make them special enough to have both. The youth room is theirs only, but that shouldn’t be a dungeon in which anyone is locked. Besides, the baptismal covenant allows complete participation in the life of the congregation. So stop making our youth wait until they turn 18 to do anything. They have as much canonical standing to lead the church as you do.
- Develop an evangelism lab. Get youth doing not only what they care about doing, but the stuff they are good at. Encourage them to help brand the congregation. Coax them to make videos and put them up on YouTube and show them at church functions. Buy or rent equipment that will allow the youth to produce quality audio and visuals. Encourage the computer-obsessed to build the church website or some of its functions. Help the youth recognize the wide opportunities, and subtleties, of evangelism.
- Don’t outsource the bad work. Don’t make the youth do stuff that nobody wants to do. We get our youth to help set up tables for our big functions, then discourage them from participating in them. Either find a way to make the congregation-wide event represent the entire congregation, not just the old people, or else do the dirty work yourself.
- Stop thinking about youth representation. Instead, keep thinking integration. We don’t need more youth representatives or youth boards with only a little bit of power and responsibility. Instead, actually get youth engaged in the decision-making process of the congregation. When a group makes up 10-20% of your congregation, but 0% of the vestry or governing board it is unacceptable. Youth need to be part of real decision-making.
- Challenge the youth. Youth don’t need coddling or coaxing or convincing to participate. And we don’t need to trick them (see #1) into participating. We need to challenge our youth to join us as equals. We provide all of the means for success and challenge them to actually do it.
- Realize that youth are equals. Here’s the deal: youth aren’t a commodity. They aren’t an “other” that deserves “our” attention. Youth are Christians who actually reflect the faith of their parents and their church. Today, our youth act and believe just like most adults in their faith community. And that should be enough incentive to get off our butts and get real about adult formation.
Youth are the incubator of mature faith formation: they are doing it already and behaving the way we have invited and encouraged them to. And the sooner we realize that every teen that “checks out” of church represents an adult that does the same, the better. Our inability and disinterest in dealing with the big questions lead youth to believe that Christian faith is shallow. Our fear of conflict in many of our churches lead our youth to believe the church is full of cowards–and the eagerness of many other Christians to manufacture conflict lead our youth to believe the church is full of hypocritical bigots.
I’ve given nine keys to engaging youth in church, but there is only one that really matters. Hand it over to them and let them take the family car for a spin.
Ready for more? Read A Church for All and then pass it on!