One of the many tensions in youth ministry is how much to integrate youth programs with the larger church. Many youth programs have their own separate wing of the church and do not feel connected to the church. It is essential that teenagers maintain their Christian identity with the larger church so they continue to attend, post-graduation. However, teenagers have unique needs that are different from children and adults that require special attention. So how does a church find this balance?
The first thing a youth pastor can do is observe and assess what is currently being done. How many graduates stay in the church if they stay local? Do they attend another church if they are carrying out their vocation elsewhere? What types of services do students attend currently? Is the midweek program highly attended by teens but not Sunday mornings? If there is also a Sunday morning youth gathering, and do students attend that and the preaching service? If not, a good, small change to start is to encourage students to attend the preaching service so they will continue to attend upon graduation.
Another area of consideration, in addition to regular weekly programming, is how much to integrate events. Even though many teenagers loathe their parents during their teenage years, they can be connected to other generations. Perhaps high schoolers can join a young adult group for worship or they can share a camp for a winter retreat. Giving students informal ways to connect with older generations, other than their parents, gives them valuable relationships.
Some churches opt to involve parents in annual events such as a school year kick off. It really depends on the culture of the church. Some churches, however, find it best to have parent meetings separate from youth gatherings. Having “parent nights” or events where parents attend alienates students who do not come from Christian families. It wouldn’t be uncommon at an event in which parents were encouraged to attend with their students for the youth pastor to ask the parents to pray with their students. This has the potential to be a difficult situation to navigate, both practically and emotionally speaking, for a student whose parents may either not be present or may be present, but not be Christians. Youth pastors must think through the implications of events like this. Perhaps, the youth pastor could have warned the student before and/or assigned him another family with whom he/she could pray.
Youth can join their parents and be included in annual church wide events such as picnics. However, the key to getting teenagers to attend is getting them to serve in some way, or having an aspect of the events that will appeal to them. (Lots of students have always wanted to put their youth pastor in a dunk tank!) Teenagers have gifts that need to be used by the church at large—from dishing out food to playing music. These experiences are invaluable to their spiritual development and religious identity.
Overall, a youth pastor should not be making these decisions on his or her own. “Outsiders”, such as parents, elders and other pastors, ought to be included on these discussions. Asking outsiders to brainstorm alongside the youth pastor can bring in different perspectives and judgment calls. Ultimately, a youth pastor should be in prayer on this tension to seek the Spirit’s guidance on what is best for the specific congregation.
Youth Unlimited organizes summer missions trips for young adults, high school and middle school age at locations across the United States and Canada. Visit our SERVE page for more information about the trips, or visit our site locations page to see where some of our next SERVE Missions will be held.