When I was a kid it was very important for my parents to know we were attending a church with a good youth group. Sometimes just having a youth group was as good as it got. We lived in some pretty small towns. Once, my parents drove us over an hour away every Sunday evening so we could attend youth group. Needless to say, we could never be too involved in it.
It is very important for churches to know they are providing a youth group for teens. Somehow, they feel like a failure if this program is not in place. Even small churches struggle to make sure they have a youth group. Youth groups are important and everywhere I have pastored I have tried to make sure we had one. But more important is the issue of what happens in youth group and how that is incorporated into the larger question of how youth group fits into the church as a whole. It is important for youth to feel like they belong to the whole church.
Some surprising new studies are saying that as many as 70% of young people leave church by the time they are 22. One problem is the segmentation of age groups that has increased over the years. Youth groups have become so big and important in themselves that many youth attend them as their church. They do not participate or have a sense of belonging to the church as a whole. So, when they graduate from youth group and head off to somewhere else on their own they don't have a clue what to look for in a church.
Kara Powell of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Seminary is studying this trend. She says that we have become so youth oriented we have segregated youth from the rest of the church. We have youth pastors and youth worship teams and youth worship services and youth mission trips and young people almost never get a chance to interact with other aged people. They never get a chance to serve other people in the church. They never get to participate in a meaningful way with the whole congregation. Two things, she says, help young people stay involved in church after they graduate: intergenerational worship and relationships. We need to involve kids in the worship of the church on Sundays as greeters, ushers, worship leaders, scripture readers, etc. And young people need to participate in events where they can engage older Christians in meaningful ways and vice-versa. We can have short term intergenerational Sunday School classes, work days and mission projects. Kara sees smaller churches of around 100 having a real advantage here.
So do I. As I look at our church I see us doing some of what she is talking about. We have a good youth group but we are also involving kids in meaningful ways in worship and in relationships with other Believers. We need to be encouraged to continue to find ways to be involved in our teens lives. Kara says she encourages churches to practice a ratio of 5 to 1. That is, 5 adults to one young person. 5 adults in the church who care about each and every young person. Those adults know something about that one young person so they can ask weekly how things are going and are aware when the young person has a big event or test coming up. The adults pray for this young person daily. Each adult can make one young person in church a special focus.
We still have work to do. We need to continue to find other ways to involve our youth in worship and other church events. We could plan a month of intergenerational Sunday School or a mission event. Jared and Michelle, our youth leaders, are doing some creative things with our youth. One Tuesday a month they plan a tenabrae service. It would be cool if more adults came to their! worship service!
Smaller churches do have many advantages in our increasingly segmented society. Smaller churches are usually more relational than large ones. We can all be "youth workers" as we care for the youth in our midst and encourage their involvement in church life. In this way, they will know that they have a place in church now and when they move on.