Happy Launch Day! (posted on 1/13/14 on original site)
Today we launch the full site with responses every Monday morning from wonderful people who have volunteered their time and energy to answer these questions. I am extremely grateful for those who are willing to answer, because this site is all about conversation and hearing from multiple people. We have four writers today, and all of them have given great response. If you like what they have to say please post a comment, and on Thursday I will be posting a follow up blog to the ideas and comments generated from today’s post. Without any more delay…….
“Why is it important for the Church to invest in youth?”
Chris Cherry is an ordained minister who received his Masters of Divinity from McAfee School of Theology. He enjoys foosball and skittles, but doesn’t particularly care for static electricity. He is currently serving as Minister to Students at St Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, SC.
Questions like this one generally make me cringe. I hear it posed and I immediately begin bracing for the inevitable response, “Youth are the future of the church.” Often, my follow-up to this claim is pure impulse control preventing me from an eye-roll and audible sigh. It’s not that this answer is wrong. It’s just that being the future of the church is only one small part of the answer to this question, and it’s been said so many times people are quick to toss it in the pile of meaningless church clichés.
There are lots of reasons why churches should invest in youth. Cultivating a life of faith is chief among them, but there are still key pieces of this puzzle that largely go untapped. One of the most important reasons the church should invest in youth is:
Churches who invest in youth
If you take a look around, there aren’t too many places where a young person can safely test her independence, be trusted with legitimate leadership roles, and follow good mentors. The church provides those things. At church, a teenager can truly be himself. At church, a teenager can make mistakes in an environment designed to help her get up and try again. At church, a teenager can challenge those around him to be better and reconsider the perceived status quo.
The best part about this leadership development is these young leaders are all unique and are being equipped to run with the passions God has given each of them.
There’s a scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Professor Keating (Robin Williams) has a trio of guys in his class walk in a circle. Sure enough, after a couple laps, the three students find their strides falling in sync and they march in unison to the rhythmic claps of their classmates. Keating uses this illustration to teach a lesson on conformity and maintaining your uniqueness in the face of others. Similarly, church leaders aren’t trained to be carbon copies of one another. A church that truly invests in youth provides them with the opportunity to take their own strengths, abilities, interests, and passions and transform those into real leadership skills unique for each individual.
The church should invest in youth because the church can create leaders that are well-rounded, experienced, trustworthy, and unique. Perhaps even more than that, however, the church can create leaders that have the opportunity to work right here, right now no matter the person’s age.
Carol Harston has served as Minister to Youth at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, since 2007. Born and raised at Highland, Carol has found the joy of caring for youth in the same community that shaped her as a young person. Outside of youth ministry, Carol has her hands full as a mom to James (3 years old) and Collier (9 months old) and wife to Drew (orthopedic surgery resident and faithful youth volunteer).
Like clockwork, he came in my office and plopped down in my chair every Wednesday afternoon. He would share with me the latest from his day. He would lament the stresses of school….the teachers who didn’t like him, the group projects still left to be done, and the grades that kept bringing disappointment. As a seminary student at the time, too often I found myself brushing off his complaints as I compared my work-load with his as a middle school student.
Hours later, I would travel up in the Youth Room where we would laugh, play, discuss, share prayer requests, and encourage one another. The stress of school would lift for a moment and we would each become a beam of light on a gloomy Wednesday night.
It has taken me seven years to fully understand what he was telling me. He was telling me more than just the details of his day. He was telling me the places in his life where he was falling short. He was telling me the ways his own failures were beginning to color the way he saw himself. He was telling me the way the people in his life were teaching him that the world was harsh and unforgiving.
Each weekday, young people file out of buses, cars, and bicycles to walk in the doors of institutions that tell them where to go and where to sit. They tell them when to stand and when to walk. They operate off of public policies that dictate the measuring stick by which each person will be deemed success or average or failure. The grades build a hierarchy which names some as winners and some as losers. In classrooms around our country, young people come in every day and seek to perform to prove their worth.
Some might say that this is for their own good. Some might say that this is the way the world works and its best they go ahead and adjust. Some might say that this merely rewards those who work hard and encourages those who are lazy. But the Church must stand up and say that this is NOT the gospel of Jesus Christ.
How much of this culture of judgment, achievement, and hierarchy bleeds over into our churches? What standards do we assume youth have to check-off in order to become fully-integrated members and contributors in our churches?
Young people need the Church. They do not need churches to minister to “students.” They need churches that minister to people – churches that see young people’s worth outside of their educational identity. They need to hear the good news – that their most important identity is as a beloved child of God who is called to embody God’s transforming Love in this world. It is an identity that they do not have to earn through Bible drills, attendance rolls, or proper behavior in worship. It is the gift of grace for all people – from cradle to the grave.
May the Church offer space for youth to find wholeness in the arms of the faith community and teach them the highest calling we have – to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves
Katy King lives with her husband, Adam, and their dog, Scout, in Goodlettsville, TN. She works in an elementary school as a Speech-Language Pathologist with students from kindergarten to third grade. Katy has a passion for youth ministry that has led to work with organizations like Passport Camps, Inc. in several capacities and being an active youth volunteer at her church.
All too often, it can feel as if the church overlooks a lack of investment in youth. We tell them to enjoy this time with few responsibilities, while simultaneously saying to prepare for life as an adult. I agree with that advice, but I do maintain that it is a disservice to our youth; to foster a belief that what they do today doesn’t matter. Being a teenager should not be a get out of jail free card. Youth do matter today, not only because of what they will become, but because of who they are today. To me, this is the foundation of why the church should, and must, invest in youth.
No matter how long ago it was, we can all look back on our years as a youth, probably with at least some amount of nostalgia. As teenagers, we struggled both within ourselves and with those around us, for what we deemed to be freedoms, our beliefs, our friends, and most of all, to define ourselves. During those tumultuous years, we developed the core of our being. The foundation was laid during childhood; as youth we began to make our own decisions. A great deal of soul searching can be done within the church, as long as there are people willing to invest in youth, to be there for them, help them struggle with doubts and questions, and encourage their spiritual development. Without that investment, we are missing out on being a part of the process of growing up, which is imperative within the church family, as in any family. Youth are not more important than any other ministry in the church, but it is crucial that they be just as important.
As today’s youth are growing up, they are developing passions and looking for a way to make tangible differences in their world. Yes, we, as believers, are called to encourage the relationship between our youth and their Lord; just as Jesus tells Peter in John 21:15-19. However, it doesn’t end there. We are also called to foster their ability to become disciples, not just believers. Youth are a part of the church of today, not just the church of tomorrow. Youth are making a difference in our churches, our communities, and our world right now. When we, as a church, invest in our youth and set high expectations for them, they will meet or exceed them. I have seen it. As Paul so eloquently puts it in his first letter to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity,” (1 Timothy 4:12, NIV). The church is called to invest in our youth. So, invest in their ability to be what they are called to be.
Jason Matlack currently serves as the youth minister at Calvary Baptist Church in Lexington, KY. He studied religion at Wake Forest, and is married to Sara Matlack.
On its face, the question “Why is it important for the Church to invest in youth?” sounds unnecessary to me. Of course it’s important for the church to invest in youth, because youth are worth an investment!” (Disclosure: I am a full-time minister to youth.) But when I consider how many churches do not purposefully and actively invest in youth (or youth ministry) or underinvest in youth (or again, youth ministry), I realize that this is a very necessary question. Here are three responses:
1. The Theological: Can we all agree that God does whatever God wants to do? Yes, God will act in justice and love, because that is who God is. But when it comes to calling out, challenging, or giving a vision for someone to faithfully proclaim and enlarge the Kingdom, God looks at the heart and not the date of birth. Throughout the Scriptures God has called out and spoken to many adolescents for God’s own purposes– Samuel, David, and Mary are just three forefathers and mothers in the faith who come quickly to mind. When churches do not invest in listening to, teaching, discipling, and mentoring youth, they implicitly say, “God can’t use them,” or “God doesn’t speak to them like God does to the rest of the church.” Statements like these could not be farther from what we see that God has done in the past through the Scriptures and what God is currently doing in other churches.
2. The Social: The “But we don’t have many youth,” or “We just don’t have anyone who wants to work with them right now” excuses (yes, that is what they are) hold little water for me. I didn’t know that we were just talking about youth who are already connected to a church or were wondering if investing in youth would be easy. For those churches which do not have many children in their midst, I wonder if there are not scores of youth in their communities and schools. How close are they? Do they walk past your church buildings on their way to bus stops or sports fields? Every child is a Child of God and every young person has a range of similar needs: the need for acceptance and love; the need for community; the need to be heard; the need for justice; the need for peace; the need for food. Can your church meet any of those needs? And as for it being easy, sometimes investing in youth and having a youth ministry isn’t easy. It will cost something, in terms of finances, volunteer hours, and the modification of routines and thinking. But easy tasks are rarely worth doing. When churches intentionally invest in youth in their communities they are reaching into the social fabric of an important part our cities and towns to proclaim the Kingdom of God (yes, youth ministry can be evangelistic) and, when done best, contribute in love to those in need (yes, youth ministry can be missional).
3. The Institutional: The first rule of any institution is usually “Preserve the institution.” Any institution (company, university, non-profit, etc.) should always be mindful of the population they serve or are connected to and seek to GROW that population as an central task of self-preservation. The church is no different in this regard, albeit that self-preservation is not the only reason why a church should want to grow (sharing the faith and fulfilling the missio Dei, wherein everyone can contribute, come to mind for me). It is a reality that all people will die (sorry if I just ruined that for you), so if you’re not growing horizontally (e.g. reaching out to all people within a certain demographic or age range, like white 30 somethings), then you need to grow vertically (reach out to all age ranges and demographics–something that I believe God would approve). Therefore for self-preservation and for the carrying out of God’s message and mission to the world, the church should invest in youth.
American churches, big or small, should invest in youth because of these and a myriad of other reasons (which someone more articulate than I could enumerate). Also, do we think that Jesus, who said “Let the little children come to me,” would have said, “Woah, but not you teenagers–go someplace else”? Invest in youth. Jesus would have done it.
John has served in Youth Ministry in some form since 1996. He has served churches in SC, GA, & FL and is currently Minister of Students & Missions at FBC Rome, in Rome, GA. John married his wife Jennifer in 1998, and has a son Charlie born in 2000 and daughter Annalise born in 2002.
In the last 10 years, the most formative book for my ministry has been Almost Christian, by Kenda Dean. She takes data from the National Study of Youth and Religion and applies it to the church as we know it…the churches each of us serve. These churches have different names, different Mission Statements, and are in different areas of the country…but all them share something staggering. The data says our churches are filled with teens who embrace some religious identity, follow their parents footsteps when it comes to religion, don’t see religion as a big deal, and have a very weak spiritual and religious understanding. These teens are busy and religion doesn’t claim their time or attention, compared to other social institutions, activities and organizations.
Does that scare you? It scared the life out of me. And it changed the way I think about ministry to Youth. The NSYR says the single most important influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents. The harsh reality before me is now, more than ever, I feel a responsibility to minister to PARENTS! The data seems to dictate that we MUST invest in the religious and spiritual lives of parents and in turn, our teens will follow suit. I’m sure there are Youth Ministers out there who think this isn’t true. Heck, this realization hurt my heart. It hurt me to think that my influence isn’t on par with the influence of their parents.
The stakes are significant here. The last finding the NSYR points to is that highly religious teens appear to be doing much better in life than less religious teens. It stands true that religious identities, organizations, and practices shape lives in important ways. Inclusion of teens in the very fabric of church is one of the most important and greatest gifts a congregation can give. Teens crave positive, strong, adult relationships…whether we believe it or not. As we reflect on our jobs, we must consider whether our group of teens are set apart from the rest of the congregation. Do they feel a part of the larger body or do they feel like ‘their own group’?
So many thriving youth groups are large, vibrant, and do their own thing apart from the rest of the church body. As fulfilling as that may seem, the study suggests our ministries need to include multiple generations of people, parents, and congregational connections so that our teens can grow a faith that will last in to their adult lives. I know the way our group interacts will be different going forward. Why invest in youth? They are the future of the church…and they are so worth it!