This originally appeared on OnFaith.
Greg Rickel, bishop of the Diocese of Olympia, covered in silly string during a youth conference. Photo by Gabrielle Westcott.
Without the parish and diocesan ministries that included me in regular worship, fellowship, and action, I would likely not be a priest (at least not yet); and God only knows how directly engaged I would be as a member of the Body of Christ. As a major facet of my position involves facilitating youth ministries—especially for high schoolers—I have a few insights on the subject.
Not everyone is cut out for youth ministry.
Almost every assistant or associate priest I can name in my denomination is in charge of youth ministries. I suspect that this is the case in other denominations as well. Not everyone is cut out for youth ministry—a lot of people are afraid of young people (for some strange reason), and their gifts would likely be better used elsewhere. Apparently I got an “Amen” when I said this at a convention last weekend. Amen indeed, however…
You can always do something to support young people.
Priests and other ministers who are not cut out for youth ministries still have the ability to do something important for the young people in their midst. It is easy to buy into the notion that one in charge of youth ministries has to possess a capacity for camp counseloriness. But one does not need to be a silly, extraverted, big group game loving camp counselor in order to do something important for young people—in fact, knowing who you are as a priest (or whatever your tradition calls it) is the first step in figuring out how you might contribute to a youth ministry. You might not be comfortable leading a silly game or dealing with teen angst, but you might have a developing skill in recruiting volunteers and supporting a youth ministry as more of an architect. Know yourself and maximize the overlap between your gifts and the needs of the young people.
Young people are not all alike.
Not all youth ministries are alike because not all “youths” are alike. Would we suggest that all people in their 40s are alike? Aside from maybe senior citizens, there is no other conscious, capable, and somewhat independent group of people that we separate from the life of our churches than high schoolers.
Most churches confine high schoolers to a classroom for Sunday school or a weeknight for youth group; they are too often left uninvited to other ministries and left out of many Sunday morning roles—except on the abomination that typically is “Youth Sunday,” where youngsters are put on parade for the enjoyment of everyone else.
Of the high schoolers I know, the most dedicated to being a part of the church are the ones who are empowered in choirs or “outreach” programs and are included as full members of the community. Not every high schooler wants to sit with other high schoolers and talk about high schoolery—much in the same way as not all priests want to always sit with other priests and talk about the priesthood—but neither do all 40somethings wants to sit in a circle with other 40somethings and talk about a appointed subject.
Enfold young people into the community…more.
Marva Dawn wrote in Keeping the Sabbath Wholly that, "...if we could more fully enfold our youth in our communities so that they felt profoundly loved and thoroughly supported, they might find it much less difficult to choose the values of the Christian community as their own, despite the pressures of their peers." The key verb in that statement is “enfold;” I fear that too often our churches mince up the youth and leave many of them stranded on the cutting board.
I cannot understand why it seems such a mystery to so many that millenials are leaving the church—we’ve given them the impression that from the time they are in high school to the time they get married and have kids, they are worthless…or at best, a novelty. Is it really that surprising that they are not coming back in droves?
Stop complaining, and be proactive.
I hear a lot of complaints about how organized sports dominate Sunday mornings, keeping young people out of regular worship services. What if instead of complaining about something that is (likely) beyond our control, we mobilized other young people in the church to go and sit in the bleachers to cheer on our athletic brothers and sisters? Is church limited to Sunday worship and church-organized activities, or could we spend more time being the church in the world in ways like this? The whole attitude of “you have to come to Sunday worship to be part of the church” is deeply flawed.
There is no magic solution.
The only thing a worshipping community must sacrifice in order to include young people as full members of the community is the obsession with doing things the way they have always been done. That being said, some traditions exist because they are deeply meaningful and facilitate transformative experiences of the Living God. Some music, rituals, and other traditions absolutely should stay, and some should never see sunlight through a stained glass window (unity candles), yet there is a conversation to be had in the middle of those two extremes.
While there is no magic solution for having a thriving youth ministry, there are many things worshipping communities can do to more fully include young people. What is your community doing to enable and inspire young people to discern and participate in the life of the Body of Christ?
Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James's.