My first year leading the High School Youth Group in Redding, CT was touch-and-go. By the end of my first programatic year, I had around 8 kids who came regularly. As a product of an unbelievably strong Youth Group myself, that was a tough number to swallow.
Spoiler Alert: By the end of my third year, I had over 50 kids, not just participating, not just attending, not just part of the youth group, but LEADING Sunday morning worship. On one single Sunday, I got 50 kids excited to create, organize, and lead a worship experience. We went from 8 kids to over 50! And I’m not too shy to brag that I’ve even had multiple kids choose church over sports practice, even choose church over games, even choose church over major parties! At first I thought it was a lucky fluke.
I still remember that first time one of our jock-iest kids skipped basketball practice for Youth Group. It was as if I had rediscovered some ancient species thought long extinct It was like sighting an endangered snow leopard playing dominoes with an almost extinct black rhino at the end of a rainbow. But it happened again with another kid. And then another time. And then again. And now it's happened enough times on a consistent basis with enough kids that it has basically become a trend.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to that first year...
Knowing that the Youth Group had long existed in various forms, I assumed all I had to do was provide exciting programming and the rest would fall into place. What I found was that not only did I have to create exciting programming, but I had to explain to kids - - even convince the kids -- why that programming was worth doing at church.
Actual conversations I had multiple times that first year -
Me: Hey [high schooler who’s been part of this church since you were a baby]! You should come to do [awesome event I’ve put hours of planning into] with the Youth Group on Sunday.
Youth: Um... Maybe...
Me: You can even bring your friends!
Youth’s Mom: Yeah. You could invite [your bestie]!
Youth: Why would [my bestie] want to come to Youth Group?
[subtext: why would I want to come to Youth Group]
Me: uh..... [explain awesome event again]
Youth: Right... but why would I go to church to do that?
I’d never had to articulate that question before, even in seminary. Well, maybe I did, but not in a way that a 16 year-old girl would care about.
Luckily, having faced difficulties in past youth group start ups, I was mentally prepared to face the unexpected.
Before we even get into what I’ve learned from facing down the sports cultural, I think it’s important to cover a few basics about my philosophy for working with youth in church:
1.) It’s all about the kids.
Find out what they’re interested in. Do that.
When I worked at Camps, our boss used to say “Camp is for the campers.” It seems like a no-brainer, but it’s surprisingly hard to put into practice. Just because I want to talk about Jesus, doesn’t mean that’s what we should be doing.
In seminary we’d express the same thing by saying, “Meet people where they’re at.”
I’ve learned time and time and time again that Youth Ministry (or church as a whole) doesn’t work when you try to impose your ideal program onto a group when it’s not what they want or need, and even if they do want/need it maybe aren’t ready for it. You have to start where they are, and play the long game to work towards where God is calling you to be.
2.) Get them invested in me. Then get them invested in each other.
I saw my first year as me building relationships with the kids. I saw the second year as getting them to build relationships with each other. I saw the third year as getting them to build relationships with the church.
3.) Make church THEIR place.
Too much of church is adult space for adults. It’s important to have kid space for kids. Then it’s important to give adults a taste of that too.
A major part of this is to give kids opportunities to bring their passions and talents into the church arena.
4.) Relationship with multiple adults in the church community is crucial.
This is an area where I still fail. I can’t for the life of me recruit consistent non-parent adult leaders. I have had some minor successes. However, I’ll cover their transient and temporary nature in a later post.
I bring this up now for a specific reason, though. I want to be honest about my own limits. I don’t want to present this blog as an expert treatise on the perfected science of youth ministry. It’s more of a reflection on some experiments that seem to be working. In that regard, please e-mail me about your own experiments in Youth Ministry that have failed or succeeded. My successes may not work in your church and vice versa, but, as with God, in the sharing of our unique experiences, we might just find some kernel of truth.
Following these guiding principles, and adapting them in light of everything I have learned in my quest to face the culture of sports head on, our church’s Youth Group has steadily fortified with each new season.
On a regular “Chill Night” (as I call them), I typically expect anywhere from 15 to 25 high schoolers. Kids regularly invite their non-church friends, even brag to their friends about the awesomeness of our Youth Group. Our special events can run upwards of 30.
Now, it’s important to remember that numbers aren’t everything. In fact, they’re a terrible way to measure the success of a program. Sometimes, large numbers can even be the death of a great program.
So I return to this snapshot in time, one of my proudest moments. In June 2014, on Pentecost Sunday, we held our annual Youth Sunday. While the world complains about how hard it is to even get young people to church, we had 50 teens in church, leading worship. 50 kids for a mission trip is one thing. 50 kids going on a ski retreat is one thing. 50 kids at laser tag is one thing. But 50 kids, coming to church, on a Sunday morning, standing up in front of the church, excited to LEAD worship for the entire church is a whole other thing. That’s not measuring success by a number alone, that’s measuring success the quality and spirituality of the experience. We had 3 high schoolers preaching. We had 10 kids acting out scripture. We had 15 playing in the band, and not “cool” praise music. They played everything from traditional hymns to gospel to silly kids’ songs. We had people praying by spiking beach balls in the air. There was laughter. There were shouted prayers from 5-year-olds and 90-year-olds. Church was fun. Church was meaningful. Church was full: full of the Holy Spirit, full of people.
I’m not here to pretend I have the best Youth Group in the world, although we’re pretty damn close. =) I’m not here to tell you how you should run your youth group either. I’m just here to share the joy of success, to spread the good news, to proclaim the gospel that the church is alive and well in the world. And I'm looking to hear your stories of success as well in the hopes that we'll be able to draw strength and inspiration from one another. And then maybe, just maybe we'll be able to figure this thing out.
So here's what you can expect to find here...
I focus my writing on the sports culture: what the church can learn from it’s successes, how the church can overcome the idolatry of sports, and how the church can compliment the good works of sports. When people lament the waning of the church, they often point to the waxing of the sports culture. My first post will tell you how I decided to face this invincible giant. Each post after that will illuminate successes, failures, and lessons learned along the way. I hope something in there somewhere speaks to you and your own struggles.