Recently I discussed this series on Millennials leaving the Church with a long-time debate coach of high school and college students. He pointed out that the debate students he saw that left the faith weren’t necessarily the ones who felt the Church failed them intellectually, though they were some of the most intellectual of their peers. The students who left were the ones who felt disconnected, like spectators in an audience every time they were in an intergenerational setting.
On the flip side, the students who were encouraged to participate, not just in youth ministry, but in “real church” or “big church,” were the ones who stayed. That really resonated with me since the church I grew up in was very committed to involving kids and youth in pretty much everything. In many churches that celebrate confirmation in the early teen years, students are considered full members of a congregation when they are confirmed – along with all the duties of using their spiritual gifts within the Body (1 Timothy 4:11-13). Teens can read scripture or lead prayers in the service, do announcements, give their testimony, use their musical talents in worship, participate in increasing levels of leadership from helping with VBS to preparing Sunday School lessons, work with the youth minister to prepare rec games, mentor younger children, serve on event planning teams, participate in prayer groups… really, the ways to get teens involved in church life are as diverse as the church itself.
In the student publications world, faculty advisors are encouraged to let student journalists “own” their publications. Once teens start thinking of a newspaper or yearbook as “my paper” or “my book,” they invest their best effort. Upperclassmen chosen as editors aren’t always the most gifted writers or photographers; they are the ones who treat their publications like their job because they view themselves as “real” journalists working on “their” publication. I’ve heard other student organizations from theater to marching band to sports describe a similar effect.
Perhaps this is a picture of the ideal youth ministry: one in which students view the group as “my ministry.” Even better, what if teens viewed the church as their ministry? Not a place to be an audience member but a body where they could grow and help others to grow. Imagine a teen describing church as a family where they were expected to fully invest themselves as they have been fully invested in by their older siblings-in-the-faith.
This doesn’t guarantee a teen will love everything about church if they are involved. The risk with including such comparatively young and immature believers in adult church life is that they are often either expected to have the spiritual formation of adults who have been believers for decades or they are dismissed as ignorant children. They are neither. They are ready for more than Veggie Tales and puppets, but may not know yet where they stand on controversial issues that plague the church. They are ready to be given responsibility, but are still wrestling with their faith, their identity and how those two are connected. When my friend spoke of his debate students, it wasn’t that they were immune from intellectual questions or doubts fueled by science, philosophy or other academic influences, but they were actively involved in an intergenerational, trusted community where they could bring those questions and doubts.
Next we’ll address the question of the century: Does our worship style matter?
Other posts in our Millennial Exodus series: