If your church youth ministry functions as its own church, completely separate from the rest of the congregation, then you may be failing your youth.
We live in a time when teens are more connected to each other than ever. Through smart phones and the internet, they are able to be constantly connected to each other in ways that are completely unprecedented. Up until the last decade, youth would connect with each other at school and events, but then they would leave their peers and go home, where they would enter the adult world. An exit from the youth world at the end of the day allows kids and teenagers to gain perspective and support. It allows them to plug into a broader reality, and to have input from adults. It can shrink the mountain sized burdens of their world, and help them to navigate it well. It also allows a break from the input of other kids and teens. It takes them out of the stressful social situations, away from the gossip, the fights, the bickering, the romances, the stress, and the bullying.
All of this used to be a natural result of simply coming home at the end of the day. But today kids continue to be connected to each other, even when they are at home. They don't have a break, or a safe place. They are able to spend twenty-four hours a day in their youth world, where the mountain sized problems only grow larger, and their main source of input is their peers. They are available to bully and be bullied around the clock. Passionate romances burn unchecked, and teenage gossip becomes like international news.
My plea to parents is, please unplug your kids for a portion of every day. At the very least, require that they unplug at bed time. Collect phones, ipods, tablets, and any internet connected devices when they go to sleep, lock them in a box, put the box in a safe, and throw it into a tank of sharks, not to be recovered until morning. Allow them to sleep without having to hear from their peers. They need you to do this.
But simply unplugging isn't enough. Our youth need more input from adults to balance the increasing input from their peers. This is where churches need to step in. Parents can only give the attention and perspective of parents. But the church can be the body of Christ.
My plea to pastors and churches is, please make space for teens in intergenerational worship services. It is more important than ever for youth to be involved with adults of all generations, and to worship with adults of all generations.
And let's not forget how much youth bring to the table! They tend to be extremely clever, have tons of creative energy, plenty of technical know-how, cultural insights, and experiences worth sharing. They bring joy, energy, and enthusiasm, yes even on a Sunday morning. Don't let those groggy morning faces fool you. They are just waiting to be valued, encouraged, utilized, and included.
Here are three practical tips for including youth in your regular worship services:
1. Include youth in the worship service.
Talk to youth about the sermon. Ask for input, and include illustrations and examples that are relevant to their lives. Watch the shows they are watching. Find out what's happening in their schools. Follow the local youth activities like drama and sports. Most of this can be done from your desk, without any added effort other than a few extra clicks, or a couple of text messages. If your church has a youth pastor, talk to him or her. Ask the Sunday School teachers or youth small group leaders for input. Find out if the teens have favorite worship songs or hymns. Include youth as volunteers. Consider encouraging them to plug-in during services. Have a hashtag they can use, encourage text questions during the sermon. Put in the effort to speak their language, and to write sermons that include their experiences.
2. Create a welcoming atmosphere.
Youth often feel out of place or unwelcome in worship services. I once brought a group of middle school students into worship with me, and we sat towards the front of the sanctuary. They whispered a bit, and giggled occasionally, but were generally respectful. They were nervous, but proud to be there. Half way through the service, an older woman leaned over to me and passed me a note. It read, "If you are going to sit here with them every week, please let me know, so I can sit somewhere else." It was like a kick in the teeth. Get the congregation on board with intergenerational worship. Educate the adults about the needs of the youth, and the benefits of having them involved in worship. Encourage adults to greet teens, ask them their names, welcome them to church, and to be gracious and forgiving about their initial discomfort and whispering. They will settle down when they feel at home. Put in the effort to make it feel like home for them.
3. Arrange the church schedule to include youth in worship.
Kids are already really busy. Don't expect them to be at church on Wednesday night, Friday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night, plus weekend retreats, camps, and mission trips. It's too much. Make space for teens to have fellowship and discipleship at a time that won't interfere with, or draw them away from intergenerational worship. Free up their schedules so that congregational worship is a priority, because having them there is a priority for the church. Show them they are valuable by valuing their time and presence.
Your youth are part of your church. They need the church, and the church needs them. Don't leave them behind.