I have faced this! You have a great relationship with your students, and they know you, and you know them. Most of us would clock this as a win. It's not a win or a loss, actually … it's a step. I would coach my staff and interns every summer (really all year they heard this, but I amped it up during VBS week in late June after the interns started) that our goal was to “Connect with students, build relationships, ultimately pointing them to Jesus and the life of the church.”
Simple, clear, step-by-step. We often get hung up on one of the first two steps of that.
We are great connectors, but we only connect at church. So, outside the church, nothing happens. Or we are great at the relationship, and they are connected to us, but we don't help move them on. Truth is they do move on, and usually, that is to nothing, because we don't go from middle school to high school with them, or we don't go to college with them. That’s why it’s so vital that we as youth leaders connect youth to the life of the church.
Here are four of my tactics on how to do this …
1. Eliminate the parades and privileged areas.
Dr. Andrew Root talks about this in many places but goes in more detail in Episode 0009 on the Controlled Chaos Podcast (9:09 to 12:58). Dr. Root references Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who has powerful thoughts about youth ministry. He said we should be wary of times when young people are paraded out, and then sent back to their distinct space. There should be no privileged space for young people. One of the potential dangers of modern youth ministry is we tend to cohort them too much and give too many privileged areas to them, which perpetuates a caging off young people in the church. This is the first time in the history of the local church that the church doesn't view it as its job to pass on the faith to their youth. The church hires a youth pastor and asks this one person to do the job … something the WHOLE church should be doing.
2. If you have them in the church, treat them like they are there.
When it comes to weekend services specifically, if you include youth in the room weekly with adults, you have to act like they are there. Here is an example … if every week you have three verbal announcements and three advertised events in the bulletin at your church – one week men’s ministry is highlighted with an announcements and an advertised event. For the next four weeks there is nothing about men’s ministry in either the announcements or bulletin. The men in your church won’t feel forgotten or feel like a guest in the room because they are out of adolescence and can reason with their brains. Youth, on the other hand – in the same situation – will sit there and feel left out and forgotten. Why? Cause youth need different things than adults.
3. Get them on teams – even if it means change.
Youth need to be serving on teams in the church. Not just kids ministry – they need to be on every team possible. We should be handing over the keys of leadership to youth at every chance we can get. Kara Powell talks about this in the book, “Growing Young.” Handing off the keys of leadership is one of the most effective ways of building a faith that will last in young people. Take a look at your church and all the places that need served and fight for youth presence on every one of those teams. Some won't fit, but many will. Keep in mind that some areas of serving take skills youth don't have yet. While they can't help in some areas now, it means that our strategy should adapt to developing those skills so the youth will be ready to help – like with tech and worship – when they are ready.
4. Be honest with your strategies for youth ministry.
It takes a lot of humility to admit when YOUR strategy isn't working, and the worst thing you can do is act like everything's fine when it's not. This is the hardest and best thing we can do when it comes to connecting youth to the church. If we learn at a young age that the church isn’t just for grown-ups, it will shift to relational and spiritual growth. God calls people – we don't. He uses us to share His message. His truth is stronger and more durable than any hurt or any lie, but we can do all we can to make it easier for God's message to be heard. If your strategies are not working to do that, it might need changes, and we need to be humble enough to admit that.
Justin Herman is the host of the Controlled Chaos Junior High Youth Ministry Podcast. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.