Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post questioning whether or not kids should be forced to attend church. The feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of taking kids to church, for a variety of reasons. One Facebook comment read, “Are family habits the same as “forcing” our children to go to church?” Great point. Others indicated that a faith background serves a great foundation for the future, regardless of whether or not your kids attend church as adults. I read all of the comments, thankful for and impressed with all of the insights expressed on this site and on Facebook. Lots of you care about this issue!
One thread that came up on the Forma Facebook page is the somewhat universal lack of engagement for teens. This was my predicament, and it’s what made it easier to stop attending church on a regular basis. After reading the comments, praying and thinking about this issue, I decided to write another post, focusing on the concept of engagement. If we say we want kids to come to church, then stop engaging them when they outgrow the formation program, our actions don’t match up with our words. Just what are we prepared to do to keep kids, teens, and young adults in church?
Let me say right now that I’m not playing a blame game here. Like I said in my last post, those of us who choose to work in the church are committed to that work, and want it to be successful. My intent is to engage conversation about what we can do about this problem. I want my teens to want to be in church. Here are a few ideas I have to get the conversation started.
- Talk to your church’s teens.
I don’t recommend you going to your teens and saying, “So… what do you want to do?” You’re likely to be met with “Ummmm….” or “I don’t know.” What I mean is talk to them, like they’re people. Ask them about their lives. Care about them. Remember what they say. I noticed with my girls that with each new addition, the older one got ignored, and it hurt them. Everyone wants care and attention, not just little kids.
Don’t wait for teens to come talk to you each week; approach them. Let what you learn inform what you can do to make them feel more included. Do you have teens interested in jewelry? Offer a jewelry-making Bible study. Make a personal commitment to have an authentic conversation with someone between the ages of 10 and 22.
- Offer authentic engagement experiences in worship.
If we offered more opportunities for kids and teens to be engaged in the worship experience, I believe they would participate. Let’s think beyond acolytes and Youth Sunday and invite teens to be altar guild members, ushers, choir members, and lectors. Let them create the bulletin. Invite a teen to give the sermon. I can’t tell you how preaching a sermon impacted my oldest daughter, Nia. Her confidence soared as a result, and church members learned that young people have powerful messages to share. Let teens know about the opportunities, and invite them to sign up. Don’t try this once – repeat often. Teens can be shy.
- Offer leadership opportunities in your church.
Let your teens get involved in the life and work of your church. Invite them to host coffee hour, or sit on the vestry (check your age requirements). Yes, even committees like the finance committee could benefit from some youth membership. Get them involved in stewardship. If your church does it, offer teens a chance to participate. How? Invite them. Give them a say in what goes on at and in your church.
- Start a Bible Study, and invite teens. Or, create one just for them.
Reading and discussing the Bible is one of the most important programs a church can offer; it’s critical to our faith lives. Imagine a Bible study where the kids led some sessions with a Godly Play lesson, or a puppet play of the Bible story. If your church has a strong formation program, you want to keep those lessons fresh in teens’ minds. Give them the chance to retell those stories and go deeper into Bible study. Bible study can be as simple or intricate as your group likes, and there’s lots of resources for Bible study. Don’t overthink it! Forward Movement has a great new free resource called Exploring the Bible.
Now, you might think: wouldn’t it be easier to create/purchase/update an existing youth program? Maybe. But there are some things you can do that are free that could have lasting results. Let teens read scripture lessons in church. Let them help with technology. Invite them to host coffee hour, and give them the funds to purchase or prepare the food.
One more piece of advice: Don’t ask teens to do anything you wouldn’t ask adults to do. A person at my church spoke to my girls to “invite” them to clean up other people’s messes. That’s not the kind of engagement I mean.
I have lots more ideas, and I know you do, too. Please share things that are working for you. I’m not trying to imply that this work is easy. Sometimes, though, it’s easier than we think. Teens are smart, and they have so much to offer, if we let them.
Involving teens in the life of the church is a great way to keep them engaged, and will show them that they belong. No matter what you try, please – try something! Your teens will appreciate your efforts, as long as they’re authentic. I pray you share your ideas with us here, on Facebook, or email me at Forward Movement.
What is your church willing to try to engage teens? What ideas do you have? Please share your ideas, or what’s working. Thank you!
I am finding resistance from the older congregation members to encouraging and the “training up” of youngsters. Any advice on this please?
Nurya Love Parish says
So much depends on so many different variables that it is hard to give you advice. In general I find the serenity prayer to be helpful in situations where congregational conflict may arise.
Consider: What is actually yours to manage/handle/lead? What is one possible next step in your situation that you can take? Talk with your clergy and strategize together about what is best in your situation.
You want to make progress in encouraging younger generations without fostering the kind of conflict that makes the same youngsters flee church because the adults can’t get their act together. Nobody said this was easy: remember, Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves!
Have the courage to do the things you can do that will engage younger generations. Recognize that you can’t change the feelings of others, and that resistance to change is normal. Pray for faithfulness to God’s call to you and recognize that ultimately your hope is to please God with your ministry. Recognize that all members of the church are called to please God with their work, but we won’t always see eye-to-eye about how that goes, because we are merely humans doing our best.
Speak your truth, take one next step at a time, seek reconciliation with all, and especially, don’t give up on teaching younger folks to follow Jesus.
Lindsay Hardin Freeman says
Great ideas!! Thank you.
Audi Barlow says
Thank you Miriam for this post and your spot on suggestions. I’ve been the Director of Children’s Formation for six years and this past July added Youth Formation to my responsibilities. My instincts (and the Holy Spirit) directed me to make significant changes to our barely existent youth program. The first move I made was to talk with the youth and their parents. And yes, you’re correct, I engaged them in real conversation treating them like important people. But I also did a lot of listening. From those conversations I discerned that the youth want to have a purpose when they come to church. And again, you’re correct, getting them hooked into ministries and making them “visible” within the parish has been an important first step. I’m so pleased to say that we’re seeing real signs of change and so much of it stems from engagement. It’s easy in some ways, but it can be a lot of work too…. we’re building community and that takes time. Another real challenge for our program was the constant transitioning of youth formation leadership and having dry spells in between staff positions. It takes time to gain trust and create a sense of security (you’re right, teens are shy!). When adults come and go in their lives it can be discouraging.