I recently read Miriam McKenney’s post on Grow Christians titled “We say we want kids and teens at church. So, what are we prepared to do?” I thought it was pretty spot on.
I’ve been a Youth Minister for 14 years. I grew up in an Episcopal Church where I was very active in the youth program. Of the 14 years that I have been in full time ministry, 11 of those years have been spent at the same church. There have been many ups and downs, not only in attendance but in relationship with the teens of our church.
As I thought about Miriam’s ideas, I decided to enlist a little help from the teens in my ministry. I figured that if we are going to try and figure out what teens want from us as the church, we should ask them.
Here’s what I heard:
1. Teens want a place that is safe for them.
Many adults in the church think that the youth group is just a group of goofy kids that play games and make a giant mess. The reality is that youth group is just a gathering with teens instead of adults. Sometimes we do make a mess and play silly games, but that’s because emotional walls are broken down and real relationships begin when teens have a chance to let their guard down.
Teens want a place where they can be silly and not be made fun of. Teens want a place where they can speak the truth of their lives and not be judged by adults or their peers. Teens want to be able to walk into a space with the people they are making real relationships with and know what they just said during youth group isn’t going to be carried outside of those walls.
Every year when the new school term begins, we always begin with “Rules for EYC (Episcopal Youth Community).” They make the rules of the group, and one of those rules is always, “what happens in EYC, stays in EYC.” I always remind them that this rule will be broken if they are hurting themselves or someone else is hurting them, but it is always one of the most important rules of the group.
2. Teens want a place where they feel like they are part of a family.
Being a part of a family doesn’t just mean youth group. Teens want to feel like they are a part of the Church. They don’t want to be the cleanup crew or that obscure group that is seen and not heard. They want to know that they are loved by the people they see every week during worship. These awkward people with strange hair, piercings, and foreign clothes want you to ask them about their lives. They want you to pray for them and check in with them.
One of the things I cherished about the church I grew up in was that the people of my church cared about my life. They didn’t just care about what I could do for the church but how my life outside of church was going. Many of those adults who cared about me then are now friends who I love and value.
3. Teens want adults to be real and authentic.
We as adults keep telling teenagers to just be themselves, but we have a really hard time doing that ourselves. We have an image in our minds of what teens want us to be, so we try to play that part. We try to be cool with our hipster glasses and skinny jeans and talk to them with strange hip hop language that isn’t actually a part of their real selves. Now, if you happen to really like hipster glasses and skinny jeans by all means, wear on, but if you are trying to play some cool part, please cut it out.
Teenagers are the very best at seeing through the masks we adults try to wear for them. If we can’t be honest about who we are, why would they think we are being honest about the message we are trying to tell teens? If we aren’t authentic, the message of Jesus Christ gets lost behind the mask.
What has helped you form (safe, caring, authentic) relationships with teens at your church?