There is a very provocative article at “LeadershipJournal.net” called “Is the Era of Age Segmentation Over?” The article is based on research that shows that the most important factor in the life of a teenager who remains “in church” through and after college is the number of mature believers with whom that teenager has a real relationship.
Hmmm… imagine that. Its not the programs offered, or the skill of the teacher, or the videos and dramas. Its relationships. And, not just any kind of relationship. Well, here, listen to the researcher (the article is in interview format):
What can churches do to increase the likelihood that our kids stay in church after they graduate?
I think the future of youth ministry is intergenerational youth ministry.
At this point in our research, we’ve found that one thing churches can do that really makes a difference is getting kids actively involved in the life of the church before they graduate.
There is a strong link between kids staying in church after they graduate and their involvement in intergenerational relationships and worship. It’s important, we’re finding, to get beyond a token youth Sunday and start thinking about how to involve kids as ushers and greeters and readers and musicians in our services.
We’re also finding a relationship between teenagers serving younger kids and their faith maturity when they graduate from high school. Teens should not only be the objects of ministry; they need to be the subjects of ministry as well. It’s the 16 year old that has relationships with 66 year olds and 6 year olds who is more likely to stay involved in a faith community after she graduates…
It sounds like you have high expectations of what youth can and will do.
Teenagers are up to the challenge. In our college transition project, we asked high school seniors what they want more of in youth group. Time for deep conversation ranked highest. Games ranked last. That’s one example of how we’re currently undershooting. Tenth graders study Shakespeare. What are we offering them at church? Nothing comparable to Shakespeare.
How else can churches foster intergenerational relationships?
There’s a standard ratio in youth ministry: one adult for every five kids. My colleague here at Fuller, Chap Clark, says we need to reverse the ratio and strive for having five adults build into one kid.
When I say that to youth workers or pastors, they tense up. I’m not talking about five Bible study leaders or five small group leaders per teenager. I’m talking about five adults who care enough about a kid that they learn her name, ask her on Sunday how they can be praying for her, and then the following Sunday ask her, “How did it go with that science test?” Our study shows that even these baby step connections can make a real difference.
So relationships are as important as worship styles?
More important. And I think one of the real advantages of being a smaller church is that there is a lot more potential for intergenerational relationships and longer lasting faith. It’s a general rule that the bigger the church the more segmented the age groups and generations are from each other. So I look at a church of a hundred and think, Man, what potential there is to have meaningful relationships.
By the way, I’m not interested in whether or not teenagers stay “in church.” I am interested in whether or not they are maturing in their faith and remaining faithful to God.
Also, if you read the entire article, you’ll see that the researcher offers examples and suggestions of how to add “intergenerational relationships” into the standard youth programs. I’m not concerned about the youth programs. I’m not convinced they are beneficial, but that’s not the point.
The point is that we cannot “program” relationships. For example, the author discusses a six week class where teenagers are brought together with 70 year olds. That’s great. But, what happens after that class. Strong, life-changing relationships are not built in six one-hour classes.
So, what are parents and churches to do? Foster relationships between teenagers and more mature believers. Invite teenagers to spend time with you and your family. Invite them to serve with you. Get to know them. Find out where their struggles are and help them with those struggles.
If your teenager is more introverted, or if you know a teenager that keeps to himself or herself, then it may take more intentionality on the part of the parents and other believers to get to know that person. (Of course, that would be true of any person who is more of an introvert.)
We must recognize that fellowship and discipleship are everyone’s responsibility. The same is true when it relates to teenagers. The teenagers, their parents, and others in the church must take an active role in one another’s lives. If teenagers want deep relationships, then they should initiate the contact. If the parents want their teenagers to have discipling relationships, then they should offer the opportunities for their teenagers to get to know other people. If others want relationships with teenagers, then they should approach the teenagers. It is all of our responsibility.
As I think about this, and as I think about the teenagers that I’ve interacted with, I recognize that teenagers are much like all other believers. They have struggles and doubts and sins and uncertainties and strengths and weaknesses. For many that I’ve talked to, they don’t need another apologetics series, they need to someone to encourage them when they’re having times of doubt. They don’t need another True Love Waits campaign, they need several mature friends who can encourage and challenge them daily when they are facing those temptations.
Again, I’m not talking about adding a time of “intergenerational ministry” to a youth program. I’m talking about including teenagers in our lives. Parents, we should certainly include teenagers in our own lives, but they need relationships with other mature believers, too.
As we are attempting to live in community with one another, we must not forget the teenagers. They are also brothers and sisters in Christ. We can disciple them and we can be discipled by them.