by Carlisle Jones
What does it mean for the church to really care about or DO youth ministry? How important is it for the whole church to be involved in the youth ministry?
During the fall semester of 2013, second year graduate residents at the Center for Youth Ministry Training took the Theological Foundations for Youth Ministry class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky, CYMT’s academic director. I hope I speak for my classmates when I say that this class was hugely important for us. We went through each theological doctrine both to consider our personal beliefs, our congregation, and our denomination’s stance on the doctrine. More than anything, we spent the semester considering how to be theologically informed youth ministers in our churches. What are we saying by running Sunday evening programming the way we do? What are we communicating by the way we share communion? Does the lack of adults mean something to the youth group? (Yes!)
The most significant thing I took from this course came from our very last retreat. Andrew said, “Have you thought about how the actions of each member of your congregation impact your youth? What do their smiles or lack thereof say theologically about youth ministry?” He continued to talk about how each individual member of our church is responsible for being a youth minister.  A church that shoves teenagers in the basement, sneers at their involvement in worship, and wants them to stay far away from the greater church’s happenings IS SAYING SOMETHING. Theologically, that church is saying that they believe their teenagers are not useful, not valuable, not worthy to participate the same way adults do in the Kingdom of God. Ouch. That got my attention. I certainly did NOT want that to be my church or my teens.
What’s so groundbreaking about this knowledge is that we just don’t realize that our actions impact teens’ view of church. If any other group in the church—the senior adults, the women’s group, those with disabilities—were told they could not do something because they were too noisy, too distracting, too anything, we would riot. We simply have to train our congregations to think the same way about teenagers. Most adults in our churches are quick to say, “Oh, those teenagers, they are just so easily molded” but those same people neglect to consider how their treatment of those very teenagers contributes theologically to that molding.
While forgetting this wisdom can be problematic, empowering your congregation in this way can also be incredibly powerful. Andrew noted that when a congregation member scoffs at a youth, that youth feels unwelcome. But at the same time, when adults in the congregation welcome teenagers—even when they enter the church doors like a herd of cattle—these adults are inviting the teenagers to more than a worship service. When the adults in our congregation serve alongside teenagers, they are doing more than fulfilling a need for the community. By being intentional about inclusiveness, a congregation has the ability to communicate that teenagers are important. They are powerful. They are just as able and gifted to spread God’s love, to proclaim the Gospel, and to participate in God’s action through their local church.
I certainly don’t think attitudes will change overnight. There is no quick-fix for adults who seem bothered by talkative or fidgety seventh grade boys. Some adults will never understand the teenage love affair with technology. If there is something I have learned through this process, it is that people want to feel needed. If we can all take the time to explain to the congregation (maybe not in lecture format) why their love and relationship with a few youth is needed and important, I believe they will respond. Though it may be awkward, simply take the time to find the people who are already doing this and those who need extra encouragement. ASK THEM DIRECTLY. A mass email won’t cut it. Give people a chance to do their part in the Kingdom of God.
Sit down with your pastor and explain why the congregation’s involvement in the youth ministry is so important. Work with your Usher/Greeter and Communion Server coordinators to make sure there is always one youth in these roles each Sunday. In our congregation, youth are asked to help with the children’s ministry, and we even have one youth in our praise band now. These teenagers may not show up each time, and they may not be perfect, but it’s my job to remind the adults that it’s going to be all right. Encouraging teenagers to be involved is theologically far more important that getting the offering basket down the pews perfectly.
I have also put a lot of time into plugging our teenagers into relationships with the adults in the congregation. We have adults who join us for parties, adults who serve with us, adults who periodically write notes to the youth, our Sunday evening volunteers, and a different Wednesday volunteer each month. Each time an adult takes time to be with a youth, they are communicating the importance of the youth ministry. I constantly tell both the teenagers and the adults that their involvement is important.
I’m not sure how this will look at your church. Maybe it’s relationships with adults and participation in worship. Perhaps there are more established programs in which youth can be involved. Maybe there are even more service opportunities both within and outside your congregation. If your church wants to start something new, always be there to invite the teenagers who would benefit from participation. TELL your adults they are important to the teenagers and youth ministry. TELL your teenagers their church values them, and SHOW them how.
I am no expert. I’m simply someone who really believes that our churches can absolutely make this shift, and with passion and persistence, our pews can be full of “youth ministers.” We can all empower our congregations to see how the spirit of God rests within each of our teenagers. It may take time, energy, or frustration, but we can do this.
Carlisle Jones is a third year CYMT graduate resident and serves as the associate director of youth ministries at First UMC in Franklin, Tenn.