Editor’s Note: Share this with the parents of incoming new students!
by Tony Akers
Youth ministry is fueled by friendship. Few organizations rely as heavily on the power of relationships to shape young people spiritually. Negotiating the relational world of youth ministry can be a bit daunting for youth, and the success or failure of that negotiation most directly effects the strength of motivation a young person has to continue engaging in the ministry. Knowing the reasons behind this motivation can help you as a parent as you travel together with your son or daughter through transition into youth ministry.
Typically, most youth ministries see three types of kids entering the youth program. It is instructive to identify which “type” your child is in order to be aware of how they are connecting socially. The first type, “active,” was involved in the children’s ministry, the second has been waiting “in the wings,” and the third will be the “newcomer.” Each type of kid brings certain expectations and challenges and has some trouble transitioning into the youth ministry for one reason or another. Here is what we have encountered:
If your child has been active and happy in the children’s ministry, they experienced a program that is very intentional and highly structured. For this child, sometimes the transition can be difficult because they make the assumption that they will experience an older version of children’s ministry. Obviously, some things are the same like Bible study etc., but youth ministry is uniquely structured for the changing needs of young adolescents.
The transition from children’s ministry to youth ministry can be characterized by a shift from a highly structured/low relational contact setting to a casually structured/highly relational environment.
We believe that kids will be attracted to youth ministry events, but it will be the relationships formed there that will bring them back each week and shape their faith. Thus, we spend great amounts of energy creating the context of our youth ministry (a friendly, enthusiastic, inviting, loving environment).
The churched child who is “in the wings” has not attended the children’s ministry for some time and may be waiting to be old enough to attend youth ministry. The “in the wings” children have their own challenges.
The well-intentioned, dropping off of an “in the wings” child and expecting immediate connection with the youth group is in poker terms like going “all in” without knowing all your cards. There are several things that make this particular transition difficult. They will be brand new to the youth ministry setting, to adult leaders involved, and to peers their own age. Your child may be expecting immediate connection and may not find it since most of their active peers have already formed friendship clusters that may be difficult to break into.
Excitement can turn into despair as the “in the wings” child battles relational hurdles to get plugged in. Some parents respond by sending their kid to youth group with a friend, but this often doesn’t help in the long term since most of their friends usually go to a church elsewhere and their parents expect them to be active there as well.
In some cases the “visitor friend” further prevents your kid from forming bonding relationships within the youth group.
In the event the visitor friend cannot attend youth group or a retreat, your child may choose not to go since they have not had the opportunity to form other friendships.
Parents of the “in the wings” child may experience frustration that their son or daughter is not connecting as well as they hoped. It is good to know from the start that youth ministry is different from children’s ministry but the essential elements will be the same. Keep encouraging attendance and, better yet, get them on a trip or retreat. These experiences can solidify friendships and faith development priorities for your child.
The newcomer is someone who might not have attended church before, so there will be a lot to catch up on. Christians have their own way of speaking and they expect others to know words like f-e-l-l-o-w-s-h-i-p or m-i-s-s-i-o-n-s. Young people coming into the ministry for the first time might feel like they have landed on another planet.
But in some ways it is not all bad because most youth ministries are HAPPY when newcomers show up…after all, multiplying ministry is a great thing.
The approach for the newcomer is similar to the “in the wings” child. As a parent you may need to continue to urge your child to attend. Encourage them to attend at least three weeks in a row and see how that goes. It takes at least three weeks to begin a habit, so stick to your guns despite any protests you may receive.
Here are some helpful tips to ease transition tension.
-Communicate! Let the youth staff know that your son or daughter is struggling. Then strategies can be formed that will help them through the transition.
-Stay calm. Anxiety is catching! An anxious parent will create an anxious child. Over the years I have seen students mirror their parents in developing reasons why they should not become fully integrated in the youth ministry. It is essential to remember that God is in control and is fully committed to seeing your child grow in faith.
-Work within the youth ministry team. Most ministries have spots available ranging from food prep to “we missed you” postcard writers. Ask the youth staff where you can plug in and most will find a spot for you to serve. Your presence in the ministry will be enough to calm, but not enough to embarrass.
-Visit. Bring your son or daughter by the youth office/youth area. Ask the youth staff to show them around and explain the program.
-Open your home and host a Bible study. Having other youth on your home “turf” can help break the ice for your son or daughter.
-Ask the youth staff to assign an older youth “buddy” to your son or daughter to assist with the transition. Most ministries have youth leadership teams that could assist with this ministry.
-Volunteer to teach or substitute for a Sunday school class your child is involved in.
-Suggest and help coordinate a transitional rite of passage that celebrates the arrival of the new students.
-Invite the youth staff over for dinner. Getting to know the staff in this casual setting will help your son or daughter realize they are special and cared for by the staff.
-Model your commitment to faith development in your own life. Make attendance in worship and Bible studies a priority. In many ways, faith is more caught than taught. In most cases what you model will be what you get reflected back in the life of your child.
-Lastly, be persistent. Time and again parents who continue to bring their child (even when they don’t like part or all of the youth program) have seen them engage once negotiation is no longer an option.
Tony Akers has a Master’s degree in Christian Education/Youth Ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary and recently entered his ninth year serving as the Minister to Youth and their Families at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Ala. He also serves as a CYMT coach to the Northern Alabama area. He is privileged to be married to Debbi and dad to Madison, Samuel, and Hannah Grace. When not doing youth ministry, Tony can be found at a soccer game, on the river, or reading.
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