I sat nervously talking to the pastor of a 5,000 member church which he had planted from nothing. He was a confident man who carried himself like the CEO of a major corporation. I was merely 21 years old, fresh out of college, and interviewing to be the next youth director. Most of the interview was pleasant and I thought it was going well. That is, until he hit me with the toughest question. ‘Why is it that I have thousands of people coming to worship here and yet we can’t seem to get young people to attend our services?’
My bonehead reply was something about not understanding why young people would not enjoy the excellent services offered. I was being truthful but naive. The services were excellent. The music was the best you could find anywhere. The preaching was outstanding. The atmosphere was warm, welcoming and exciting with so many people coming each week. Despite my naive response and desire to flatter, I got the job.
Habits of Integration
It took me less than a year to figure out why young people did not worship there. The reason had nothing to do with the fact that it was a traditional church. It was not about teenage rebellion, nor the lack of relevant music or worship style. The reason youth did not worship there was because they never had. From the earliest days of that church everyone under 18 attended Sunday school classes while adults attended worship services. While my job security did not depend on youth attending worship, it remained the desire of the pastor to see young faces in pews. We were stuck however with a generation of young people who had no habit or experience of worship and trying to change that was near impossible. I wish I could say that we saw success in that area of integration.
It was confusing to church leaders that while the youth ministry grew significantly over the years, few found their way into worship services. In some churches here and abroad that is cause for church leaders to decide to find another youth worker. It is a huge struggle to lead young people into our worship services today.
Two totally different approaches
In my church in England, the vicar strongly held the view that the whole church needed to come together for worship every week. He had such a strong conviction that rather than add a service when we had no space for growth, we built an addition to the church in order to seat more people. It was a short-range solution with the longer range thinking being church planting. He could never entertain the thought of having separate styled services either. We had blended worship using old and new music and liturgy. Again, this was the conviction that a healthy church included young and old worshipping together. Great in theory and incredibly hard in practice. It also still left the issue of integration of teens unanswered because worship style is not the real issue.
In our diocese there are a number of churches that take the opposite approach. They seek to give people choice for the style of worship that works for them. It is a wonderful example of the church being in step with American culture! Yet, that approach still leaves the same issues of integration wide open. Students can still come to EYC or some aspects of a youth ministry, worship within that context and never really become part of the larger church. The reality is, the model for worship in any church, does not fully address the issue of integration because the question of integration is not simply a worship issue.
The Main meeting and the one eared Mickey Mouse
The reality is that Sunday morning represents the main meeting of God’s people within a congregation. Regardless of how Sunday morning is approached, there needs to be an integration of youth with the rest of the church. Without such integration, the youth ministry is something of a one-eared Mickey mouse. It is attached or linked to the church but not really part of it. Integration may not look the same in all churches but if youth do not experience the church as the body of Christ in all it’s parts, then they are getting less than what God desires for us all. The solution is not in presenting alternative options for worship – though that is an exciting and relevant approach to reaching people. So, how do we travel down the road toward integration and is it a road worth travelling? If integration is going to happen, we need to teach not only young people but also the whole church about the issues at stake. Students need to learn about church and older generations need to learn about youth.
Keys to Integration
What do young people need to learn about church?
* To worship. Who could read the Psalms without realising that God is to be worshipped? We must educate Christian students about the importance of worship and lead them into it. This is especially true of new believers. Whether we do this in a cell group, youth group or a main church service, it needs to take place. As youth mature in faith, if we point them in the right direction, we will see them develop a heart for worship. When they leave the youth group and head to university or work, they will be far more likely to integrate into the life of a congregation than if we had never nurtured them in this way. It’s important that youth learn about worship and develop that desire rather than be manipulated to attend something that they don’t understand. What are you doing to teach youth about worship over the centuries? Are they getting any insights as to why their grandparents worshipped differently? Do they understand the history of worship in the church and have they been exposed to forms of worship from centuries ago?
* To be the body. As young people grow in faith, they need to learn to support one another and be the body of Christ for one another. We have to do the Hebrews 10 thing and not give up meeting together but continue to spur one another on. We have to wrestle with what Jesus meant in his prayer in John 17 that we would be ‘one’ so that the world may know. Certainly this is about unity but should unity be limited to one age group? I am all for homogeneous groups where people in a specific life stage meet together to pray, learn, etc but is that all Jesus meant by being ‘one’? If we lived in a different age or culture we would see people valuing the influence of multiple generations on the development of children, youth and even adults. Our culture has lost the notion that we need grandmas to nurse our wounds and grandpa’s to impart wisdom about life. Isn’t the Church meant to be counter cultural and part of that might just be to mix the age groups for the benefit of all? The model we see in the New Testament is that God’s people are family. We are called children of God and we look to our heavenly father. The concept of family has certainly eroded in recent generations. Part of the call to be counter cultural – to be ‘in the world but not of it’ may be at this stage to reclaim the model of family for the church.
* To appreciate what the rest of the church has to offer. There is so much that students can gain from interaction with the rest of the congregation. A few years ago I asked a retired couple to come and share with the youth group what it means to have an intimate relationship with Christ. I chose that particular couple because of the unique way that they relate to people of all ages and the passion they have in their relationship with Christ. What we heard at youth group was the woman’s story of how she met and fell in love with her husband. He then shared the gospel. It was a powerful evening and nothing like what I expected. Many youth were deeply touched by the warm and humorous story of their lives, which in turn helped them to hear his message.
In a previous church I once asked the 65 year old senior pastor to come tell the youth group about his life. The evening was an incredible learning experience of how God had moved throughout his many years. Young people need to see the impact God has on people through all stages of life. They will not get that while marginalised in the youth group with no interaction with the rest of the congregation. If we choose to keep students separate from the rest of the church then perhaps we are doing a serious disservice to those we work with!
What does the congregation need to learn about youth?
* Adolescence is about identity formation. Developmental psychologists teach that the issue of identity is the key matter to resolve during the teen years. Often in this period young people want to identify more with their peers than with parents. It smells like rebellion and sometimes is! For Christian youth, that does not have to mean walking away from the faith. They can be directed and nurtured towards more healthy ways of expressing their individuality and separateness from Mum and Dad. Patrick Angier, a youth minister in Bedworth, England says ‘Those that appear to struggle the most with Sunday morning services are often from committed church parents who may well want to choose to follow Christ but not like their parents. They need the space to say yes to God but to decide for themselves what of “parent faith” they wish to take with them.’ The congregation needs to know what is happening spiritually in the lives of young people and be assured of growth and maturity taking place.
* We are dealing with more than a generation gap. Young people today are growing up in a different culture and that culture is a major part of their identity. The forms of communication they prefer (films, TV, music, etc) might not in any way relate to their experience of church. As a result, young people may struggle to identify as part of the congregation, particularly in worship. Congregations need to understand that young people today think different. They are a postmodern generation whose needs take a different shape to generations before them. We as youth leaders need to communicate how we are seeking to reach young people and what impact it is having. We cannot expect young people to grow up and settle in the church like people did generations ago. The church needs to be patient and understanding if it is going to integrate young people.
* We cannot stereotype youth. What works at one church with a certain group of youth may not work elsewhere. If we look around at what different churches are doing and experiencing, we can only conclude that things are different all over. Some very traditional churches are having a great time reaching and keeping youth. Other churches have set up youth services or allowed them to emerge within an existing service. Some churches have thriving youth ministries and no youth attending main services and other churches have it the other way around. The point is that we cannot assume something will work for us because it works down the road. We need long term goals and a realistic approach to them. The real issue is growing in understanding and relating to one another.
1. We need to rethink our definition of church. That is not to say we must redefine church. The church will be redefined over time anyway, but for now we need to know what we mean by ‘Church’. It is the body of Christ, the congregation, God’s people, His family. Often when we think of church it conjures up mental images of a particular worship service. If we consider the church to be a body of believers, then how we integrate youth is about more than just attendance in Sunday morning services. It’s about getting to know one another and relating on a spiritual level.
2. We need to think creatively about how we integrate young people into the life of the church. What will we do to integrate the generations? As we do that how do we move towards youth participation in all age worship? Some churches have set up prayer sponsorship schemes where adults are assigned a young person to pray for. Other churches use youth in leading services, serving as greeters, in music groups, as readers, etc. One area that ought to be explored is the area of missions projects. Both young and old are often keen to get involved in helping human needs. Perhaps youth and adults need to work together on projects like Junction Radio or supporting children through Compassion International. Experiences like these will lead to the kind of interaction that brings integration. John Hawksworth, a youth pastor in Leeds, points out that integration is ‘more likely to happen through relationship and fellowship than finding common worship songs to sing.’ We need to be doing what we can to bring generations together. If we can’t bring the youth to the adults, then let’s bring the adults to the youth!
3. We need to be clear that participation is not simply bottoms on pews. Part of our task as youth leaders (paid or volunteer) is to address this misconception of participation. People in the church need to see involvement for youth as being similar, though not always the same, as participation of older people. Attending church functions, special meetings, being part of cell groups or Bible studies, and going to age specific fellowship groups is all participation in the church. These groups ought to be coming together and the church needs to recognise the participation of young people. We ought to put church wide events on our youth ministry calendars! It is the task of youth leaders to raise the awareness of youth in the congregation especially if they are not seen on Sunday mornings.
There is hope for integration if only we will believe in its value and work in the right ways to achieve it. The way forward may not be as simple or obvious as we expect. It is however worth pursuing. We are the family of God. Perhaps it’s time to re-establish that model of ministry.
Written by Dave Wright, Coordinator for Youth Ministries in the Diocese of South Carolina
This article is adapted from a previous version, which first appeared in the December 2000 issue of Youthwork magazine
(Published in the United Kingdom)