Every youth group tends to be formed with the best of intentions. Churches hope to reach young people; clergy hope to provide relevant spiritual direction; parents hope to see their kids’ faith shored up by good mentors and solid Christian friendships.
In some congregations, this intention becomes reality—and praise God for that! Unfortunately, intentions are often lost in translation, and youth group can become a topic that young adults recall with eye rolls and grimaces. I was one of them. I spent eight years as a sporadic participant of my church’s middle and high school ministry. Rather than buoying my faith, youth group felt more like a barrier to my adult faith, one I have slowly overcome.
Numerous conversations with peers and young people affirm that I’m not alone. That’s why I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
Here are 3 essential traits for every youth group experience:
1. Connection to the Greater Church Body
Adults correctly recognize that young people have their own culture, shared language and collective experiences. Unfortunately, many adults incorrectly assume this means youth are excluded from the ordinary experiences of the church—even worship. By separating young people from the regular flow of church life, natural opportunities for responsibility and mentoring are replaced by programming; youth begin to feel they must be told when and where they’re supposed to serve. In my youth group, I wish we had been encouraged—compelled even—to assist with the mundane needs of our church body: greeting, making coffee, helping with childcare. This act of inclusion may have built greater bridges between the young people at my church and the adults we would eventually be living alongside.
2. True Relevance
I can’t count the amount of times I’ve heard the word relevance used in the context of youth ministry. Every time, I find it grating. While there’s nothing wrong with making a youth group experience and environment contemporary, being driven by cultural relevance is a sure way to become distracted from a group’s true needs and priorities (not to mention the Gospel). I encourage youth workers to achieve true relevance by aiming for authentic relationship, good listening and Christlike love. I wish that instead of trying to relate to me, my youth leaders had sought to understand me and relate with me. This would have created a deeper sense of belonging and security than any pop-culture reference.
3. Positive Expectations
I think the term self-fulfilling prophecy can be easily applied to the expectations we cultivate within youth ministry. Young people are used to hearing lots of adult opinions about their generation. (Just look up all the disparaging articles written about Millennials and Generation Y!) When this kind of proscriptive commentary leaks into churches, it can infect the relationships between youth and their leaders, pastors, parents and mentors. This is particularly true of faith: If young people are told their faith is weak, likely to be lost or slow to develop, their natural growth may be inhibited. I wish that my experience in youth group had been one of encouragement, where my faith, questions and doubts were seen as opportunities to elevate my understanding of God and the Christian life.
These areas of frustration may be personal. I recognize that many youth groups and ministries don’t have these problems or are already in the process of solving them. My guess, however, is that plenty of young people in the church still feel isolated or misunderstood, as indicated by the rising rates of anxiety and depression in adolescents.
As our NextGen Leadership Team begins to talk about discovering, developing and deploying the next generation of spiritual leaders, I hope my youth group “baggage” can help inform the conversation and strengthen the approach for engaging young people. In my own congregation, I can’t wait to see the fruits that will grow from a thoughtful, sincere approach to youth ministry—one that views young people not as a separate species or marketing category but as members of the body of Christ.
This article originally appeared here.