I didn’t grow up in church. Sure, our family went to church many Christmas Eves and Easter Sundays, but in general, Jesus wasn’t a central part of our family life. I came to faith in Jesus my first semester in college, and I only went to “youth group” activities such as Young Life and Fellowship of Christian Athletes a few times when I was in high school. So when I became a volunteer at a high school ministry (and eventually a youth pastor when I graduated college), I really didn’t know what “youth ministry” was supposed to look like. I had only one good friend in high school who spent most Sundays in church, so a “church kid”—someone who had spent their whole life going to church—was a new concept to me.
To be honest, in my earlier days as a youth worker, I didn’t really know what to do with church kids. They usually went to just about every event, knew more about the Bible than I did (especially when I was in college!) and generally seemed to be have life fairly well figured out. I tended to gravitate more to the teenagers who really didn’t like church or whose parents forced them to attend youth group as some sort of parent-imposed New Year’s resolution.
After 10 years as a youth pastor, I’ve realized that for many years I totally missed the boat on teenagers who have spent their whole life in church. While I never naively believed they were just good kids who were on some sort of discipleship fast track, I wasn’t in tune to many of their needs. Here are some lessons I’ve learned (the hard) way about working with kids who have spent their whole life in church:
“Church Kids” might be your most fertile mission field.
One of the worst things you can do as a youth pastor is to assume that because a teenager has spent pretty much his or her whole life in church, he or she is a committed follower of Jesus. Even if you think you’re speaking to a room of teenagers who “get it” and have been followers of Jesus since they started Awana at age 3, never miss an opportunity to clearly explain the Gospel. Discipleship is messy, and it may be that the high school guy who always sits in the back row and knows all the answers has never committed himself to Jesus. This is especially true if parents just assume that because their kids are in church three days a week (or attend a Christian school), their kids have given their lives to Jesus.
“Church Kids” need space to fail.
This is true of any teenager, but I’ve discovered it’s especially true of church kids. This might come as a shock to some of you, but church can sometimes be a place where teenagers grow up learning “good” Christians never struggle, always make the right choice and don’t drink, smoke or cuss (or hang out with people who do). Everybody fails at some point, and you can help a teenager understand grace isn’t just something we get when we start following Jesus, but rather grace is an everyday necessity for imperfect people following a perfect Savior.
“Church Kids” need to hear that it’s worth it.
I have a friend whose parents raised her in the church and has followed Jesus as long as she can remember. She’s mature, knows who she is in Jesus and is committed to serving him in whatever she does. At times, I’ve heard her express that in high school and college, she at times felt silly for not having an “interesting” story as a part of her testimony. She’s not perfect, but she has made wise choices and has avoided many of the painful pitfalls and mistakes that are common to teenagers and young adults. Teenagers need to hear that being committed to Jesus is worth it even when others make different choices, and I try to constantly share with our high school students how if I could go back to high school and choose Jesus instead of being my own god, I would do so in a heartbeat.
QUESTION: What do you think youth workers need to know about working with teenagers who have spent their whole lives in church?