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Smart Churches Do This With Their Youth

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Many churches and youth ministries highlight teenagers from time to time (like “Youth Sunday”). Some even include teenagers and young adults on committees and other leadership functions, but for the purpose of “raising up tomorrow’s leaders.” In my most recent column for Youthwork Magazine (in the UK), I argue that a smart church has teenagers and young adults on leadership teams because they have something essential to contribute.

(Note: This was written for a U.K. audience, and some of the language and terminology reflects that!)

The Need to Be a Smart Church

What if our churches didn’t only move away from isolating teenagers and young adults, but moved beyond a patronizing atta-boy, “oh, they’re so cute” approach that treats young people like junior members? What if our churches saw the powerful benefit of including 16- to 25-year-olds in every aspect of congregational leadership, including oversight groups and planning teams? And what if this inclusion wasn’t merely in order to raise up future leaders, but was born out of an understanding that we are better with young people as part of our process?

For dozens of years now, churches with active youth programs have wrong-headedly moved toward isolating teenagers from the congregation. The thinking was: Teenagers will learn best, and be most happy, if they’re with “their own kind.”

I have a somewhat cynical additional reason why I think so many churches have moved in this direction: It allows adults to feel like they’re caring for youth without actually needing to be with youth. Everyone wins!

Except: That’s not true.

When youth and young adults are siloed, everyone loses.

I could make this case many ways, not the least of which is that research has made it clear that the faith formation of young people—if we hope for any chance of a faith that lasts beyond their involvement in a youth ministry—is highly correlated to engagement with a congregation.

But I’d like to suggest a developmental reason why any organization—certainly churches included—absolutely need to have teenagers and young adults on leadership teams, planning committees and any other sort of decision-making group. This reason is anchored in brain development, but must be viewed through the less-common lens of “teenagers are a wonder to behold,” rather than the more-common lens of “teenagers are problem to be solved.”

Maybe you’ve heard this, but in the last dozen or so years we’ve discovered that brains aren’t fully developed until the mid- to late-20s. One of the most significantly underdeveloped parts of the brain is the frontal lobe. And those babies are responsible for a handful of fairly helpful critical thinking skills, like: decision-making, wisdom, prioritization, impulse control, planning, organization and focus.

Through a negative lens (the most common way of viewing young people), that underdevelopment quickly leads to the reaction: What a subhuman, broken mess! No wonder they’re such a nightmare!

But through a positive lens (most common for scientists studying teenage brains; and most aligned with a Christian commitment to consider God’s creation intention), the resulting response should be: Wow! These people are perfectly tuned, specialized for particular contributions that older folk struggle with. This is the perspective that a smart church will take.

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Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.