Trusting God in Youth Ministry: Living Our Faith Together

Want to do youth ministry with more trust, less anxiety? A feature story with practical tips for developing sustainable youth ministry in which congregations experience themselves as one body growing together in love.

People of all ages packed the room for a youth ministry panel at a recent Calvin Symposium on Worship. Panelists talked about fear and worry—that churches and youth pastors aren’t doing enough to hold on to teens and that young people are drifting away.

Half an hour into the discussion, panelist Sara Arthur apologized to the sizeable group of teens. “It’s as if we are anthropologists discussing a strange tribe—youth. Technically three of five of us up here should be youth,” she said.

The teens nodded vigorously. One student said, “I have nothing against adults leading youth ministries. But it seems adults just take over the youth participation. They give another class just like we have in school. Adults don’t stress that youth can be involved in activities, spiritual experiences, and worship.”

The path from anxiety to trust in youth ministry begins with looking at what you already have as members of God’s family—life-giving relationships.

Talk together

In Godly Play, Children and Worship programs, and Sunday school classes across North America, children and their teachers sing “Be still and know that I am God.” But by the time these same kids become teens, it’s as if many adults in their lives have forgotten that the song ends with “In you, oh Lord, I put my trust.”

So if you’re worrying about youth in your church, do what Jesus did with Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, and the men walking to Emmaus. Strike up a conversation.

That’s what Lynn Barger Elliott does with confirmation classes and other youth at Mayflower Congregational Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She asks, “If we got a new government and they shut down every church in America and you could never come back here for worship, what would you miss the most?”

Youth tell her, “Well, I don’t really talk to older people or people from out of my age group outside church” and “I wouldn’t get to eat cookies with these different people.” Others say, “I’d miss hymns. We never hear that music anywhere else.”

Barger, who teaches congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College and is a Youth Ministry Architects consultant, says the “what would you miss” question is fascinating to ask. “Ironically, the kids can generally tell you what they really appreciate about your church. It’s the adults that have the handwringing anxiety of not offering as much as the church down the road.

“My most prevalent observation in churches—whether they’re large or small, traditional or contemporary, have a youth pastor or a volunteer team—is that they’re preoccupied with what they’re not offering their youth. That blocks them from seeing what they can uniquely offer,” she says.

Be who you are

Of course you want to appeal to youth. “But if fun is the goal, most churches can’t compete with the bigger and better options available to kids,” Barger Elliott says. She notes that kids often can’t articulate why a mission trip or youth program matters so they fall back on the word “fun” as “code for saying ‘This is meaningful to me. I had a unique experience with friends that touched a deeper part of me than I’d find in other places.’ ”

What makes youth ministry meaningful is so basic that many dismiss it. Mark Yaconelli in his book Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus names this unique good “a ministry of presence.” Barger Elliott explains that intentional intergenerational relationships are “the glue that holds youth ministry together.” Youth hunger for adults who personally invite them, know their names, share the life Christ offers, and notice when they’re not there.

Parents and other adults are essential in helping youth toward mature spirituality. Yet adults “often adopt a ‘hands-off’ strategy, buying into the dominant cultural claim that young people need to navigate their own way,” says Jonathan Hill, a National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) researcher who teaches sociology at Calvin College.

NSYR research shows that kids drift away from church already at age 14 or 15—not out of existential angst but because the culture thinks of Christianity merely as a “spiritually therapeutic option for you as an individual. We need to be upfront that corporate participation in the institutionalized church is essential to know and experience God. We need a new language to think about church,” Hill says.

Barger Elliott explains that relational attentiveness “teaches kids that God is caring, that God expects you to live in a certain way, that God is reaching out, that God is paying attention to you whether you show up or not. Youth step outside their daily rhythms into a common life of faith. They experience how faith looks and feels. They act out that faith through service projects.” Mayflower has a team of 12 to 15 adults who take turns so there are four to six adults at each youth group meeting.

Pray together

No matter where she’s led youth groups, Barger Elliott has always ended meetings in prayer. Leaders and youth gather in a circle to share joys and concerns. “We ask someone to be the scribe, a word you don’t hear much anymore, to record prayer requests in a book. Joe says, ‘My grandmother has leukemia.’ I say, ‘Could someone commit to pray for Joe this week?’ Suzy says, ‘Yes, I’ll do that.’

“You’re not allowed to bring up sports or tests, because that gets self-serving. Instead we do a general prayer about everyone doing their best. Some of our leaders are in graduate school or taking risks in business or dealing with family illness, and they talk about the role of community and daily patterns of devotions in all that. Youth often commit to pray for a leader’s need. They get a sense of equal standing in the family of God,” Barger Elliott says.

Each year the youth group has a theme with a symbol, such as a rock, cross, candle, or gift-wrapped box, to remind them who they are and why they gather. After committing to pray for each other, people pass the symbol. “When you get the symbol, you pray for the person you committed to pray for and can also say your own prayer. It gives kids a model of carrying each other’s burdens. People who aren’t necessarily friends at school will text or Facebook each other to ask, ‘Hey, how’s your grandma doing?’ ” she says.

Learn More

Listen to brief excerpts from fall 2009 interviews with Lynn Barger Elliott and Mark DeVries:

Read Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It by Mark DeVries. Listen to his Calvin Seminary lecture “The Third Pig: Sustainable Youth Ministry.” Book him, Lynn Barger Elliott, or another Youth Ministry Architects consultant for help that fits your congregation.

Sara Arthur, a former youth pastor who has published several youth ministry resources, is married to a pastor and has become passionate about the United Methodist Church confirmation process. She advises assigning one-on-one mentors who always greet teens by name each week and teaching an adult education class in which parents go through exactly the same material that their kids are getting in confirmation class. Arthur says it’s vital that, while going through confirmation process, kids are involved in leading worship for the whole congregation. This helps them see themselves as part of the entire congregation and the body of believers, wherever life takes them.

Join online conversations with other youth pastors on The Network: Connecting Churches for Ministry. Read Mark Charles’ excellent essay on relating to people as Jesus did. Learn from this Jeremy Affeldt interview about involving teens and youth adults in justice issues. Affeldt is a relief pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. Ponder this Relevant Magazine piece about the dangers of young adult ministry.

Read, discuss, and review two books: Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church by Kenda Creasy Dean and The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster.

Start a Discussion

Talk about how to move from anxiety to trust in youth ministry.

  • What do youth in your church say they value most about your congregation? What do they learn about relationship with God from the way adults in your church relate to them?
  • Sociologist Jonathan Hill cautions against the trend to repackage “pop-cultural products...with supposedly ‘Christian’ content. This practice assumes it is simply the content of consumption culture which is problematic, not the form itself.” In what ways might this insight apply to your youth ministry?
  • Hill continues, “But the content of the faith cannot be divorced from the ‘medium’ of Christian practices found throughout the history of the church.” In what ways do your youth experience—rather than study or hear a talk about—prayer, the Bible, worship, or carrying others’ burdens?
  • How might your youth ministry change if your church invested adult time in the ratios that Lynn Barger Elliott and Mark DeVries suggest? What first step might you make toward trying this?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to build trust and authentic relationships in your youth ministry?

  • If you’ve come up with a gently effective way to connect with youth who’ve drifted away from your church, what worked best? What did you learn from them and how did you respond?
  • Youth often feel disconnected from adults in their congregation. What has worked best for you to bridge this disconnect from Christian adults and provide a picture of mature everyday faith?

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