I’ve always been slightly jealous of congregations with “real” youth groups. You know the ones I’m talking about: the ones with well-painted and decorated class rooms. The ones with a full-time youth minister who, despite congregational complaints that he is an overpaid song leader, makes a difference in the lives of teenagers. The ones who take a yearly trip to Encounter at LCU and a summer mission trip. Youth groups with lock-ins, classes taught by people trained to teach, mentoring, visits to Christian college campuses that encouraged us to attend there. Youth groups with more than a scarce handful of teenagers.
I know, I know, jealousy is a sin. And I know, I know. “It’s not about the building, it’s about the people.” “There are other adults in your congregations growing up who could mentor you.” “Why couldn’t you still go to Encounter?” “You clearly visited ACU at some point because you ended up going there for six years.”
All of that is true. But I think that all of these ideas seem to lead to the same end: Aging congregations that are also shrinking frequently lose young families, teenagers, and young adults to larger congregations that offer small groups, interactive curriculum, and those exciting yearly mission trips.
I would argue a lot of this has to do with a general unwillingness on the part of adults to help keep youth engaged on a real, spiritual level.
A quick google search yielded various concerning statistics about church retention, but since google is not necessarily a reliable source, let me tell you about some of my peers. Of those I know of who grew up in smaller churches of Christ, only a handful are regular adult members at a congregation. A few have left smaller churches for flashier, trendier ones. More choose to practice their faith in private. Most have left the church entirely. I didn’t even regularly attend a smaller church in college—at ACU, I attended one of the larger congregations in town because of its university ministry. In many ways, larger congregations like this one seem to be flourishing in the youth department, and rather than lamenting why smaller congregations often aren’t, I think it is important to learn the strategies they employ that help.
Some would say it’s because they “cave to the world” and “entertain to retain,” but it’s more than that. These congregations value their young people, and not in a token “we have a VBS so we must care about children” way, but in an intentional, purposeful, and ultimately relational way. That is what made me stay with Hillcrest Church of Christ, and this vulnerable, scary engagement with young people has the power to really demonstrate the true nature of Christian love. As Austin Wright discussed in his recent CHARIS post, smaller churches have the potential to excel in intergenerational ministry, but unless they lean into this, younger people will continue to leave.
Youth work in any congregation is crucial, and it is even more essential in a smaller church. However, when the preacher is the only person on staff and 80% of the congregation is over the age of 55, the first thing that gets neglected (never intentionally) is the younger people. They don’t feel welcome, so they leave to find a place where they are. And although sometimes they find it at another congregation, many of them find it elsewhere.
Feeling welcome doesn’t come from a greeter at the door, although that can help. It doesn’t come from a Facebook friend request, although that can also help, depending on the selfies, political propaganda and/or cat videos you share. Feeling welcome comes from investing in another person’s life, and until members of congregations large and small do that, the body of Christ will remain plastic, fake, and inauthentic.
It’s not about our theology, our doctrine, or the name on our door. Jesus saw people, first and foremost. In our quest to look like him, we must also see people through his eyes: with love, without judgment, and seeking to serve and not be served. And we (used collectively, referring to every member of every congregation) need to serve young people, even when it becomes a thankless task, because when we fail to do these things, they will be the first to call us out on our hypocrisy.
Teenagers and kids are on my mind as I am in the midst of working as a counselor at Lake Cisco Christian Camp, the camp I grew up attending and where I have served as a counselor for about six years. As I was helping lead a class that taught songs to 3rd-6th graders yesterday, it struck me that of all the kids singing “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,” over half of them will likely leave the church before they’re my age. My prayer for them is that they will stay near the cross, but the likelihood of that is slim.
On a small scale, I think summer camp demonstrates why we struggle with youth work. Camp is a good place where I sense God’s presence, but I have also seen people get in the way of real ministry. They sometimes care too much about themselves, reliving their own glory days, or developing a “savior complex” to truly invest in the kids. I think this reflects why so few volunteers help with youth at smaller congregations. They think it isn’t their job because they don’t have kids. Maybe they feel they’ve “served their time.” Some may complain that they don’t have the patience to deal with crazy hormonal teenagers, or they don’t like the smell of Axe body spray (news flash to teenage boys: basically no one does). And I understand that. It’s true that many people have worked tirelessly in youth ministry for years, and it’s true that parental influence is one of the deciding factors for adulthood faith, and it is most certainly true that working with younger people takes a lot of patience (I’m still working to get the echo of eight-year-olds calling my name out of my head from the past week). But it is our job, if for no other reason than that we were invested in as we grew up. We need to pass on the baton of faith, and doing that cannot come from a place of judgment.
As a counselor, getting kids to open up is always a humbling experience. Some of those 16-year-olds have experienced more in their brief lives than many older people in congregations. But often, their stories are not met with open ears. These young people are looked down upon because they are young, and they in turn run away, frequently to lifestyles and coping mechanisms that are a poor substitute for the kingdom of God, which we could help prevent if we would take the time to be vulnerable with them and care. We ask Jesus to keep us near the cross, but as Christians, part of our job is helping keep other followers of Christ beneath its shadow.
Sure, caring isn’t easy. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things to do, especially when there is no indication or guarantee these kids will love you back. But I promise, if you invest in the children, teenagers, and young adults in your congregation, no matter its size, the church will benefit. The fountain is free to all, and sharing its healing stream with all is a duty each Christian must take part in.
Editor’s Note: This post was developed in partnership with the Small Church Wholeness Pathway at ACU Summit 2018. Join us Sept. 16-19 on ACU’s campus, and click here for more CHARIS posts about small church ministry.
Alyssa Johnson recently finished her master’s degree in English at Abilene Christian University and plans to start working on a PhD in English at Texas Christian University in the fall. She grew up as a preacher’s kid in several small towns throughout Texas. She works with Lake Cisco Christian Camp in various capacities throughout the year, and she loves the chance to minister to these kids and watch them grow. Alyssa is an advanced swing dancer, an amateur theologian, and a mediocre ukulele player.