Youth Ministry: What Are We Teaching High School Kids about the Church?
by Dawn Mass-Moser (September / October 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 5)
Here are three questions to help church leaders examine what we are teaching our youth about the church and its mission to know and follow Jesus Christ
As I speak with youth leaders throughout the country, folks often ask me about different curriculums and available resources. Novice and experienced youth leaders alike are many times looking for a place to begin. I believe that we can begin only in one place. We must begin in the same place we begin our outreach, justice, stewardship, worship, service, and all other ministries. We must begin with a desire to build up the church of Jesus Christ so that the reign of God might be in plain sight throughout the world.
I believe that the best high school ministries will seek to instill a love of the church and a commitment to sharing the gospel in the world.
So what are we teaching high schoolers about the church?
1. Are we teaching kids to be consumers, or are we calling them to ministry?
2. Are we teaching kids to be moral, or are we instilling principles of hospitality, acceptance, and grace?
3. Are we teaching kids that the church is a specific youth leader or group of friends, or are we connecting them to the whole people of God in the body of Christ?
Are we teaching kids to be consumers, or are we calling them to ministry?
During my seminary internship, I had things figured out. I was not much older than the high schoolers I was called to serve, and I was determined to hear their point of view. "What do you want to do this year?" was the simple question I presented to them as I met with them in their living or dining rooms. Many of their parents would seek to break the silence with an idea or two, and I did receive a few requests for things like bowling, roller-skating, and a ski trip.
In many ways, both my question and the accompanying responses were signs of the times, because it seems to me that in the latter part of the previous century something that I call "program church thinking" emerged. When I talk about program church thinking, I am not talking about the size of a congregation (the "program church"), nor am I suggesting that programs are not a good or even a necessary part of congregational life. Instead, I am talking about what occurred when churches began to realize that they were not perceived as relevant or the center of public life: congregations began to create programs in order to attract members.
|We simply cannot expect that the connection to one high-impact youth leader is the same as lifelong connection to the body of Christ.|
From this phenomenon things like church shopping came into being. People would go from church to church looking for the best program. Youth directors came into being during this time period as well, and they were hired to design programs for teenagers so that kids would want to come to their program. So we need to be aware that when we are designing programs for youth, not only are we competing with schools, scouts, family vacations, and the local YMCA, and not only are we potentially missing opportunities for faith growth, we are also teaching kids to be church consumers. That is, if you like the program, come; if you don't, choose another program offered by the church down the street or another organization.
In essence, we are also teaching them that the church exists to meet their needs, and when we do this we place a barrier between kids and their ability to do ministry by thinking of them as needy rather than gifted.
Today, in the congregation I serve, small groups of high school students meet weekly to support, bless, and pray for one another. Each of these small groups is committed to a significant ministry in either the church or the community. Each week these teens gather for worship in the congregation I serve. Their ministries are celebrated. The kids are strengthened by Word and Sacrament to do what they feel called to do in the name of Jesus Christ.
Community Youth Ministry
Community Youth Ministry, referred to in the author's biographical statement at the end of the article, began its work in 1999. It serves eight sites (groupings of churches) and about 150 congregations in the Midwest. The author is both founder and developer.
Through this ministry, youth and youth leaders from participating congregations gather monthly for large group celebrations. During the rest of the month, participants benefit from a full system of youth ministry including home, small group, youth group, and congregational resources.
Community Youth Ministry is a new part of the ongoing ministry carried out by Youth Encounter, Minneapolis, Minnesota, an organization seeking to strengthen the church through the faith and ministry of its youth.
Pastor Mass-Moser's 2003 Community Youth Ministry system, Faith Factor, is available through the Community Youth Ministry office, Chicago, Illinois, or through the Youth Encounter Web store at www.youthencounter.org
Are we teaching kids to be moral, or are we instilling principles of hospitality, acceptance, and grace?
I was taught, as a somewhat "at risk" teen with divorced parents, that the church youth group was not for me. The group was clearly for kids from churchgoing homes that made all of the right choices. This was made clear to me, about 20 years ago, when my friends and I were approached by a youth leader in a church parking lot with the words, "Get out of here, you losers!" This clearly defined my understanding of the church at that time.
I am alarmed that I continue to hear youth leaders who complain that Nikki's skirt "is too short for someone serving communion" or that "a kid with his tongue pierced should not be giving a temple talk." I am concerned that recently a high school girl from the congregation I serve stopped coming to youth group because of the emphasis on abstinence, which made her uncomfortable because of some of her past choices. Certainly good moral choices and socially acceptable behavior are to be commended and create a certain level of potential safety for kids, but an emphasis on morality excludes those most at risk and in need in our churches and communities.
On the other hand, an emphasis on hospitality, acceptance, and grace calls teens to seek out others who are in trouble and hurting, struggling and addicted, alone and at risk, teaching everyone involved that the church is a place of hope. The following words are included in all youth ministry documents created by the urban congregation I serve: "All are welcome! We celebrate and give thanks for the kids in our congregation and community who are role models for their peers and who show their faith daily through both word and deed. At the same time, we are not a youth group just for kids who have made all the right choices!!! We open our doors and hearts to all kids with all kinds of stories and histories and we seek to love, accept, and understand as God has done for us." This message about the church changes lives, and if proclaimed to teens it will change the church.
Resources for Youth
ELCA Youth Ministries Web site (program resources, leadership resources, events, and links). www.elca.org/dcm/youth
ELCA Youth Ministry Network (discussions, job listings, continuing education events, and support for adults who work with youth). www.elcaymnet.org
Training, certification, and continuing education opportunities for youth ministry leaders (adults and youth). Listed on the ELCA Youth Ministries Web site at: http://www.group.com
Up the Creek With a Paddle: Building Effective Youth and Family Ministry. Augsburg Fortress, 1998. 1-800-328-4648 or at www.augsburgfortress.org
Across the Generations: Incorporating All Ages in Ministry (with CD). Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2001. 1-800-328-4648 or www.augsburgfortress.org
Strategic Youth Ministry! Search Institute, 2000. Available from Group Publishing at www.group.com or 1-800-447-1070.
Are we teaching kids that the church is a specific youth leader or group of friends, or are we connecting them to the whole people of God in the body of Christ?
The congregation is ecstatic. A new youth leader has been hired. All of the kids love her. She is leading a Bible study and taking the high schoolers on both a canoe trip and a mission trip this coming summer.
Ninety percent of baptized children do not continue in the life of the church throughout their lives, according to research by Luther and Southwestern Seminaries.1 Yet in many congregations high school youth ministry is separated from the worshipping community (not to mention the larger church), and the task of passing on faith is delegated to a youth leader, who may or may not have experience or be equipped for the task and who, after all, is just one person.
If we are to instill in our teenagers a love of the church and a desire to share the gospel, many people of God, both in and outside the church, are needed: parents, grandparents, small group leaders, youth leaders, each congregation's worshipping participants, and those committed to youth ministry from neighboring congregations, the community, and the larger church. We simply cannot expect that the connection to one high-impact youth leader is the same as lifelong connection to the body of Christ. Youth that serve, pray, worship, work for justice, and share their faith alongside the whole people of God will likely be knit into the body of Christ as adults.
It seems to me that all of us who are committed to youth and the church must ask the question: What is the youth ministry of my congregation teaching kids about the church? Are they being taught the need to be served — or are they being called to serve? Are they taught to judge — or to love, understand, and reach out? Are they taught that the ministry of Jesus Christ happens on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. with a small group of people — or are they being taught that the ministry of Jesus Christ happens at all times and in partnership with all the people of God in this world?
Kids are impressionable. For the sake of the gospel, we can't afford to give the wrong impression.
Dawn Mass-Moser is co-pastor, along with her husband, Greg Moser, of United in Faith Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. She is the founder and developer of Community Youth Ministry [www.communityyouth.org], a community-based ministry working with groupings of churches throughout the Midwest. Youth Encounter, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, sponsors this ministry.
1. From a study done by FaithFactors.com (a project studying faith in youth and young adults). According to Project Chairperson Prof. Roland Martinson, professor of children and youth and family ministries, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, the 90 percent statistic specifically refers to some groups "of young men between the ages of 19 and 30 in some parts of the country. Overall, the numbers are [actually] more like 6 out of 10 young adults [who] cease worship and ministry for some period of time, with some of them returning to church, often to an evangelical community church when their first child is 4-5 years of age."
For more study findings, check the web site www.faithfactors.com. Prof. Martinson, who is also project chairperson of FaithFactors research, noted that these studies are still partial and do not have statistical validity at this point.
For further research that looks at youth and religion, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, under the auspices of Christian Smith and others, is currently undertaking a comprehensive study called The National Study of Youth and Religion, according to Prof. Martinson.