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Stop Segregating Youth

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Mark Cannister: "Transformation happens … when they are engaged in the broader life of the church and connected to a network of caring adults."

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Excerpted from Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church
By Mark Cannister (Baker Academic)

A 2014 OUTREACH RESOURCE OF THE YEAR

WHEN TEENAGERS MATTER

They Become Part of the Church

Time and again people say, “We are losing our young people from the church.” It’s time for a reality check. In many cases, our young people have never been part of the church. Even when we have developed seemingly strong comprehensive student ministries, we often relegate teenage contributions to areas of service within the student ministries themselves.

More often than not, teenagers are segregated from the adult population of the church into specialized, “age-appropriate” programs and are only occasionally put on display for the adult congregation during a Youth Sunday or a mission-trip commissioning ceremony. They have grown up in the church building week after week. They know the church property like their home. They participate enthusiastically in their specialized programs. But they have never been assimilated into the larger intergenerational community of the church.

Many teenagers in the church rarely attend an intergenerational worship service, opting instead for the homogeneous youth worship program that has become a church of its own within the church. In at least one instance, I have witnessed a church move Sunday morning student ministry programs to the same hour that the contemporary worship service was being held in the sanctuary for logistical reasons. The result was that the vast majority of teenagers no longer attended the church worship service, rejecting the earlier traditional style service and choosing their youth program—consisting of worship, teaching, and small groups—over the contemporary service in the sanctuary.

This phenomenon is nothing new to student ministry, as the seeds of this separatist culture are planted early on in children’s ministry. In decades past, it was common for children to participate in the first part of a worship service, come forward for a children’s sermon and then leave for their age-appropriate programs. While some churches still follow this pattern, more and more churches—often growing churches in need of seating for adults—have chosen to remove children from the worship service altogether. Children are provided with their own specialized programs that include worship, teaching and small groups. Parents drop their children off before the worship service and retrieve them afterward, thus providing both adults and children with highly satisfying worship experiences on Sunday morning, albeit in different locations.

The pattern then becomes one in which children grow up in a “children’s church,” then move into the “middle school church,” and then to the “high school church.” The tragic result of this trend is that students graduate from high school having outgrown the “high school church” and having rarely experienced an intergenerational worship service or “adult church” and they have no place to go. If they go to college, they may replace their student ministry with college Christian fellowship but rarely attend church. Once they graduate from college, with few age-appropriate options remaining, these emerging adults find themselves orphan Christians without a faith community.

Integrating Teenagers Into the Church

The movie Failure to Launch is a romantic comedy about three men in their 30s who, having failed to take the leap into adulthood, are still living at home with their parents. They are not ready to engage fully in adult society, and, in many respects, the adult world is not ready to embrace the three of them. They just refuse to grow up and embrace the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

This transition is less mysterious than once imagined. The reality is that we are who we were, and our faith commitments tend to follow a rather predictable pattern. The research of the National Study of Youth and Religion, led by Christian Smith, found a significant amount of religious stability and continuity among those moving from adolescence to emerging adulthood. Even those who are likely to decline in their religiosity as young adults can be identified in the adolescent years by observing key factors related to religious decline. Smith writes that “the lives of many teenagers who are transitioning into the emerging adult years reflect a lot more religious stability and continuity than is commonly realized. Everything simply does not change. The past continues to shape the future. This is important to know, because it means that religious commitments, practices and investments made during childhood and the teenage years, by parents and others in family and religious communities, matter—they make a difference.”

While Smith has identified several factors that contribute to high levels of faith among emerging adults, personal relationships with adults (parents and other caring adults) who connect teenagers to the faith community in the middle and high school years is necessary in almost all cases. Further, Lisa Pearce and Melinda Lundquist Denton found that teenagers who were the most committed to their faith reported that, in addition to having parents and close friends who shared their beliefs, they were also connected to a faith community that provided “a welcoming, challenging atmosphere that values and integrates youth.”

Transformation happens most deeply in the lives of teenagers when they are engaged in the broader life of the church and connected to a network of caring adults. This is not meant to minimize the role of student ministries, which are the launching pads of adolescent faith transformation. Nothing is more reflective of healthy student ministries than students who launch into the full and robust life of the church. In order for this to happen, though, the broader church must be prepared for and committed to receiving teenagers into its midst by valuing them for who they are and allowing them to contribute to the whole life of the church. This is a very countercultural perspective, as few institutions embrace the notion of allowing students to contribute to the adult world.

Dave Coryell suggests that most churches view students from one of three perspectives. Churches that view teenagers as rocks do not see much, if any, value in their young people. Adolescents are understood to be adults in waiting, who need to patiently wait their turn to take on significant roles in the church. Their opinions on leadership decisions in the church are not valued, and they typically have few meaningful relationships with adults. Worship services are rarely designed to engage or involve teenagers.

Churches that view teenagers as receivers foster “passing” language, which places adolescents as recipients of the church programs, values, norms, ethics, traditions and beliefs. Students become static receptacles of the church’s teachings and are offered few, if any, avenues of contribution outside of the student ministries programs. While there is much for teenagers to learn, faith formation requires contribution and involvement that is more significant than a faith passed down from the previous generation.

Churches that view teenagers as reservoirs understand that students have much to contribute to the life and ministry of the church. Adults in these churches are willing to build relationships with teenagers and invest the time necessary in developing their gifts and talents, encouraging them to contribute in nearly every aspect of church life. In this sense, students are contributing and connected to the life of the whole church.

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