3 Things Churches Must Learn From Youth Ministry

“Young people are among God’s most forthright, frustrating, and often unwitting prophets…” – Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion

Youth ministry, is actually a pretty young experiment in the churches of North America. It’s been a messy, kind of  “on the job training” situation for the last 50 years, and it’s effectiveness has been hit or miss, given the low turn out of young adults in worship attendance. Still, through it all, youth ministry has discovered and centered on things that make youth ministry vital for teenagers, helping youth groups thrive. I think the church at large can learn more than a few things from youth ministry, but here are three that the church must learn:

Friendship is greater than Order.

When Jesus prayed for those who believe in him to be one, I’m pretty sure he did not mean we should gather once a week, face the same direction, hear the same songs, prayers and words, then leave without talking to one another. Friendship is absolutely vital to the church being the church. Youth ministers have known this for a long time. Youth ministry at its core is building relationships. Rarely is there a youth event without some time for teenagers to get to know each other, through ice breakers, small discussion groups, team building activities, etc. Often, these activities introduce a little chaos into what you are trying to do! Youth group is a place where friendships are made. I know a lot of friendly churches, but a friendly church and a church where friendships can be made are two very different things. What is the process for making friendships in your church? Is it easy?

Participation is greater than Performance.

I prepare my heart out for the “youth talks” (sermons) that we do at our gatherings. I write some jokes, plan the topic, and have an end goal in mind, but what makes these sermons worth anything to the teenagers is not my expertise but their involvement. During the gathering, teens are free to raise their hands at anytime to ask a question, give their own analogy, or make it clearer for one another. Effectively, everyone gathered there makes the sermon, and it’s far more relevant than what I could do alone. This goes for music as well. Teenagers do not come to church to hear the most professional musician or speakers. Teenagers come to participate in something. Only a few churches can “perform” to standards that could sell out stadiums and win the attention of teenagers with their pure awesomeness. At their church, teens are not interested in the best music or speakers. Teens want to participate with a musician or speaker. A teenager is interested in a place and gathering that is effected by who comes and how they act. A service that will be ran the same way regardless of who attends doesn’t appeal or seem meaningful.

Experience is greater than Information.

My wife said that this one doesn’t sound like me because of how important I think good theology is. When I say experience is greater than information, I do not mean that my personal experience trumps Scripture or good theology. What I am trying to say is that as the Church, we must lead people to an experience with God, not merely information about God. Youth are drawn to experiences of God through various spiritual practices such as Lectio Divina, prayer journals, prayer ropes, imaginative prayer, fasting, etc. Youth ministers often give teenagers some sort of physical reminder of an inward grace that teens are experiencing, such as a stone, a bracelet, a nail, etc. Teens want to experience God, not just learn about God. I don’t think they are any different from adults in this respect.

Youth ministry, in many ways, have trained teenagers to expect a place where they can make friendships, where their participation matters, and where they can experience God. When teenagers grow into adults, can they expect these same things in the churches, or do they need to form their own communities?

What are your thoughts?