When I was 17 years of age, one of our youth leaders made what I thought was a crazy suggestion. She thought it would be a good idea if our youth group led a Sunday morning service. I tentatively suggested that she must be thinking only of the first half of the service but she responded by saying that she thought that we could do the whole thing sermon and all.
I quickly looked around the room and realized that if someone was going to preach that Sunday, it was probably going to be me. If I remember correctly, I thought that she should find psychiatric help because in my mind her idea was that crazy.
Bonnie, our leader at the time, gently pushed the idea and finally I gave in and agreed to preach the sermon. I still have that sermon tucked away and every once in a while I take it out and look at it. I should have been arrested that Sunday for imitating a preacher. There was no deep content to the sermon. I was way too nervous to come across as authoritative. No one would have suggested that I came close to being an accomplished preacher.
But, and this is a huge but, with all of my lack of experience the church gave me a chance and trust me, they were taking a chance. Having preached thousands of sermons over the intervening four decades, I look back on that first sermon with deep appreciation to the church for listening to me. But without that first sermon I don’t know if there would ever have been any of the others.
The youth group
That was a remarkable youth group. My wife and I have completed more than forty years in full-time ministry. Two of the young women in the group married pastors and spent their lives serving churches. My sister spent her life working with first-nation people under the auspices of the Northern Canada Evangelical Mission. Her husband served as President of the mission for more than a decade. Another of the young women in the group spent her life as a missionary in Brazil. One of my wife’s sisters worked full-time with a Christian camp while another was part of an evangelistic team in Quebec. Other members of the group spent years serving on the leadership teams in their local churches.
As I think about those people who were such an important part of my life when I was a teenager, I am proud of the commitment that they had to serve. The indispensable element for all of us that shaped our futures was the opportunity to serve when we were still young. I have no idea how many people have been impacted by the people mentioned above but I know that there would have been far less if we had not had the chance to preach, teach, plan, witness and serve when we were still in our teens.
An opportunity to serve
One of the strengths of a large church often is their youth program. Scores of teenagers attend. There may be a full-time staff person focused only on making the youth program as smooth and exciting as it can be. The church has the resources to do things that the small church can only dream about.
On the other hand, one of the weaknesses of a large church (yes, large churches do have weaknesses) may be that the youth that attend never get the chance to serve. Leaders who grew up in small churches almost all agree that one of the most important influences in their lives as teenagers was the opportunity to serve.
In most cases young people serve in small churches out of necessity. If there is going to be a Sunday school program for the children, some of the teens need to help.
I would encourage small churches to plan ways in which their teenagers can participate. Be intentional about the opportunities to serve and then mentor them in that service. Encourage a young person to co-teach Sunday school with your best teacher. Take one of the teenagers along when visiting in the hospital. Plan youth events with the teen who shows signs of being a leader.
I remember one of the leaders in a church in which I served who offered to do some renovation work for a single mom. He asked two of the teenage guys to help him and then spent a whole day building a wall, hammering two-by-fours and talking about what it meant to be a Christian with those young guys. That is what it means to be intentional.
Making an impact
Every church needs to make an impact. Notice that I didn’t say that every church had to become large. Small churches may never grow much beyond what they are right now but they still need to have an impact.
One of the ways is for the small church to build its teens into future leaders. It is being intentional about giving them opportunities to serve. Don’t put them into positions out of necessity. Encourage them to assume leadership roles with the goal that when they have moved on from your small church they will still be making a difference for the kingdom in whatever church they attend.