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Youth In The Small Church

In the past couple of weeks I spoke with two different people about what youth are looking for in churches today. Both of them said something that I would not have expected them to say.

They both said that youth today are looking for older adults with whom they can connect. They suggested that successful youth programs need to be carried out in a setting that stresses inter-generational ministry.

It will not surprise you to learn that my thoughts immediately went to the small church. Most small churches are forced by numbers to be inter-generational.

I attended a fairly large church once in which most of the younger generation never attended a service in which they worshiped with adults until they were adults themselves. There was a Sunday school program for the children. There was a youth worship service for the high school group. There was a college and career worship service for those in their early twenties.

I can’t help but think that those children and teenagers lost something important when they had no contact with adults other than the leaders of their programs.


The importance of inter-generational youth ministry

David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, has written an excellent book entitled You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church And Rethinking Faith. Every church leader should read this book. It is based on research done by the Barna Group and outlines ways in which churches have failed to prepare their young people as they move out into the world.

Kinnaman stresses the importance of inter-generational ministry if we are going to keep our young people.  Please forgive the rather lengthy quote but it says what I am saying quite well.

“In a misguided abdication of our prophetic calling, many churches have allowed themselves to become internally segregated by age. Most began with the valuable goal that their teaching be age appropriate but went on to create a systematized method of discipleship akin to the instructional model of public schools, which require each age-group be its own learning cohort. Thus many churches and parishes segregate by age-group and, in so doing, unintentionally contribute to the rising tide of alienation that defines our times. As a by-product of this approach, the next generation’s enthusiasm and vitality have been separated from the wisdom and experience of their elders. Just to be clear, I am not saying that we should suddenly do away with children’s Sunday school or programs for youth. I am saying that our programs need to be re-evaluated and revamped where necessary to make intergenerational relationships a priority.” (pp. 203, 204)

In the same book Kara Powell, director of the Fuller Youth Institute, makes the same point.

“I believe the future of youth and young-adult ministry is intergenerational. It’s good for students and young adults, and it’s great for the church.” (p. 227)


How should this work?

There are probably many ways in which a church can be inter-generational in its ministry with children and young people but I want to mention two important ones.

In most small churches trying to establish a formal mentoring program would be a mistake. Young people aren’t looking for a formal program. They are looking for relationship.

There are many ways in which adults can be involved in the lives of the youth.

  • In a church with only a few teenagers a couple invited them in for supper one night a week and sat around the table talking about their lives
  • Before the start of the service one of the elders in a church asked a different young person each week if there was something for which he could pray for them that week. He then followed up on their prayer request.
  • A pastor took time out of his study one morning each week to talk with the children whose mothers were attending a Bible study at the church. He learned a lot about those children sitting on the floor talking with them.
  • A woman in a church started a sewing class for young girls so that as they are learning to sew, she is building spiritual values into their lives.
  • A church leader did some renovations for a single mom with two teenage boys. Getting the boys to assist him in his construction work provided a great opportunity to chat about their lives.

The list of ways in which adults can build into the lives of children and teenagers is as long as people’s imaginations. The key isn’t what adults do. It is that they do something.

The second way in which adults can build into the lives of their youth is through giving them the chance to serve in the church.

This can be done so much more naturally in a small church.

Young people need to be challenged to get involved and then they need to be provide with opportunities to do so.

A couple of years ago I connected with 110 key evangelical leaders across Canada who had grown up in a small church. I asked them what there was about that their childhood in a small-church setting that contributed to their serving in leadership today. The most common answer that I received was that the small church provided them with opportunities to serve.

One person said that he had preached his first sermon when he was seventeen. Another mentioned that she taught Sunday school when she was sixteen. A third said that he helped lead the youth group in his last year in high school. Their service took many different forms but the fact that they were involved in service at an early age played an important part in their future service.

Churches need to seriously consider how they can involved their youth not just on Sunday mornings but in every aspect of their church’s life. Churches need to challenge their youth to become involved because that involvement will pay future dividends when they leave home.

Adults need to provide those opportunities for youth to serve but they need always to see this as an opportunity to mentor. No one should teach a Sunday school class at sixteen without an adult coming along side to encourage and support. No one should preach a sermon at seventeen without an adult who gives positive critique and encouragement.

If youth today want relationships with older adults, we need to provide the chance for those relationships to develop. Thirty-three percent of our youth people are lost to the church when they leave home. We need to do everything that we can to bring that number down to as close to zero as we can.

If building relationships will contribute to that then lets do all we can to build those relationships.

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