We hear it all of the time, “The youth are the future of the church!” While I have some issue with that statement (the baptized in Christ are the church now), let’s take it at face value. The idea is, we want to raise up and nurture our youth in the church so that they grow up to take the reins. While this sounds all well and good, doing this in rural and small town settings is often fraught with challenge and struggle. We see dwindling numbers of young people and the ones we do have are busy beyond reason. Often little emphasis at home is placed on the value of growing one’s faith and great value is placed on…well, just about everything else. Couple that with precious few youth leaders, volunteers, helpers, money, time and on and on and we find ourselves just about at the end of the road with no idea where to go.
But brothers and sisters in Christ, until our Savior returns, we are never at the end of the road. And, we are never alone. He is there leading and guiding through His Word and Spirit so that we can take a fresh look at our situation, gain some healthy perspective and hit the ground running.
First, let’s look at our perspective. Let’s be realistic:
- Don’t worry about numbers! We get so bogged down thinking that if we don’t have a large group, an event or ministry isn’t successful. Nothing could be further from the truth! Where one or two are gathered…even small numbers make big differences.
- Don’t get bogged down with envy issues! Just because the church down the road or in the next city over has 100 kids, money to burn and sunshine and rainbows seem to cascade from every event they put on, that doesn’t mean what you do isn’t of value. Money and splash are fine if you’ve got it but building solid relationships and helping youth grow in their faith in humble and quiet ways pay lasting dividends.
- Don’t use it as an excuse to do Nothing! Don’t become paralyzed because you don’t think you measure up. Sure, some things will go over better than others. Some youth will one day seem on fire and the next nothing but a wisp of smoke, but this is our mission as youth workers…bring the Word of Christ to our young people where and when we have opportunity.
- Do engage your community! Discover what prospects you might have in engaging youth outside of your congregation. What are the needs in the community? Engage the youth and their families where they are; don’t expect them to seek you out. Find out what makes them tick and meet them there. Where there are competing interests, instead of getting you down, reframe them into blessings and opportunities serve and interact.
- Do keep an eye on your future. Sometimes we wait too long to engage our youth. Take a look at your prospects and begin to develop relationships early.
- Do take an active role in shaping the culture of your congregation and community. Assess the level of family involvement. Are parents of youth actively engaged in their own faith life and growth? If so, build on that. If you have a culture of what we call “drive by Sunday School,” attempt to build relationships with those parents so that they too can see the value of what you are trying to accomplish as you model for them positive behaviors. Cultivate the support of older members of your congregation. They can be great encouragers, mentors and role models when others may not be. If you have seasonal issues within your community or congregation (planting, harvest, community celebrations, opening day of deer season, you name it) steer clear of it. Again, it’s not about quantity but in working with youth, it really is about building quality relationships and teaching the faith.
- Do work from your strengths, not your weaknesses! It’s too easy to focus on what we don’t have. Let’s take those assets the Lord has blessed us with and use them for the good of His Kingdom!
- Listen! Listen to what the YOUTH want to do. Make it Youth Group not You Group. Focus on ministry. This is what it is about, not programming. Allow the youth to lead while you encourage and equip them.
- Look! Where are the youth? Work with their crazy schedules so that youth group is a ‘want to’ not a ‘have to’. Seek out opportunities to meet them where they are…athletic events, school programs. A little goes a long way, then follow up with them about how much you enjoyed seeing them (you fill in the blank)!
- Love! Love ’em when you got ’em! Seems simple and it is! Being a teen is tough, that’s why we want to show them Jesus and His love! While you don’t have to (and often shouldn’t) set the agenda, do address relevant topics. Your youth actually do want to discuss their world and how their faith intersects with it. Don’t preach a watered-down, surface-level version of Christianity. Feel good lessons can be all warm and fuzzy but love your youth enough to get down in the muck and mire with them so that they can see what and why we believe what we believe. Encourage interaction and be willing to listen and change.