When looking for a church, many families check out the church website to get a sense of the kinds of programing that is offered for their children. From Sunday School, to Vacation Bible School, to youth ministry activities, parents want to get a clear understanding about the type of priority that a church is giving to discipleship for young people. This all sounds good and a review of a church website can tell you a lot, but even a church with a great listing of children’s and youth ministry programing may not be making this ministry a priority in a truly meaningful and effective manner.
Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) found that Growing Young congregations place an emphasis on young people and their families in all aspects of church life. FYI talks about this as the need of the church to Prioritize Everywhere. One of the classic images from youth ministry lore is the one eared Mickey. Many youth ministry professionals are likely to have seen this illustrated since at least the 1990’s. The concern illustrated in the one eared Mickey is the way in which churches attempt to demonstrate their concern for young people while keeping the ministry for these young people out of the main stream of their larger ministry efforts.
A case in point is the classic location of youth rooms and DCE offices. Having visited many churches in my former roles (district staff and DCE Director), I was always interested to see how both the youth room and the DCE office related to the larger life of the church ministries and ministry staffing. This is not to say that every time a youth room is placed in some remote part of the church property that this is an intentional move to place the youth of the congregation out of sight. Many times that goal is to allow a special space for the young people to call their own.
Similarly, the placing of the DCE office in proximity or often in the youth room can be seen as a way to better connect the staff supporting and leading youth ministry to the space in which much of that ministry takes place on the church campus. Yet, both these approaches can result in the placing of youth ministry outside of the main flow of ministry in the larger church. With the youth room out of sight this special space for youth can result in adults in the church disconnecting from the young people in their midst. A DCE office in the youth room can cut this ministry staff person off from the many impromptu conversations that make doing ministry together as a staff work well.
Rather than prioritizing youth ministry in a way that places the work of discipling youth outside the larger discipleship planning for the whole of the congregation, a holistic approach was seen in churches who were Growing Young. These ministries and ministry leaders learned to consider and incorporate a priority for youth and families into the full balance of their ministry decision making process.
In order to accomplish this, LCMS congregations should make every effort to prioritize all in their ministry to develop as Supportive Adult. Echoing FYI’s Sticky Faith research, LCMS Youth Ministry stresses the connection of at least 5 engaged Christian adults to each youth in their ministry. This can be, in part, facilitated by placing both the youth room and DCE office in proximity of the larger campus ministries. Further, having adults who champion youth in key decision-making roles in the congregation allows these leaders to give consideration to the needs of young people and their families across the spectrum of the church’s ministry rather than merely in areas that traditionally are seen as related to youth ministry.
One of the benefits of adults who are youth ministry champions in leadership roles is the likelihood of an increased number of Opportunities to Serve and Lead for youth in the congregation and community. Young people in this current generation have a desire to improve the world both locally and globally. If the church is seen by them as caring about making a positive change in the world in the name of Christ alongside them, they will be more likely to pour their efforts into the life of the church as they seek to impact the world around them. Providing community service opportunities and mission trips in which young people are able to not only join in with Supportive Adults in their ministry and service efforts helps youth to connect their desire to improve the world with their faith in Christ and the faith community in which they are being discipled.
Giving youth load bearing leadership through which they are able to shape the service that the church is to their communities gives them even further ownership of this aspect of the ministry of the local church. This in turn encouraged young people to Live Out Their Unique Vocation as a part of the ministry of the local church. When youth Live Out Their Unique Vocation they learn to understand their role as Christ’s hands and feet. This is expressed in the context of their church, their home, their community, and beyond. Supportive Adults provide guidance alongside Engaged Parents helping young people to see a holistic connection between their faith in Christ and their vocational service in each of these areas. This helps young people to see how their faith and connection to the life of the local church is integral to their faith.
As young people grow in their understanding of the connection between their desire to serve and the mission of the church expressed through their unique vocational identities, they come to understand how their serving in the community connects to their witness of Christ. Whether young people intimately see that their vocational calling to serve correlates to a role as a church worker or as a lay person actively involved in the life of their church into adulthood, this exploration and connection of their desire to serve and vocational identity is critical in maintaining and strengthening a young person’s bonds to the local church. This bond transcends the particular local church that they were initially raised and disciple in, as youth who develop this type of connection between their desire to serve and vocational identity tend to remain connected to a local congregation even when life moves them from place to place and church to church. There are discipled to value the nurturing provided by the local church and are more inclined to seek out a way to maintain that connection even as the pursuit of new ways to express their vocational identity are explored in their development of a family and career.