Unfortunately, what came out of my mouth before I had a chance to filter was, "Well, actually she's a leader in the church right now. She doesn't have to grow up to do that." Everyone looked stunned. The eighth grade student beamed, but the woman introducing her looked like I had taken the wind from her sails. Immediately, my foot went in my mouth, and I apologized for my rudeness.
I shouldn't have said it like I did, but the sentiment wasn't wrong. Youth should not be considered second-tier members, members of the church of tomorrow but not of today, or lost somewhere in between the early faith growth of children's ministry and becoming a real grown up member of the church. Youth ministry should support young people as full members of the church today as well as the church of the future.
Youth are capable of being a full member of the Christian community. In Acts 2:42, the early church devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and prayer. These activities are not age dependant; youth are just as able to study God's Word, grow as a part of a community, and pray as any adult. They are able to grow in faith and to share that same faith with others. They are capable of participating in the things God is doing within their faith community.
Many adults in the congregation struggle with perceiving youth as full members of the church because they do not see youth participating in the same ways that they do as an adult and so believe them to be incapable of full membership. This can happen when youth ministries become too separated from the ministry of the church and adults do not see them studying the Bible, in fellowship, and in prayer. It can also happen when churches in small ways choose to lower standards and not offer the same privileges to youth. The church doesn't give youth offering envelopes, doesn't want them to usher, do not allow them voting rights, or allow them to serve the congregation at large.
Youth are able to rise to the expectations set for them by the community around them. Too often we underestimate the abilities and passions of our young people both to their detriment and ours. In 1 Timothy, Paul asks Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because of his age, but instead sets a high bar, expecting much of him despite his age. If we treat them as less than full members, they will act that way. If we set high expectations of service, prayer, offerings, and community, most of the time they will exceed our expectations. We have youth in leadership within youth ministry, and they do fantastic things. Now they are pushing to be a part of the leadership for our church as well, but unfortunately our by-laws and the attitudes of many adults prohibit these youth from serving in the church beyond youth ministry.
One of the keys of creating a community where youth are full members of the church is expecting them to participate in the church community just as if they were adults. I am currently advocating for all our youth to receive offering envelopes. Many people are convinced it is a waste, but I believe they will use them if we expect them to use them. During Confirmation I drill into my students that they are practicing to become full members of the church. That means when they fall behind, I go to them first, not their parents, and give them a chance to be responsible for their own faith development. Confidence can be instilled in youth when we simply talk to them as if they are worthy, valued, and equally important to any other member of the congregation.
If we treat our youth as full members of the church, capable of playing an important role in the Body of Christ, then we will struggle less with keeping them in the church as they grow. Most young adults I encounter in the church actively served the church in some way during their youth. Youth are eager to find a place where they are respected, a place where they have purpose. If they find that place within the community of God's church, they will not so easily abandon it as they grow. Let us continue to honor the faith God has provided to our youth by making them full members of the church today and the church of tomorrow.