Most of us have heard the Bible verse: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). The struggle, for many, is how to keep our young ones engaged in Christian activities for an extended period of time so we can give them that solid foundation. This is especially difficult to achieve for youth who have to compete with tremendous secular influences in school and in the neighborhood. Some churches can wow their youth with amazing concerts and others engage them through church sports leagues. Still others struggle to keep young people in Sunday School, or in regular attendance at youth group. Here is some basic advice that I believe will help youth leaders, no matter what strategies you currently employ.
1. Serve the Parents. Parents and guardians are crucial allies for church youth departments. I have never seen a youth department GROW without parental support. What are you doing for parents? Invite them to a periodic planning meeting. Have them air their concerns or do a special night of prayer for the PARENTS of the youth. Send them updates about events and PROGRESS you’ve seen in their children. Thank them continuously for bringing their children to your church. There should be a mailing list (email) specifically for parents. You’ll be amazed when parents “buy-in” how much easier your job will be. They can help with a LOT of things from providing transportation when needed, to serving as chaperones. Parents who feel underserved or slighted in churches will often take their children out of programs or vocalize their dissatisfaction at home. This can lead to youth with conflicted feelings about your youth department.
2. Involve Youth in the Process. Don’t take the “we baked the cake, now eat it” approach. Those days are almost over! Schools don’t even approach teaching that way anymore. Find ways to involve your youth in the planning and implementation of your programs. Conduct a survey to find out what the youth would like to do. Give out tasks involving promotions and figure out what they can do during the event. Can they serve on the worship team, check coats, take tickets, make special announcements, or do kitchen duty? Are ther clean-up crews involved? These ideas may not appeal to your youth, but find out what they’d like to do and incorporate it! In my experience, youth who help plan events want to come out and invite their friends. Giving them complete control doesn’t work at all, but if there is a portion of the event, they can plan and manage, it may spark some enthusiasm.
3. Involve Your Pastor. If you’re at a large church, this may seem next to impossible. It’s hard enough to shake your pastor’s hand after church on Sunday! However, remember many pastors were youth ministers first. Try scheduling an appointment with him/her to discuss the youth ministry. I’ve seen Pastors who interact with youth regularly, and make them feel special, do WONDERS for youth programs. They also have tremendous insight as to what’s happening with families and can provide valuable counsel. Depending on the size of your church and the pastor’s responsibilities, his/her involvement may range from periodic update meetings, to actually attending a few youth programs a year. Pastors can mobilize general church and community support for your programs. They are also able to endorse your programs publicly and rally parents on your behalf.
This advice will most likely work in a set-up where parents are attending the church, and there is a youth leader serving under a lead pastor. Obviously, there may be situations where you are serving in an area so broken that there are no parental or community supports in place. In these situations, different advice will apply and look for God to move in a different way. Just remember, building a youth department is not just about finding things for “kids” to do, it’s about serving families.