Recently, I shared my own concerns about the implicit message we send students when we separate them from the rest of the Church. We certainly mean well, but it ends up subtly teaching them that the Church is made up of individuals exactly like themselves. In a run of the mill youth ministry the only adults students might see and interact with are the youth pastor and other volunteer youth workers.
Having people who specifically pour into students’ lives is a very good thing. But we need more than that. Our church has been discussing how to do family and intergenerational ministry better over the past six months. Some of the first suggestions that came up, of course, were ways to encourage students to join our Sunday morning worship services. I think this may be a very important first step, and I think it is vital that students be involved in the corporate worship of a local church. This isn’t enough, though, and we knew it even as we discussed it.
So, we talked about other ways we might help students and adults to connect. We’ve come up with what we think are some good ideas, everything from youth family potluck dinners to an intergenerational mission trip (and no, my students were not overly pleased to hear that one). These are all important steps for us, and I think we’ll look back and see that they are important and effective ways to help students and adults connect.
The heart of the issue, however, is that students need to do more than simply see adults, or even share a meal with them, or a week of construction work. Ultimately our students need to share life with the adults in our churches. They need to see adults in our churches struggling with faith, doubt and pain. They need to walk alongside one of the elders in our church as his wife loses a battle with cancer. They need to share the joy of a young couple in the church when they have their first baby. They need to pray for the family where a parent has just lost a job. In short, they need to fully participate in the life of the church. At the same time, the adults in our churches need to be sharing the lives of our students. The adults need to share the excitement of a student who has just been accepted to a top tier college. They need to be there to enter into the pain of a student who has just broken off a relationship–no matter whether they think it was a serious relationship or not. They need to struggle with students who don’t know where God is because of some event in life. In short, we all need to enter into the messes that make up each others’ lives.
This is difficult because sometimes students give the impression that they don’t want to get to know adults on such a personal level. Further complicating matters is our tendency to want adults who “work with the youth ministry” to avoid sharing things that are too personal or reveal a great amount of struggle. Certainly real life sometimes intrudes and the teens in a church get to experience something like what I’ve described above. Those times tend to be few and far between though. We like to keep things tidy, probably because we like to pretend that we have nice, tidy lives. I mean, let’s be honest, the kind of sharing I’m talking about rarely happens between adults. I’d argue it tends to be more likely to happen, or more natural, among adults. But we need to remember that teenagers are full members of the Body of Christ, not merely junior members.
The great advantage that teenagers have over adults may be that they, generally speaking, recognize that they don’t have tidy lives. Somehow, as youth workers, we have to help our students connect with adults in meaningful ways and then we have to help the adults in our church realize that its OK to pull back the curtain and show students that as adults we struggle too. This is a tall order, I know. But we need to help our students fully enter into life as the Body of Christ. They need to know the adults in our church–and not only those who are youth workers!–as friends, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, grandparents and surrogate parents. In the same way, it is vital that the adults in our congregations know students as sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and fellow Christians. Students need to know that faith doesn’t end when they graduate high school, but that the struggle to love like Jesus loved continues for the rest of life. When we’ve begun communicating that message, both explicitly and implicitly, maybe we’ll also have opportunity to rejoice in what our students bring to the table in our churches, both as teenagers and as twenty-somethings.