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How do you keep youth around the parish?

17July2012

This question is asked of me so many times that I thought it might be something we should ponder on CCD together: How do you keep youth around the parish?  Or “How do you keep youth from leaving the congregation after confirmation?”  It is a HUGE question for pastors and congregations alike as we try to figure out why young people leave the fold in droves after confirmation and what is the magic pill that will make them stay? (Of course we all know there is no magic pill, otherwise we would have fed it to them!)

We are all aware of the vital statistics in this matter!  A great percentage of young people leave the church in their teens, when they perceive that their spiritual formation in done.  Finished.  I have it all done now! Hurray, the torture is over!  No more catechism classes to sit through, no more boring sermons to write notes about, no more wearing of the acolyte robe on hot days, no more, no more, no more!  That is until the Youth Gathering comes around and then it’s ALL IN!  (Much to the dismay of the Youth Group Leader who gets his hopes up that with such a big turnout for the Youth Gathering there just might be hope for an actual youth group in the fall that is comprised of some kids other than those who live with the pastor!) Don’t get me wrong, I think the huge Youth Gatherings that the mainline denominations put on are amazing and exciting and kids and their adult leaders alike go on “God High” for the week!  The lights, the music, the video clips that keep you laughing long after its over, the masses of other teen Christians who let loose and dance and sing about their faith in Christ, the rousing speeches, and even the service projects all serve to inspire a deeper faith.  But we have to be careful here. . . careful to not set our kids up to think that this the norm of Christian Community.  I remember after one Youth Gathering I took a bunch of kids to where we got our God High. . . when we returned one of the young teens said to me, “I sure wish church could be like that every Sunday! That certainly wasn’t boring,” (implying that church is boring and dull and something to be forgotten). That’s the great set up. . . one that in the local parish we simply cannot replicate in the same way.  There will be no lights flashing at this small parish on Sunday.  There will be no pastor’s zip lining out of the balcony onto the chancel steps.  There will be no famous guitarists who used to play for Jimmy Buffet here to sing to us.  But if that’s what it takes to keep our youth engaged in the life of faith then we are in huge trouble!

So here’s what I think about this question after ten years in the same small parish in a small town in Ohio where everyone knows everyone else and where kids did not flock in the doors ten years ago. . .  1) It takes intentionality!  Not just on the part of the pastor! It takes a complete culture change in our congregations that cast off and refuse to say that much hated sentence I hear so often, “The youth are our future.”  Baloney! The youth are our heartbeat, right here, right now! This has got to be the philosophy of the ENTIRE congregation! The youth are not some commodity to be counted, they are actual living, breathing people with joys, hurts, gifts, and yes, FAITH. They are disciples just like the older people and they need to be treated as such. 2) It is a matter of deep, abiding relationships. When the young people of this parish walk in the doors they are surrounded by people of all ages who love them, who ask them what is going on in their lives, who want to know what they are thinking and how they are going to use their gifts to be of service to others.  Those are the same questions the adults ask each other over coffee. . . somehow us older folks have forgotten to engage those younger than us with the same kind of interest. You know what happens then? The young people come to understand that they matter!  They matter in this place more than they ever knew possible! We are family! 3) We treat them as we would any fellow disciple.  We don’t simply sign them up to help. . . we ask them, “Would you like to help with this project? If so, what would you like to do?” They have an opinion.  They can think for themselves. We would never volunteer someone for a job without asking them, they simply would not tolerate that!  It’s a matter of respect. . . why should it be any different for someone who is a teenager? 4) We ask them to share their faith with those younger than them- to be mentors. Why would we do that? Because they too are on a faith journey and they have had experiences with God in daily life!  They have much to offer AND the even smaller kids look up to them and want a relationship with them just like they want a relationship with the older generations. 5) Finally (and you may have some more, just like me who could go on and on but have to wrap this up eventually) we SEE them, I mean REALLY SEE them! It’s not about bragging rights, for us to say, “We are doing something right because we have this many youth!” It’s not about turning in numbers to the judicatory body at the end of the year! It’s not about the success of our programming or how interesting and entertaining we are! (We ain’t that interesting frankly!) This is about solid connections that we all benefit from, relationships that will last an entire lifetime, worshiping side by side, serving hip to hip, watching them sing in their High School Choirs, seeing them run a full court press, watching them jump and run and throw, cheering for them when they steal third base, clapping for them in their school plays, canoeing with them on outings, eating with them at potlucks, hugging them when they hurt, face booking them in our spare time, texting them good luck, sharing the peace with them and so much more!

To put it in simplest terms. . . to keep youth around the Christian Community is as easy as loving them for who they are and whose they are!  And you know what?  They belong to God, but they also belong to US!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Susan H. permalink
    18July2012 20:23

    Thank you! This is the exact topic my friend and I discussed yesterday! Good points to ponder…and turn into actions.

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