Early in my youth ministry career, I served in a church where my job was based on a pretty simple premise: have some kind of program for students whenever the church doors are open. Any time there was any program at the church, I was to have a simultaneous program to minister to students. At first, I was pretty excited—this church really wanted me to invest in their students. They really wanted to make sure someone was spending time with them, teaching them, and discipling them. All of this seemed really good.
SOMETHING’S NOT QUITE RIGHT
Looking back, I believe the intentions of this church were good. But I quickly realized something wasn’t quite right with the plan. If I was always in the basement with the youth, how were they going to be a part of the broader body of Christ? This is an important question, because connection to the broader body of Christ is something Scripture places a high premium on. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul specifically points out the importance of each member of the body playing its part—something that becomes much harder to facilitate if you’ve got a subsection of the body completely cut off from the rest.
While this doesn’t discount the important place youth ministry should have in the church, it does affect how we approach youth ministry. While it’s vital to give students dedicated time with other students, we don’t want to miss the importance of students’ exposure to the rest of the body. And to give students that exposure, students have to feel as if there’s space for them.
THE CHALLENGE OF CREATING SPACE
Accomplishing this may be easier in some churches than in others. For instance, in smaller churches where the church doesn’t have either the budget for a large youth ministry or a full-time youth pastor, this may already be happening. But for other churches—especially those with large and fully developed youth ministries—this idea might be harder to implement. In many large churches, people are used to having a specific place they feel they belong. Also, if this is to happen in a large and busy church, something will likely have to be cut to accommodate the necessary shift.
If we want to create space for students in the broader body, what comes next?
HOW DO WE CREATE SPACE?
As we begin to look at this, let me make a disclaimer: there are much smarter people than I looking at this issue. If you’re interested in more on this topic, I’d point you to the folks at the Fuller Youth Institute or to Timothy Paul Jones, to name a couple. With that said, here are some things I’ve found helpful:
CREATING SPACE FOR INTERACTION & MUTUAL GROWTH
When looking at creating space for teenagers within the broader body, the place to start is to find ways students can interact with believers of other generations. This may include building times of intentional intergenerational interaction into your church’s worship services. It could also include adding special intergenerational events to your church calendar. It may even mean shutting down your youth Sunday school class for a quarter so your students can interact in a setting of mutual learning with other generations of believers. The key is to begin to think creatively about how you can bring the generations together for times of mutual interaction and growth.
CREATING SPACE FOR PARTICIPATION SO STUDENTS CAN USE THEIR GIFTS
Once students begin to feel welcome in the broader body of Christ, it’s important to create space for your students to use their gifts. (Again, I point you back to 1 Corinthians 12.) This might include inviting students to join the worship team or connecting them with some adults to perform a skit in a service. The key is to create space for your students to explore their gifts, which ultimately gives them the opportunity to play their part in the body.
CREATING SPACE SO THAT STUDENTS FEEL LIKE THEY BELONG
The biggest thing to keep in mind (and this is the reason why creating space is so important) is that you want your students to feel as if they belong. One of the reasons students have a hard time engaging as part of the body when they transition to adulthood is that they don’t feel part of the body when they’re teenagers. We want the generation coming behind us to feel as though they’re part of things—we want them present as part of the unified body of Christ.
MATT LARKIN serves as the Director of the Department of Student & Family Ministries for the Advent Christian General Conference (WWW.ACGC.US).In that role, he serves as a resource and consultant to youth workers and college students around the United States and globally. You can connect with Matt on Twitter via @MATTWLARKIN.