I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, I outsourced one of my sermons. I had been scheduled to preach on a Sunday morning less than 24 hours after my youth group and I were returning from camp. The camp turned out to be a vibrant week of ministry- but one in which every moment of free time was filled with much-needed counseling and discipling conversations. As Sunday loomed near and my sermon seemed to get nowhere closer to completion, I turned to my high schoolers for help. In fact, my words may have even been something like, “The pulpit’s yours if you want it.”
You’d never pull such a shameless stunt… right?
In reality, I knew my students were ready for the challenge. And perhaps they were even hungrier for it than I suspected, because I didn’t have to ask twice. Several jumped at the chance, and we prepared and preached the Sunday message together with great response from the congregation. Much to the joy of our senior pastor, some have even asked when they can do it again.
In retrospect, the biggest reason I felt confident that our students would be successful in this experience was because the congregation has spent years integrating our youth into the life of the church. On any given Sunday in our building you can find teens in the pews, behind the music stands, at the sound desk, in the children’s ministry, at the welcome station, and in the kitchen. Because they’ve spent so many hours doing simple day-to-day tasks alongside adults in the congregation, when they stepped up to the microphone, there was a deep sense that they were among friends. That’s a beautiful thing.
Transitioning a ministry from the classroom to the sanctuary (and every room in between) doesn’t happen overnight. However, if we want students to continue to be committed to the Church when they grow out of the youth ministry, it’s important that we help them understand their value and their gifts as members of the body of Christ. What better test lab for ministry exists than their own church home?
As you equip students and adults to partner in ministry, here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Create small steps for big success
For many, leaving the safe, youth-oriented atmosphere of your program is a huge step. Start small by simply naming the gifts and talents in your students as you observe them. Give them achievable tasks to do within the group, or try something new together as a large group. Either “Can you make sure everyone who comes to youth group gets a welcome today?” or “Today we’re all going to go welcome people as they come in the doors of our church” can help break down what may seem like a daunting task into small, do-able steps.
2. Grow a culture of encouragement through relationship
Here’s a truth you may have already learned the hard way: delegating a task to a teenager is not a time-saver. It requires feats of communication, scheduling, training, demonstration, and supervision. Remember that in involving students at all levels of ministry the aim is integration, not delegation. Train, prepare, and practice with your students before sending them out to serve—and recruit youth-friendly adults in various areas of ministry to mentor and serve with your students, taking the time to call and remind students (and their parents) of commitments beforehand and follow up afterwards with encouragement and feedback. (Added bonus: you just might be surprised at the people in your congregation who say yes to helping you make this vision come to life.) The more friendships your students form within the church, the more likely they’ll be to call it home in the long term.
3. Prepare the grownups
Remember as a kid when you came across a creepy spider, reptile, or rodent-of-unusual-size and your mom or dad gave you the famous line, “They’re just as scared of you as you are of them.”? The same holds true of teenagers and adults. In fact, there’s a good chance that those in your congregation who have not volunteered for your ministry haven’t done so because they’re terrified of the idea of being around teenagers. Dropping your baby shark into the tuna tank and standing back to watch from behind the plexiglass is probably not going to be effective. In fact, it may set your plan back a major step or two (not to mention the follow-up meetings you’ll have to have with the Fish and Wildlife Service). Give parents and congregation members fair warning of changes ahead. If there’s a broad cultural gap between the generations, create opportunities to educate and offer relational tools. Remind them that your students are not adults yet (even if they’d like to think they are) and that they’ll need a little patience. But most of all, help the adults understand your strategy. When people see themselves as your partners in raising up the future of the Church, they’ll want to help in any way they can.
Rachel is Director of Youth Discipleship for Kent UMC in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and an MDiv student at Fuller Theological Seminary. She and her husband Carl have been serving churches students and families in England and US for over 15 years, and have two daughters who keep life full of sparkles, adventure, and coffee.
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