Teens today are some of the most eclectic, hard to pin down elements of sub-culture that we have seen in decades. We will never win them over to the church with a one-size-fits-all approach.
I was recently privileged to meet with church leaders around the state and share some of our experiences in equipping teens to be servant leaders in their church. Although all of these leaders came from unique settings, some things stood out as universal. All of them saw potential in the teens and wanted to see them plugged in. All feared certain problems that they were certain would arise. And all seemed paralyzed to some degree as to what to do about it. If you are a parent, youth worker, or church member, consider some of these thoughts that rose to the surface.
First, we must consider the teen.
I never hear people complain when children act like children, but when teens act like teens they are often ridiculed. We must remember a few key elements of teen culture.
1. Teens are transitioning between childhood and adulthood, often without an intentional mentor to guide them. Adolescence as we know it is often a time of sudden and extreme freedom, as parents and adults feel pressured to take a hands-off approach. In the midst of this open abandon, they are under real stress to plan the rest of their lives and make life-altering decisions with little-to-no guidance. From the outside, we see an immature, self-centered culture. In reality, most are overwhelmed and over-focused on finding their place in the world amid a sea of vague options.
2. Teens are not necessarily abandoning their faith when they leave the church. It is far too easy to write off a teen as not really loving Jesus when they stop attending church, when oftentimes they may still value their walk with God but have given up on finding a place where they feel valued in their church. Expressing affection for teens in their own place is not the same as showing them how vital they are to the health and work of the church at large. So how do we do that?
We must stop saying that teens are the future of the church and accept that we need them now.
It's not enough to guilt a teen into understanding that they need church, we have to be honest enough with ourselves to accept that we need them too! They are part of the body that God builds to accomplish His work. This doesn't just mean warm bodies to do what no one else wants to do, but thinking, feeling, contributing members. Sure, they need guidance and mentoring as they serve, but isn't that what Ephesians 4:11-16 is all about?
A few key steps can get us all moving in the right direction to equipping the teens in our own homes and churches.
Get to know the teens around you. We are sometimes too quick to tell teens where to serve without ever first finding out their skills and interests, much less their personalities. Even if you only connect with one teenager, you can help them find their place as you learn more about them.
Model service rather than demand it. "Will you serve with me?", goes a lot further than, "You should serve..." Students don’t think like adults. They will need specific instructions as they explore areas to serve.
Listen, Listen, Listen!!! Teens are focused on the future in ways that many adults have long since given up. They see things critically, but candidly. Their perspective is essential to us seeing the blind spots we fall into as individuals and as churches. Hear their ideas as well as their complaints and help them strategize through your wisdom and experience. As they serve, keep an open dialogue to help them evaluate their experience.
Focus on the goal. Healthy churches and healthy teens are a pretty worthwhile ambition. Teens who feel connected to a church tend to have more security and direction than those navigating life without this support network. Helping them find their identity in Christ, as well as in their church, goes a long way to answering the big question of, “Who am I and do I matter?” What’s more? They may just become one of your church's greatest champions!