I wrote this for Youth Worker Journal. It was published online here, and I wanted to share it with you…
How do we get kids connected with the church? I have no definitive answers but my story guides my efforts in connecting youth with Jesus Christ and his bride. Here is my story.
Becoming a Christian at age 16 did not connect me with the church. Some bad childhood church experiences and the busyness of life meant my family was not connected with any church. My parents were, and are, very moral people and we were raised with biblical values. But we were not part of any church. The only reason I attended a church in my teen years was due in large part to my hormones. There were so many cute girls! The girls came and went but I found Jesus and my life changed.
Like many, becoming a Christian meant I felt intimately connected with Jesus but cared little for his church. I lived like that until John showed up. John was a great guy with a fantastic wife and two adorable little girls. John was the new youth pastor and he and I connected. He was a great youth pastor who cared for my soul and helped me through some difficult times. Things were great. I loved my youth pastor and his family which meant I loved the church. More than anything I loved youth group. I wasn’t connected so much with the whole body rather than just the youth ministry. Something strange happened and I left the group. It wasn’t anything bad, I simply graduated high school.
John was happy for me and we did our best to stay in touch. But with the new crop of 7th graders coming in and his own children requiring more of his time we lost touch. I was hardly any better. I was playing football and learning how to manage a full class load. Moreover, I wasn’t able to connect with a church. My schedule made attending church inconvenient and most churches did not want to invest much in a temporary member. I did not feel connected to the “the church.” It could have been bad. I could have really fallen off the map. I could have easily been one the statistics experts in youth ministry talk about. That all could have happened to me but it didn’t. Here is why I believe it didn’t happen.
Meet Dane. About 6 months before I graduated my lifelong dentist, Dane, asked me the most dreaded question a senior can hear. “What are you planning to do after high school,” he asked. I can’t remember what I said but I’m sure it was half-hearted and involved mumbling. He asked if I had ever considered becoming a dentist. I had never thought about it so he asked me if I wanted to hear about what it takes to become one. Dentistry seemed as exciting as accounting to me. But Dane’s life seemed good to me and I agreed to meet him at his house and talk about it.
I went to his house and he told me about what classes I would need to take in college, that there was a test, and then gave me some details about dental school. In my memory it seemed like we talked about it for around 15 minutes. Then, he invited me back to his office and started talking to me about Christianity. I found out he knew lots about Jesus and I did not, but I wanted to know more. He offered me some stuff to read and listen to about Christianity.
I took the materials and read the books and listened to the tapes. (Yeah I’m that old) As I was reading and listening Dane continued to engage me. Like most other people, we had busy lives but Dane arranged time meet me and talk. Sometimes we didn’t talk. Dane was a runner and I was trying to stay in shape, so we would run. A few months later I graduated…
As a youth pastor I understand how hard it is to keep up with teens after they go off to college. I don’t fault John whatsoever that our relationship ended the same time I left youth group. After a year in college John and I seldom spoke. On the other hand, Dane and I continued to stay in contact. During every school break, when I would travel home, Dane and I made an effort to connect. We would talk about life and school and Jesus and then he would send me off with a big pile of books and tapes. I would listen to the books on my drive back to school and read during the semester.
Dane ended up being part of many of my big life decisions during that time. From marriage, to kids, to grad school, to jobs I was sought out his advice and prayers. I valued his opinion even if I didn’t take it all the time. Dane also was able to hold me accountable to stay engaged with other believers, pray, reading my Bible, etc… Dane was my connection to “the church.” In making my faith mine, he provided me an outlet to explore.
I do not want to give anyone the wrong idea about my relationship with Dane. Our meetings weren’t some mystical Yoda-esque training in the swamps of Dagobah. We didn’t meet religiously like Tuesday’s with Morrie. Weeks and sometimes months went by between some of our meetings. Also, we didn’t even have a Mr. Miyagi/Daniel relationship. Some meetings we spoke very little. During my four years of college we met a couple of dozen times. But each time involved spiritual nurturing and encouragement.
This relationship provided me something very important. It was a consistent relationship during a time of constant change. The relationship with my parents changed. I have always enjoyed a relationship a good relationship with my parents but the transition to college made the relationship change. My relationship with John changed too. I was leaving and he was staying to work with the remaining kids in the youth group. Essentially, everything changed as I moved away.
What’s the point of this story? First, I don’t think my case is special or unique. I know the frustration of John and the countless other youth pastors who cannot stay connected with teens they love. Spending years making relational investments only to see one year undo everything is discouraging. Second, I do not believe that most youth programs connect teens with the larger church. We are great at connecting teens with one another, volunteers, the youth group, and even ourselves. We set them up for failure. We connect them to people and put them in relationships that are destined to change and end.
Based on my experience, mentoring is the best chance we have to connect kids to the larger church. “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” should be our mantra rather than, join this program. (1 Corinthians 11:1 – NET) Programs are not bad. We need them to help us organize our ministry. Programs should facilitate relationships though.
That is why I make every effort to connect youth with adults from all over the church. My goal is to connect teens with adults, not just youth group volunteers, who can provide spiritual nurturing and encouragement. A team leader in the women’s ministry, a retired phone company employee, and a college student have all made great mentors that I’m hoping will make it for the long-haul. These folks will probably never spend any significant amount of time in the youth ministry. I’m fine with that. I hope they only focus on that teen. I hope my programs never take precedent over their relationship. I pray that they are “the church” to those teens and help them continue in the faith into adulthood.