Figuring out how to engage youth in your church can be tough, but it's incredibly important. To understand how and why we often fall short, here's some insight from a surprising source…
In the 1993 blockbuster movie, Mrs. Doubtfire, starring Robin Williams, Williams’ character does everything he can to get up close to his kids having been separated from them by divorce. He devises an elaborate plan to dress up as a British nanny and apply for the job of daily caring for his own children. Included in the ruse to get the job, he also pretends to be other not-so-desirable applicants; he wants to improve his chances at every turn.
During the interview as one of the “other” candidates, Williams gives a particularly memorable and cringeworthy line. In a female voice with a broken German accent, he says, “I don’t work with the boys…” (pause) “because I used to be one!” It does the trick. The fictitious candidate he’s impersonating is quickly crossed off the list!
Historically, churches have treated youth a little like the famous line from Mrs. Doubtfire:
“I don’t work with the youth, because I used to be one!”
The Challenge to Engage Youth in Your Church
Let’s face it. Youth aren’t the easiest to relate to, understand, or engage. They can be immature, obnoxious, rude, and a little bit weird… just like many of us, now older, once were!
But as we engage them, youth can also…
- Reflect the glory of God
- Expand the fullness of our lives
- Contribute to God’s Kingdom in significant ways
Church mission statements, Sunday morning announcements, and after-worship meal times are filled with words and speeches about how much “our youth” mean to the church. In practice, however, church budgets, volunteer sign-up sheets, and seats around decision-making tables often tell a different story. Perhaps that’s why so many high school graduates in our churches go off to college, off to work, or off to other post-grad adventures… and never come back to church.
We know instinctively as a larger church body that if we keep our youth engaged in church, they will stay connected. And factually, they will. But how and to whom we engage them will make all the difference as to if and how they stay engaged.
If we’re interested in having our youth engage in our churches, we must first begin by personally engaging our youth. Engaged youth engage. No other entertainment, enticement, guilt trip, or exciting vision plan will do the trick. Engaging youth begins by doing what Jesus did for us:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son,
who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
–John 1:14, NIV
Or, as The Message version says it,
“The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
Engaging our youth in church begins by relationally moving into their neighborhood and engaging them in “full of grace and truth” ways that invite them to experience God’s glory as they get up close to Him and serve His Kingdom.
5 Great Ways to Engage the Youth in Your Church
Here are 5 great ways to engage the youth in your church:
1. Build a Relationship.
Decades of data have proven that entertainment, rad youth spaces, and “paying the professional” to grow our youth—in themselves—have not been the solution to engaging youth for a lifetime in our churches. What has proven trustworthy and effective is doing what Jesus did… “seeing, stopping, and spending time with” people.
It's been said that “People don’t care until you show them you care.” This is especially true with young people. Don’t let short-term delight and excitement fool you. Youth are far more interested in genuine relationships than any of the stuff you or someone else might give or dangle before them. The key to engaging youth is not clever marketing but genuine relationships.
Some Ways YOU Can Engage Youth: Buy them a coke or coffee and get to know them; go to their sporting event, concert, or play; ask them questions about their life; write them a quick note or text of encouragement; ask how they’re doing and really listen; ask them to teach you a skill.
2. Activate Their Hands and Feet.
When our hands and feet are moving and helping, our brains and faith often follow. Youth rarely like sitting around talking about and discussing what a difference they could make in the world—but they do like making a difference. Most youth know that real love requires real action. Love does, and youth are ready to “get doing.”
It's amazing how many times getting active in serving others connects the faith dots for youth (and us!). There’s a time for everything, Ecclesiastes tells us: a time for Bible studies, theological diagrams, and sermons, and a time for action that leads to faith. Both are needed. One is often more fruitful than the other when it comes to youth (especially when the two can be organically combined!).
Some Ways YOU Can Engage Youth: When possible, don’t just send youth off somewhere—go with them and work alongside them! Even better, ask your youth where they see need and how they want to put love into action.
3. Invite Them to the Leadership Table.
Youth have so much more to offer the larger church body than occasional Youth Sundays, fundraiser dinners, and serving as “volunteers” for Children’s Ministry and Vacation Bible School. The insight and perspective youth have is so unique and valuable to the rest of us. Putting youth in appropriate leadership positions will grow their faith, demonstrate how much we actually value them, and benefit the congregation as a whole. Showing youth how much we believe and trust in them now will pay dividends for a lifetime of faith and Kingdom service.
Some Ways YOU Can Engage Youth: Invite youth to serve on the Church Board or leadership team. Make sure they are taken seriously and have an equal voice around the table. Really listen to what they have to say and offer. Put them in charge of a mission project; invite them to regularly help lead worship; recruit them to teach a mid-week class or an appropriate level Sunday School class; ask them where and how they might like to take on more responsibility in the church.
4. Address Real Issues Authentically.
Life is messy. And youth trying to navigate messy life gets even messier. Too often, that’s not something the rest of us want to deal with. After all, that’s why we have youth pastors, right? Wrong. Youth will go further, faster as they watch real people of faith deal with the hard issues of life and faith with honesty and integrity.
Lest you’ve forgotten, growing up is hard. So is following Jesus. Youth know when things are being ignored, glossed over, over-simplified, and spiritualized in unhealthy ways. As you live your faith authentically—in front of them and with them—youth will continue to be attracted to Jesus and His Church.
Some Ways YOU Can Engage Youth: Be willing to navigate tough issues with youth—sexuality, identity, race, religion, morality, cultural values, politics, etc.—nothing is off limits. Invite youth to make a list of topics they’d like to explore more. Create a series where youth and adults come together to deal with difficult topics. Be willing to say, “I don’t know,” or “Let’s investigate that more with Jesus and the Scriptures,” or “These are some tough issues, aren’t they?!”
5. Point Them to Jesus.
Youth don’t need dogmatic theologies, religious rules, or superficial jargon. Nor do they need superstar leaders, irrelevant faith models, or flashy entertainment. They need—and want—Jesus! Like John the Baptist (John 1:19-27), as you point them to Jesus (and model an authentic life of following Jesus), youth will be engaged and get engaged in the things God desires most, including your local church.
Some Ways YOU Can Engage Youth: Find ways to turn conversations with youth toward Jesus and what He’s up to in their life, their school, their family, your church, His Kingdom etc.; model a life that seeks loving and serving Jesus more than any-thing or any-one. Pray for your youth often—that Jesus might shine in and through them (and through you and your church).
Why It's Worth Engaging Youth
Engaging youth isn’t easy. It requires sacrifice (time, awkwardness, no immediate “return on investment”). It requires a lot of personal investment and genuine love.
And it’s worth it all … because engaged youth, engage—all to the glory of God and the benefit of His Kingdom.