Ask an Expert
How Senior Pastors Can Help Youth Ministry Work
By Jason C. Stanley
A few years ago I led a workshop on youth ministry for a conference-wide training event. Prior to this workshop, I was leading similar workshops in the designated youth space of the host church. The room they showed me initially was a small adult Sunday school classroom with tables and chairs set up. There was very little room to move around. Just looking at it made me feel uncomfortable.
I asked if I could see the youth space and perhaps use that room instead. The staff member from the host church looked at me sideways and then led me down the hall, around the corner, through a big, heavy door, and down another long, dark hallway. At the end of that hallway was another heavy door. Through that door was the youth room.
The situation reminded me of how we tend (sometimes without even knowing it) to relegate our youth to the basement or the far corners of the church, both in a physical location and in their involvement in the life of the church. As a result, programming for youth becomes a separate enterprise from the ministry opportunities of the whole congregation.
Let me be clear: there are plenty of age-specific moments of discipleship for youth, but there are also important moments for discipleship that are intergenerational. A successful youth ministry should not be measured by the number of students present on Sunday nights or in youth worship. A successful youth ministry should be measured by the integration of youth into the life of the church.
Youth are full members of the body of Christ through their baptism. When the waters of baptism fall upon them, so does the Spirit who calls and beckons them to ministry through the church. The sacred words spoken by the elder and the congregation initiate the baptized person into the community of faith—the same community that promises to nurture them so they can experience Christ’s call to transform the world.
Senior pastors are the master gardeners when it comes to cultivating a congregation where youth are a part of the body of Christ, not apart from the body of Christ. I surveyed some senior pastors and youth ministers and gleaned from these conversations four ways in which senior pastors can be the master gardeners.
Include youth in worship leadership.
So often youth are limited to worship leadership as acolytes, or they’re only invited to participate on Youth Sundays, which in some churches only occur once a year. Youth, as members of the congregation, can and should be engaged in worship leadership in other ways. The senior pastor can encourage youth—or encourage other leaders to ask youth—to serve as liturgists, communion stewards, technicians, prayer leaders, ushers, song leaders, and any other role where their talents meet the worship needs of the church. Here are some examples from the pastors I surveyed:
Alice had taken dance classes most of her childhood and into her teen years. She sensed a call to form a small dance troupe that would provide liturgical dances on a regular basis during worship.
A small group of youth with musical talent oozing out of them formed a small band, learned a set or two of songs, and began leading worship about once a month.
Matthew was in the theater at his high school and brought to life many of the lead roles in their plays. When given a chance to bring John Wesley to life on Aldersgate Day, he was more than willing.
Ministers like Rev. Alan Combs of the Virginia Conference acknowledge that when youth are incorporated into the worship life of the church, it benefits the whole congregation. For Alan, a practice that encourages youth to participate as full members includes “involving them more deeply in the rhythms and special events of the liturgical year.” For example, Alan engaged the youth in burning the palms for Palm Sunday and had them help him strip the altar during Holy Week.
One of the things Alan did to cultivate this involvement was to create a lectionary Bible study that met once a week for any youth who were interested. “I had regular opportunities to reflect on the text for Sunday with the youth,” Alan said, “but it also gave us opportunities to talk about elements of the liturgy, and we even came up with ideas for the worship service in the midst of some of the discussions.”
Encourage intergenerational ministry.
Youth ministry is relational at its core. Young people thrive when they’re able to form meaningful relationships with adults in the congregation who love them just as they are. Too often churches are segregated by ages. Brett, a youth minister in Virginia, said that “intergenerational ministry provides a space for youth to become active participants where they discover their gifts and learn how to tell their stories.”
The senior pastor sets the tone for this to happen. Rev. Alison Hendley of San Rafael First UMC in the California Nevada Conference treats youth as full members of the congregation. She told me that “intergenerational community is vital, especially in these times of disperse families.” One of the ways she builds intergenerational community is by encouraging a mix of people at each table for fellowship time. “Youth benefit from guidance and friendships with older members, and the older people find pride in our youth,” she said.
Plan church-wide mission trips.
Mission trips and missional activities are a primary way that young people discern the call of God in their lives. They are also primary ways to build intergenerational community. Many of the senior pastors and youth ministers I talked to use service projects in the community to connect the generations in their churches. Here are some more examples from our discussions:
A youth group’s successful week of mission in the local community sparked a flame in the congregation to be more involved. As a result, children, youth, and adults now work together during mission days in their community, preparing homes for the winter months, doing minor home repairs, and building wheelchair ramps. This intentional building of intergenerational community has enriched the overall life of the congregation. The senior pastor was there, too—not as a leader but as a participant working alongside the youth leaders.
Another youth group learned about an opportunity to hand out bagged lunches to the homeless in Washington, D. C. With the help of their senior pastor, they were able to organize this outing. After they came back and told their stories, the adults wanted to go, too, and it quickly began a church-wide mission project.
Tim is a former youth minister in Virginia and another one of the people I surveyed. He told me he was highly impressed when the senior pastor at his church cut time out of his sermon “in order to allow youth participants to share their mission experiences with the congregation.”
Provide space for youth voices to be heard.
From the floor of a conference, a youth delegate stood up to speak passionately about how the church has hurt and condemned her friends for who they are. This youth was using her voice to urge her church to be open and welcoming to all people. From the same floor at the same conference, a layperson spoke to share the opposite view of the youth and uttered, “Bless your heart,” directly to the youth speaker.
While there is space to respect a difference of opinions, there is little need to speak to a youth member of the body of Christ as if she were a child who didn’t understand “adult things.” Tim, the former youth minister, said he has experienced similar disrespect from a senior pastor speaking negatively about youth and youth culture, even from the pulpit.
Too often, the voices of youth members are left out of the discussion of major issues in the church. When Brett, the youth minister from Virginia, came to Lane Memorial UMC, he knew that the church was striving to include youth as full members. “One of the key ways they were doing this,” he said, “is by having youth in the room on important decisions.” At Lane Memorial, the youth members were a vital part of their visioning process. As a result, youth are now serving on teams that are giving life to their vision. This practice is very important because, as Brett put it, “it gives the youth a voice. They’re not simply given the jobs that no one else in the church wants to do.”
The senior pastor’s role in cultivating a congregation that welcomes youth as full members of the local expression of the body of Christ is vital. As Rev. Erica Koser, an ordained deacon in the Minnesota Conference, said, youth “are active and crucial participants in the life of our congregation.” Youth are not the church of the future; they are the church of right now. Senior pastors can lead the way and encourage others to include youth as full members of the congregation. And sometimes all that’s needed is for a senior pastor to say, “Yes, you can do that.”