It used to be that church youth meetings meant sitting in a hard pew, singing three verses of "Throw Out the Life Line," and listening to 45 minutes of thinly disguised moralizing. Not anymore.
The youth emphasis of the nineties is on relationships, listening, caring, sharing. Says Rod Robertson, youth pastor of the 1,100 member Black Rock Congregational Church in Fairfield, Connecticut: "Peer influence is the largest factor shaping our kids' lives to day. Every teenager is desperately looking for a group to fit into. A kid can't survive in the 1990s as a single individual. The role of the church is to provide a positive group influence friends for our youth to identify with in the context of Christianity."
And such a perspective is right on target. According to Robert Stefferson, Counselor of At Risk Children for the state of New York, "all kids today want to be part of some group, even if their group is the 'loner' group." Stefferson, who conducted a summer research project to determine the influence of groups on teenagers in high schools, found eight distinct groups prevalent among teens today.
Lauren Cass, curriculum and staff development specialist for the state of Connecticut, working on "prejudice reduction" in the classroom, sees the need to identify with a group as primary in the minds of our young people today. "I've seen girls come into class looking non descript one day and like streetwalkers the next. These kids are fishing around, trying to find a group they can fit into."
With such pressure on our teenagers today, an effective youth ministry program is more than just a "nice service" it is crucial to the spiritual survival of our children. By establishing a group our teenagers can fit into, we can give our young people a positive, wholesome identity.
Thinking of starting a youth group in your church or sprucing up the program you already have? Wondering what works and what doesn't? Here's some advice from pastors and lay leaders involved in active youth ministry programs.
1. Involve the youth in the planning process. No matter how exciting an agenda may appear to you, if the kids don't see it as their own, they won't buy it. Willie Boyd, leader of the fledgling Brooklawn (Bridgeport, Connecticut) Seventh-day Adventist Youth Group, says that a number of programs were attempted to appeal to the youth in his congregation of 150, but none seemed to attract much inter est. It was not until Boyd called a planning meeting for the youth, involved them in brainstorming, and solicited their help in implementing their own ideas that something began happening.
2. Build supportive relationships before expecting a lot from your group. "When you're first starting out, you may have to sit around and eat a lot of pizza before becoming involved in any kind of a spiritual discussion," says LaLa Abbott, leader of the 20- member youth group of St. Steven's Episcopal Church of Ridgefield, Connecticut. "The most important thing is to build trust in a group," she says. "Once you get the dynamics going, you have a good basis for growth."
3. Plan some projects that will get the kids "outside of themselves." LaLa Abbott sees this as one of the real keys to cementing a group together and building members' maturity. Her young people are currently involved in "Habitat," an international volunteer effort that builds and renovates houses for those who can't afford to purchase homes. "While our teens are painting, puttying, and wiring, they are learning a lot about one another and about them selves," she says. "A shared experience builds community and positive experiences for the group."
4. Work on uncovering and meeting the needs evident within your group. Gary Richardson, in an article published in Group magazine,1 lists 13 basic needs that all youth share in common. They are the need to: belong, feel safe, have caring relationships, be loved, develop emotional stability, be challenged, be active, know the Bible, achieve new relations with peers, achieve a masculine or feminine role, accept their physical appearance, pre pare1 for a vocation, and achieve socially responsible behavior.
Richardson suggests translating those basic needs into strategies for youth planning, by holding an introductory session with your youth group, and asking questions that can help identify the priorities of those involved. Sample questions might be "List the three things most important to you" or "What bothers you most about life?" To make this session less threatening, break up into small groups and let the youth discuss their ideas and bring then it back to the larger group.
5. Set limits for your group in a positive manner. Dr. Larry Keefauver, senior pastor at Central Christian Church in Waco, Texas, sees respect ng young people as individuals as crucial to setting up livable guidelines for a youth group. "Rules should never be the focal point of a youth group or youth event," he says. "Good rules remain in the background to provide structure and reasonable limits so members of the group can live positively together in a Christian atmosphere."2 Keefauver further says that rules should be set with a "positive attitude" that "expects the best of youth and adults."
6. Do some "wild and crazy" things. I am not saying that you go against your church principles and standards. But providing a daring experience in a Christian context once in a while allows kids to satisfy their need for adventure. Recently I suggested a radical idea to my group that they em braced wholeheartedly. One Saturday night we rented a gorilla suit, drove a van-load of kids to the homes of some friends who did not attend our youth meetings, and "captured" them. (All this, of course, was done with prior consent and cooperation of the parents of our would-be victims.) We ended up at the church for a grand party---games and food.
7. When discussing Christianity and its applications, offer firsthand experiences. Donna Santos, lay leader with 20 years of experience with youth, suggests that nothing hits a point home more to kids than encountering a flesh-and- blood individual who has grappled with the issue. Offer yourself as a real person, she says, with all your vulnerabilities, and you will be respected all the more.
Santos also suggests calling upon others to share with the group in a personal way. For example, if discuss ing the issue of abortion, ask someone who has had an abortion to take part in a group session.
"You can read your kids all the biblical admonitions in the world," says Santos. "But they are going to be much more willing to listen when a person just like themselves is sharing from the heart."
8. When planning Bible study sessions, make sure that the youth have some type of interaction with the topic. Work sheets, small groups, discussion all involve the kids and make the topic relevant to their lives. Kids today are not prepared to sit back passively, imbibing all the wonderful facts imparted by a youth leader. They need to know that their opinions count, their perspective is valued. The way to "instruct" them is to allow for ways in which they can make the topic their own.
"Lecturing does not work," says Santos. "The kids are turned off by wise old leaders filled with cliches and truisms. They need to be involved in the learning process, discovering truths for themselves under gentle guidance."
9. Recognize that kids are coming to you at different levels of interest and strive to take each one to a higher level. Rod Robertson sees four distinct categories of young people who attend youth meetings: (1) the noninterested, who are forced to at tend by parents or others; (2) the socially interested, who come to spend time with friends and develop relation ships; (3) the spiritually interested, who genuinely want to grow in their Christian walk; and (4) the servant-oriented, who want to reach out to others with the witness of their own faith.
Robertson calls for activities that would spark the interest of each of these levels. Currently his youth group of about 80 kids is on a three-week cycle: the first week a Bible study; the next week small group interaction and application; and the third week a social, with refreshments and time for "just talking."
In addition to these weekly meetings, Robertson plans social activities at members' homes, Christian concerts, spiritual retreats... "The teenage years are so very difficult," he says. "Your goal is to get them through a potentially turbulent time. Whatever you can do from a positive perspective is a great thing."
10. The bottom line is love the kids. After being in youth ministry for 14 years, Rod Robertson can see no greater key to success in working with young people than simply to love them from the heart. "It may sound simplistic," he says, "but I really believe that communicating love is the best thing you can do for your group. It doesn't matter what programs you have, or how large your budget is---if the kids can sense a love from the leaders and can develop a genuine caring and respect for one another, your group will be a success."
1. Gary Richardson, "Uncovering and Meeting Needs," Group, October 1982, p. 24(22).
2. Larry Keefauver, "Those Youth Group Rules," Group, March/April 1982, p. 30(1).