“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
It’s somewhat of a bizarre expression to be sure. Supposedly this idiom has its roots in ancient German literature where an artist’s simple illustration showed a woman throwing a baby out with waste water. The saying suggests the avoidable error of eliminating something good when trying to get rid of something bad.
Let’s apply this expression to local church youth ministry. Over the years something that was originally designed to reach members of the emerging youth culture with the Gospel and to effectively minister to a booming number of teenagers in this country has become cumbersome, traditional, ineffective, and perhaps even a grave mistake. Now out kids are walking away from the church en masse – supposedly in spite of being actively involved in the church’s youth ministry for years and years. History now gives us a certain perspective that our youth ministry forefathers didn’t have. They indisputably wanted to do something culturally relevant – they wanted to reach kids for Christ. So, a strategy to keep teenagers relatively isolated from other generations was born. Their intentions were positive and admirable. But, this decades old experiment was intrinsically flawed. It hasn’t worked to keep our young people completely separated from other age groups. They seemingly enjoy this approach as adolescents, but they don’t recognize the value of this segregation when they reach adulthood. As a result, church youth are leaving the church in droves often because they don’t really know anyone in the adult world of the church. The separation of youth from adults has turned into a liability.
But, that doesn’t mean that we should now swing the pendulum totally away from the overwhelming advantages of a strong youth ministry as some today are advocating. Sure, this discipline has its weaknesses, but its strengths are incredibly valuable – and they are worth maintaining. We must not overreact.
Readers, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Instead of swinging the pendulum away from a positive church emphasis on youth ministry – let’s strike a balance. Let’s balance the many Biblical and practical advantages of youth ministry along with a commitment to intentionally involve older generations in the lives of the next generation. The pendulum must stop in the middle. We must strike that balance. It’s essential for the current and future health of the church. Our churches need healthy and Biblically-based youth ministries AND our churches need strong, healthy, and growing inter-generational connections. That’s the balance.
Making Inter-Generational Youth Ministry Work
So, how do we make this idea of inter-generational youth ministry work in a specific local church setting? Here are some basic ideas to put into practice in your church.
1. Recruit select significant adults to serve as youth workers.
The most customary level of adult-to-youth connections in the church is the obligatory team of adult youth workers who are assigned the task of running the church’s youth ministry. Let’s start here. It’s probably safe to make the assumption that most traditional churches, at least in western culture, have one or more adult youth workers allocated with the grand task of ministering to teenagers. Actually, this is an incredible way for select adults to build strong relationships with young people. The church’s “official” youth workers can and will develop strong connections with youth; be it via a paid, professional youth pastor or through a team of volunteer or “lay” youth workers. These faithful youth workers have the ability to build into the lives of emerging generations and can truly impact their lives for Christ on into adulthood. However, this is just a starting point. There must be other levels of intentional inter-generational connections.
2. Utilize adult-led small groups.
Another way to involve adults in the fabric of church youth ministry is through adult-led small groups. Here’s how one youth worker describes his small group ministry, “We wanted to have more adults involved... We accomplished that goal by giving them the ministry. On Wednesday night, I’m not the guy on stage who is funny/wise/spiritual/everything-a-teenager-wants-in-a-youth-leader. I’m the announcement man. I get up, pray for the night, make the announcements, and then send them off to small groups after some praise and worship. That’s my job. Remember: I’m the youth minister. To the untrained eye it might seem like I’ve taken a back seat. In reality, I’ve given 10-12 adults more say the youth ministry on Wednesday night than would have been possible under any other format. Each night, somewhere between 3 and 10 students meet with their small group leader for 30-45 minutes. They laugh, they play, they learn about one another, and the dive into the Word of God… The great thing is, on Wednesday night, there isn’t one youth minister in the room. There are at least 10. Having these men and women lead in the youth ministry in a big way means that… the Body of Christ is coming together to serve His church.”
This youth worker explains it well. Small groups allow other youth workers to get involved in the lives of individual young people. I’m not going to present a primer on how to do small groups here. There are tons of resources out there on how to develop and implement a small group element in youth ministry. If you want to incorporate small groups in your ministry, I highly suggest that you do your homework. The important thing to think through is this: an adult-led small group ministry provides specific and tangible ways for dedicated adults to build real and lasting relationships with young people.
Mentoring is an ideal way for churches to develop another layer of healthy inter-generational relationships. Today’s teenagers are craving adult mentors and scores of youth ministry specialists are now touting the need for launching an intentional mentoring ministry. I am convinced that a truly effective mentoring ministering begins by challenging the Godly, motivated, and caring adults in your church through the Scriptures to take the initiative to develop constructive, growing, and spiritual relationships with younger people. As I have frequently told churches around the country as I have presented this concept to them, mentoring is not necessarily a commitment of extra time; it is doing what you already do just do it with younger people. I also believe that the best mentoring anywhere takes place at church, and perhaps begins in the church foyer with caring adults going out of their way to meet, greet, and build growing relationships with young people.
4. Expect and motivate inter-generational ministry opportunities.
Another way of developing an inter-generational emphasis throughout your entire church is to create a culture where it is expected (almost required) that every ministry position is supposed to recruit and train a younger person or persons to work alongside of them in their specific avenue of service.
This principle should be especially true in the most visible and public ministries of the church. Let’s use the church’s worship team for example. I agree with Gary McIntosh when he wrote, “It is crucial that the worship team be intergenerational. The leaders who are seen on the platform influence the people who will attend the service. When people come to a church, one of the first things they do is look around to find people like themselves. The people on the platform communicate a tacit message about who attends the church, so… care must be taken to have people of all ages up front.”
I also think it is imperative for a church that wants to build inter-generational connections to especially recruit younger people to serve alongside of adults as greeters and ushers. It’s often true that perception is reality. As McIntosh so eloquently alluded; it is essential for the church to publicly demonstrate an inter-generational emphasis. Plus, the natural side effects of younger people serving and learning alongside of adults are powerful, habit forming and life-changing.
5. Provide ways for adults to share their stories.
Today’s Millennials love and relate very well to stories. A recent post on a blog about marketing and branding described this generation, “…Millennials think in images, the ‘language of story-telling.’ …Millennials remember stories, not facts. Stories provide an opportunity where facts don’t.”
Emerging generations connect with adults who are willing to share their stories – warts, blemishes as well. Churches can utilize this interest in stories by proving planned and spontaneous opportunities for older adults to share their stories or testimonies with younger generations. Several years ago I asked one of the oldest men in our church to tell his story to our teenagers. Ways to incorporate these stories into your programming are quite endless. You could invite significant adults to take a few moments to share their testimony in Sunday school or youth group meetings. Time could be allotted in the church worship services periodically for this purpose. Informal fellowship times could be scheduled for the various generations to gather and a group facilitator could be used to motivate the participants to share their stories in an allotted amount of time before something else is scheduled. Homes could also be utilized for this specific purpose. You’ll be amazed at how powerful these simple “story times” can be for your church.
Readers can figure out what ideas would work in your church. The important thing is to plan and schedule regular times for older generations to have positive exposure to younger generations and for younger generations to have affirming exposure to older generations. It’s amazing how generational differences and tastes quickly fade into unimportance and insignificance when the various generations connect and have positive and constructive exposure to each other.