Stop Segregating Youth

Mark Cannister: "Transformation happens … when they are engaged in the broader life of the church and connected to a network of caring adults."

Making Connections

In our technological society, life is predicated upon connections. Ted Gregory, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, suggests that we are hyperconnected. His interviews with college students reveal that it is not uncommon for students to have three to five electronic devices, including a laptop, smartphone, e-reader and multiple iPods (one for the car and one for the gym). We are constantly connecting with people via text messages, cell phones, email, video chats and Facebook. As long as these connections remain viable, all is well. But as soon as a network drops a call or a server goes down, interrupting the internet feed for email or Facebook, we feel helpless and disconnected. All of this technology certainly makes connecting easier, when it works, but it also has the potential to proliferate superficial connections. Before we consider the connections between teenagers and the adult population of the church, it is important to ponder the issue of community fellowship in a high-tech, low-touch culture.

A strong and active fellowship among believers in a faith community is an essential component of a healthy church. Our technology certainly keeps us connected with more people faster than ever before, but what level of connection is being maintained? Is the church increasing or decreasing in its ability to live out the “one another” passages in Scripture? More than 50 times following the ascension of Christ, as the early church is being established, the Scriptures remind God’s people how to live in community with one another. For example, we are called to: accept (Rom. 15:7), admonish (Col. 3:16), build up (Eph. 4:29), care for (1 Cor. 12:25 KJV), comfort (1 Thess. 4:18 KJV), confess to (James 5:16), be devoted to (Rom. 12:10), encourage (1 Thess. 5:11), fellowship with (1 John 1:7), forgive (Eph. 4:32), greet (Rom. 16:16), honor (Rom. 12:10), love (Rom. 13:8), pray for (James 5:16), serve (Gal. 5:13) and submit to (Eph. 5:21) one another.

Living in community is different today than it was in the early churches of the New Testament era. Life is demanding and fast paced, but in some ways our technology helps us to stay connected and live out these “one another” passages. In other ways, our technology interferes with our ability to live out these commands. No matter where we land in such a conversation about things that compromise community, it is important to realize that we are not the first generation to struggle with the issue. As the letter’s author encourages the Hebrews to persevere in their faith, he emphasizes the importance of community. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:23-25). Staying connected is essential to caring for one another, and churches that care for one another are churches in which people are connected to one another in authentic and meaningful ways.

In order for students to become connected to the whole church, the whole church must highly value community. Many churches, large and small, work tirelessly to ensure that everyone feels connected and welcome in the faith community. For churches of only a few hundred people, this is easier, as everyone knows everyone and gathering the whole fellowship together in one place is not too difficult. Churches that number more than a thousand people tend to develop small groups, regional groups, or some kind of community group system that helps people to connect with others who live in close proximity, or who are in a similar stage of life, or who are interested in similar issues. There are myriad strategies for fostering fellowship in large churches, and most make community development a priority because of how easily people can fall through the cracks of a large church.

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Churches that are most at risk for failing in the area of fellowship are those in the 500-800 persons range. These churches, which are often growing fast, have outgrown the small, family-church size, in which connection and community happen almost naturally. Yet they may not have realized that people are falling through the cracks. Once they begin pushing the 1,000 persons size, it will become obvious that a community strategy is essential. In the meantime, they are in danger of believing that everyone is connecting as if they are still a small family-church.

To place a high priority on connecting students to the larger congregation, the church must be committed to the value of community and “one anothering” among its adults. Such modeling is essential to the success of inviting adolescents into the fellowship of the whole church. Once a church has established a deep commitment to community, the assimilation of adolescents becomes the responsibility of the entire community, the whole pastoral staff and all parents of teenagers. This is not an endeavor that can be executed by the youth minister alone.

Making connections usually begins in the student ministry itself, as faithful adult leaders connect with students. It is essential that these connections happen not only at the regularly scheduled programs but also between programs. Adults make connections with teenagers by demonstrating a curiosity about the interests of teenagers. This type of relational ministry is often the lifeblood of student ministries. In order to engage all the students in this relational manner, it is essential to maintain a 1:5 leader-to-student ratio, as discussed in the last chapter. This ratio helps students remain connected to leaders, to small groups and to the student ministry. This ratio doesn’t always translate to assimilating students into the life of the broader church, however, unless leaders intentionally make assimilation a priority and the church develops environments that are welcoming and engaging to students.

Recently Chap Clark and Kara Powell have suggested that we consider flipping the ratio from 1:5 to a ratio of 5:1 that strives to have five adults caring for one student. While this is not a new suggestion—Chap Clark first wrote about it in 2004 and Jim Burns declared its importance in 2008—it seems to be gaining greater traction in our relationally starved culture today. This is not to suggest that the student ministry should have five times as many volunteer leaders as students, or that a small group of 10 students would have 50 adult leaders! The idea is that teenagers need multiple adults speaking into their lives.

Many teenagers already have multiple adults in their lives. They have teachers, coaches, youth leaders, scout leaders and music instructors. My daughter is regularly connecting with her small group leader at church, her flute instructor, her track coach, her yearbook adviser and her Young Life leaders, all of whom are wonderful role models. They are not all part of our church community, and there is nothing wrong with that. But what if there were another two or three or four adults from our church with whom she was connected as well? In fact, there are, and I will talk about them a little later. Each of these connections, large and small, helps teenagers feel engaged and connected to the local congregation that is their church home.

Clark and Powell give an excellent example of how parents can foster these adult connections through small groups, or what we call life communities at my church. The idea behind the name is that the group is more than an adult Bible study; it is a group that actually does life together.

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Early on, [this small group] decided that they wanted to do more than study the Bible together every week or two; they wanted to be families who stuck together.

Every three months, they bring their calendars to their small group meeting. As is typical in small groups of busy families, they plan several months in advance when they are going to meet. But unlike most small groups, they have taken calendaring to a new level.

This small group has covenanted to make each other’s family events a joint priority. So during their quarterly calendar review, not only do they plan their meetings, but they also share important upcoming family dates and events. All five families mark the Sunday afternoon when Claire has her piano recital. All five families make a note of Mario’s Eagle Scout ceremony. All five families jot down the date and time of Isabella’s middle school graduation. And as much as possible, the five families try to attend these milestone events. That’s 5:1. That’s kingdom community.

Consider for a moment the places in which teenagers make connections with adults on a Sunday morning at church in addition to the student ministries venue. Perhaps each week at the front door they shake the hand of the same greeter, who knows them by name. Perhaps they sit in the same seat of the sanctuary each week with family or friends, surrounded by the same adults who know them and who offer a friendly inquiry into the happenings of their week.

A few times every year most churches baptize or dedicate children, depending on the tradition of the church. The occasions are marked by the joy of parents and grandparents, the endearing innocence of babies and often a baby’s surprised reaction to the experience. One aspect common to all such rituals is the asking of a question to the congregation. The question is always something like: “Will you promise to love, support and care for these children as they live and grow in Christ?” To which the congregation gives a rousing: “We will!” But do they? And how? Unfortunately, if you asked most church members to name the children they had promised to love and support, they would be at a loss for words.

But what if in that moment, rather than everyone in the congregation (especially a large congregation) pledging to love and support every child, a small handful of adults pledged to love and support one child, or one adult small group pledged to care for one child and their family? Children’s baptism and dedication pledges were designed in the context of small, family-style congregations and still function well in that context. Larger churches, though, need to consider adapting these pledges for their context in such a way that it is truly meaningful. Imagine a family coming forward with their child and 10 or 15 other adults and children that compose their life community or small group, who commit to walking alongside this child in faith for the next two decades.

Connecting children and teenagers to a broad range of adults in the church must be done with great intentionality. Yet connections alone are not enough. While it feels very supportive for students to be known by other adults in the congregation, formation of individuals and communities requires contribution. When teenagers matter and student ministry is a priority of the church, students are afforded opportunities to contribute to the whole life of the church.


Taken from Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church by Mark Cannister. Copyright © 2013. Used by permission of Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Order from Teenagers Matter: Making Student Ministry a Priority in the Church