It may be time for youth ministries to stop fighting the wave of extracurricular activities dominating the landscape of our teens’ lives. You heard me: stop fighting. For three years as a youth director in a small church in a small town, I have heard the frustration and struggle with the priorities of our youth and their parents, bemoaned by Presbyterian, Baptist, Nazarene, and non-denominational youth workers alike. “Youth group isn’t the priority.” “Don’t they realize no one from our town is going to go pro in _____ (fill in sporting activity)?” “What do I need to do to make youth group better?”
Perhaps the last question is the one on which we can spend our time, and I don’t mean by serving better snacks or preparing a better devotion. I believe the way to make youth group better is to break down the walls of what is church and take youth group into the community.
What would it look like for youth group to show up at community sporting and music events with abandon and gusto, carrying the same energy for a middle school volleyball game we might for a spirited game of GaGa ball in the basement? How would our relationships with youth change when they are shown their spiritual lives aren’t the only things that matter to their church and youth worker, but their whole lives, the entirety of who they are? I wonder how our relationships with the community and other churches change when our presence is palpable in the community, not because of an outreach event, but because Church is a family that extends far beyond the church grounds?
The sacraments I remember aren’t communions served at church on Sundays, but the meals shared with youth and parents following a young person's musical performance. The conversations I continue to treasure aren’t the ones that took place on a Wednesday night in the youth room, but the ones sitting in the bleachers following a tough loss. The more I have spent time in support of my youth in their many endeavors, the more I have been reminded that the Spirit is moving in numerous ways I might not see if I waited for my youth to show up at the church on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights.
Do I wish there was more consistency in youth turnout for Sunday School and Wednesday night youth group? You bet. I wish my programs fit seamlessly into the schedules of every one of my youth. I wish there was room for Sabbath and rest in the midst of their schedules. At the same time, I see another lesson here: by engaging in ministry outside traditional contexts we open the box around God, teaching our youth (and perhaps ourselves) that God is still moving, breathing life into dry bones long left for dead. Perhaps that is a message a teenager can hold onto: God isn’t like a youth worker that sits and demands my presence where they are, but instead comes seeking me where I am, accepted and beloved.