National Lutheran News

Are the kids in the youth room? Should they be?

Remember the guy in Acts 20 who fell out the window? Apostle Paul preached far into the night at Troas, in what now is Turkey. A young man sitting in the window dozed — and plunged to the street three stories below.

Some feared he was dead. Paul rushed to the street and found him alive. He then rushed back to his third-story sermon, which lasted until daylight.

Does that bear a dangerous resemblance to the way your congregation treats young people? In this season of youth lock-ins and yardwork service projects, congregations face the same old youth challenges — competing with studies, school activities, and even with other Christian groups. At small congregations, the question becomes: Will anybody even show up?

Terri Elton, associate professor of Children, Youth, and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary; photo provided by Luther Seminary

Elton worries that successful children’s and youth ministries tend to isolate the young from the rest of the members.

Terri Elton sees a related, more profound challenge: Are your young people really a part of your congregation?

To this day, youth rooms tend to be in the church basement, but it’s not to keep snoozers from falling out of windows. Rather, it’s likely a well-meaning effort to give them their own space — and maybe to stifle their din.

Elton, associate professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, sees such deliberate separation as part of the problem.

Indeed, if your congregation’s confirmation course is lively and its youth program thriving, that may be part of the problem too. Elton worries that successful children’s and youth ministries tend to isolate the young from the rest of the members. Worship, she says, has become “an adult event.”

A key concern for Elton is congregations focusing on programs rather than relationships. Encouraging young and old to gather in meaningful activities, she says, is a way of “passing on the faith through relationships rather than through memorizing catechism.”

So maybe it’s time to dust off those ideas that over the years were tried and set aside. What if you host an intergenerational board games event at which young and old get to know one another? Or a worship service led by youth?

Science, religion — Sex

At University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis, an ELCA congregation near both the University of Minnesota and Augsburg College, many new members are 35 years old or younger, says Pastor Craig Shirley.

The Rev. Craig Shirley is pastor at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis. Photo provided by University Lutheran Church of Hope

His guidance may apply to any age. “Be genuine with them,” he says. “Be an approachable person and an approachable congregation where they can be who they are.” That is, in many cases, single and/or gay.

This means that at Hope Lutheran, questioning is more than allowed; it’s encouraged. “Sunday school is pretty much a discussion group in ninth grade,” says Shirley. “I appreciate kids asking questions.”

Other faiths? Jesus is the way, Pastor Shirley affirms, but “what does that mean for Christians who interact with and respect people of other faiths?”

Then there’s sex — living together, gay or straight. Children of unmarried couples. And, of course, science and religion. In short, all the hot-button issues will come up. And, says Shirley, asking those questions is OK.

At Hope, young adults step readily into leadership roles. A church president turned 30 years old while serving. “The congregation doesn’t say you have to be here 20 years before you lead,” says Shirley. “We invite them. They take us up on it.”

What does a church do when its neighborhood is full of college students who have little or no income and live at poverty level, but in fact are upper-middle class? “Welcome them with open arms,” says Shirley. “Make sure you get to know them. Find out who they are. Invite them to be a part of things.

“They like to be productive. They like to contribute. They’ll serve on committees. They’ll serve as chairs. But they want to see some results. It isn’t just a matter of maintaining the institution. It’s a matter of making a difference.”

Elton says young people aren’t turning their backs on church. “They’re not rebelling,” she says. “They believe in God — but none of their decisions reflect it.” Church for too many young people, she says, is “like the wallpaper in the room. It’s just there.”

At your church, can young people ask questions and not get wallpaper answers?

Children sit where they want to — including third-story window sills if you let them. Church should certainly be a place where young people feel safe and in fact are safe, but does that include being safe asking tough questions?

So maybe you should keep windows open, metaphorically. It may be a bit dangerous, but don’t we all need a little fresh air?

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