I've been reading an excellent text on youth ministry entitled Choosing Church: What Makes a Difference for Teens by Carol Lytch. Based on findings from Lily funded research, Lytch looks at numerous variables that affect youth participation in the whole life of a church. I appreciate that her sample congregations are quite varied: protestant, catholic, evangelical, megachurch, small church, etc. I'm particularly drawn to her assertion that churches which attract and involve youth in long-term spiritual experiences create programs that meet at least two of the three needs below:
- a sense of belonging - Students need to have a subgroup within the church, most likely with their peers, where they feel a sense of close community and care.
- a sense of meaning - Students desire to know more about God and life and seek out churches where they are free to explore the tough questions.
- a sense of competency - Students want opportunities to develop their gifts and skills, whether this is within the leadership of a youth program, or as leaders within the wider church ministries.
Much of what I'm reading in this book reminded me of a not-so-recent post over at the Wesley Blog entitled: "When Teenagers are Bored by the Worship Service." This blogger posits a concern about pushing youth, particularly unchurched youth, to participate in worship services that don't engage their interests:
The truth is, we have a limited amount of time each week to reach and disciple teens, and I'm not sure we should spend a big portion of that time making them "do church". Why is the worship service such a sacred cow in churches anyway? Bring an unchurched teenager into a traditional mainline service, and the expectation of silence probably evokes for them memories of funerals and libraries- two places I didn't particularly want to be when I was younger (or now), especially if I had a choice in the matter. Why is the worship service considered prime time? Can teens be part of the Christian community without being in the same room with adults for that one hour? Maybe it's time we did things differently.
I understand the heart of his argument, but I respectfully disagree. As I've ranted about on this blog before, segregating youth away from the total life of the church (i.e. intergenerational experiences of the whole community) all but guarantees that when they graduate from the youth group, they graduate out of the church. I do agree, however, that we have failed to adapt our worship experiences to approaches that will allow the youth of today to experience the movement of the spirit. Now, I know some churches think they've actually been able to do this by bringing in flashy videos, strobe lights, and loud driving music. But I would argue that these services more often provide youth with distraction and entertainment -- not the presence of the spirit.
If we want youth to connect with worship -- to CHOOSE to be in church and to worship with the whole body -- I think Mark Yaconelli has a much better path in that direction in his text Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus. His work has it's foundation in The Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project, another Lily-funded project. Yaconelli argues that the way to reach today's post-modern youth is not through embracing popular culture but rather reaching back to the ancient contemplative spiritual practices that have always fed the Church. These practices have the potential to provide youth with all the things Lytch argues are so important: a sense of belonging through shared spiritual experiences, a sense of meaning by deepening our understanding of God's call on our lives, and a sense of competency by providing ways for youth to grow as spiritual leaders within their churches.