What do we hope our kids will get out of church?

by Kristin on May 13, 2010

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by Vanessa Yvonne

When I first stepped into my church—the one I’ve been going to for the last five years—I noticed the teenagers right away. I noticed them mostly because they were all sitting up in the first few rows, and they seemed really into being at church. My church isn’t stuffy and traditional, but it’s not exactly a hip, media- and music-driven church, where young people are specifically being catered to, either,  so I was impressed by the teens’ enthusiasm.

The other thing I noticed about the teenagers, over time, was how comfortable they seemed to be in their skin. They each seemed to be exploring and expressing who they were in multi-faceted ways, blending the person they were at school and on the soccer field with the person they were at church and off doing Habitat for Humanity work. There wasn’t a certain “look” or talent that was most admired by the group, from what I could tell—they were who they were, and that sense of self was the very thing that made them cool.

My own girls were just five- and seven-years-old when we started going to our church, but I remembered thinking “That’s how I want my kids to feel about church when they’re teenagers.” It was a vague wish, seeing as how I hadn’t directly asked those teens what was going on in their heads and hearts, but it was still a wish.

Where the rubber hits the road

Now my oldest daughter is in middle school, and I have a stepdaughter who is, too. The fuzzy youth group concept is becoming more concrete all the time. I ponder it a lot, and follow up my ponderings with many questions for them. “What do you like doing most at youth group?” I ask. “What matters to you? What makes it feel worth your time? Does youth group make you feel more connected to your church community, or does it feel like a separate thing? Do you feel like there’s anything happening in youth group that makes sense in your world outside of church?”

Once I begin asking questions, I have a hard time stopping. I was a newspaper reporter for a few years after college—asking questions is ingrained in me. After grilling my girls, I started polling people in my small group, most of whom are in their late 20s and early 30s. “Did you go to youth group? What part of it seems most meaningful to you now, in hindsight?”

A vision of what matters when it comes to kids and church

So I’ve had plenty of thoughts and asked lots of questions, but now the real question is crystallized in my own kids, as they travel through adolescence: What do I want for them, when it comes to their understanding of church and God? What will do the most good? What will do the least harm? (I know, sort of a depressing question, but probably an important one.)

The fact of the matter is, young people are leaving the church in droves, as soon as they leave home (and often while they’re still in high school). Something is missing.

There are a lot of theories out there, and plenty of possibilities. I could write an entire blog post series on the topic (as many people already have). But as a parent, what do I want most for my three daughters? How do I want them to think about and experience church? There are so many ways to do youth group, and so many things to teach our kids about the Bible and theology, about the nature of God and his creation. It’s not like we have to choose just one thing to focus on, but if we did, what would it be?

Last night, as Jason and I were cleaning up the kitchen after hosting small group, it came to me. Well, a thought arrived in my head, sort of like a vision, and I want to see what you all think about it: I want my daughters to think about church as the place where they can most fully be the people God created them to be—where they feel absolutely loved, accepted, respected for who they are, not who they think they’re supposed to be. Where their talents and gifts can flourish, and where their doubts and fears can be voiced.

Which brings to the surface the next question: What does that look like, in a youth program? What activities and relationships might best support that outcome?

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  • http://twitter.com/Pastor4you Chris Johnson

    Oh wow this is an exciting discussion! I have been doing youth ministry for 14 or so years now. In the past I seemed to be able to find the things that youth needed. Today however I am more confused than ever. The last church I served had a youth group similar to what you described. Students active in the life of the church. These were also smart intellectual youth. They were able to challenge me on my understanding of God. But we were open to each other and to God’s leading. This was accomplished long before I arrived there. The problem I see in youth ministry now in my new context is that these youth are not as comfortable in who they are at school, on the soccer field, at home, or even at worship if they ever come. I am more at a loss for how to get them to open up and be who they will be. I feel they think they will be judged and that they need to be somebody other than who they are. I will follow with anxious anticipation to see what other people are experiencing with the youth of their faith community!

  • erin

    Oh, girl. I could talk about youth ministry for days! (But, I won’t, I promise!) I really love youth ministry. And, I really love your questions. You ask great questions, both of your daughters and of your readers. I think that’s an integral part of youth ministry: asking teens “real” questions about things that matter…about things that matter to you, to the Church, and to them. That is a great place to start: ask questions.

    The teenagers in my youth group in Alabama used to always fuss at me: “Stop answering our questions with questions! We’re asking you questions because we want to know your answer! If we had the answers, we wouldn’t be asking!” Ha! They fussed at me (and our other adult leaders) because we had the kind of relationship with our teens where they could be honest–and I think that is due, in large part, to the fact that we asked them about their thoughts, feelings, fears, hopes, and doubts. They know we cared, they know we wanted to know what they were thinking, they know their thoughts were valued, they know that we were creating a safe space for their questions to be nurtured and explored.

    It’s important to create an environment for teens where they can be themselves and flourish, just as you are saying, Kristin; and taking them seriously as partners in ministry with opinions, ideas, hopes, and doubts is a great first step.

  • http://thealchemistblog.wordpress.com Gen

    I agree that being loved for who you are and what you bring to the table is a huge part of keeping youth at Church. But hear me out on this: speaking as an ex-Christian, a large part of it is just a coming of age, starting to think for yourself thing. You hit that point where you ask yourself, “Now, do I really believe these things I’ve been taught?” and many teens and young adults leave at that point because the answer is no. It isn’t always some offense the Church has committed, or the small-mindedness of the powers that be (though that’s often a factor). Sometimes it’s just a conscious, well-thought-out choice. Implying that the Church can change itself enough to keep these youth from leaving then often feels hurtful and discounts the ability of ex-Christians, especially young ex-Christians, to think calmly and rationally about faith decisions.

    And we haven’t all had a bad experience. I’m sure it’s hard for believing Christians to imagine a world where Christ isn’t the one right path that everyone ends up on if all the right things are in order. But that’s the world that I, and many other non-Christians, exist in. It can be hard to hear people talking about how to “keep people from leaving the Church,” when that statement seems to imply suppressing our truth and freedom, and controlling our spirituality for us.

    I know you would never encourage that, K, and I’m sure you’re mostly addressing your thoughts to those youth who believe in Christ but who’ve been alienated. Just wanted to add my piece about how those statements can be perceived by ex-Christians.

  • http://www.aneccentricmagnolia.com Roxanne

    It’s nice to read about kids who are not disillusioned with that nebulous entity called “church.” So, to briefly answer the question that’s the title of this post. We hope our kids find God, an understanding of Him, thru the church. I say this because, in my experience, it seems church idolizes itself, as opposed to making God the centre.

  • http://www.sundayschoolrebel.typepad.com Sam

    I think my experience, as a youth in an active group, was having a good group of friends doing good things together. That’s pretty important. As a mom, I would love to know that when my son is hanging out with his youth group, I don’t have to worry that he’s influenced or led to do things that I don’t want him doing. Even now, though my beliefs are quite different than what I believed as a teenager, I’m thankful that I had good people influencing me. I was also blessed to have a group of squeaky-clean friends at school – we all went to different churches, but we were all walking a straight-and-narrow path.

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I think kids WON’T or SHOULDN’T experience what most people think of as ‘normal teenage experiences’. But honestly, I’m glad I got to experiment with things like drinking,etc., when I was college – a little older, a little firmer on my path.

    I think it’s really important that we incorporate our youth as a part of the church. It’s not for entertainment, but for coming together and doing ministry together. Asking questions. Loving whoever shows up. As for keeping them in church…I think that’s something they have to decide for themselves as they grow. Learn how to make it a priority. But I think, if you treat them with love and respect and lead them to Jesus’ love, they will choose a life in the Church as an adult.

  • xmartinj

    I agree wholeheartedly with your hopes for youth group.

    Hopefully we’re all teaching teens to live in the healthy middle of the continuum between hating themselves and feeling the world revolves around them.

    And also avoid pinballing back and forth between the extremes.

    Learning a healthy other-directedness seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

  • http://captainestes.blogspot.com/ Chad Estes

    Hey Kristin,

    Great topic. I’m with Roxanne. Bottom line I want my kids to connect with God, and with other relationships that help encourage that relationship with God.

    My daughter, who has the most natural connection with God that I’ve seen, stopped going to youth group a couple of years ago. It kind of shocked the leaders as she was sort of held up as the product of a great system. From her perspective what they offered wasn’t really necessary in her relationship with God. What she enjoyed the most was being with her friends, relating, listening, and caring for each other. What she experienced was that she had to set those things aside in order to do the youth program. Some of the very things the youth leaders were trying to foster they didn’t see taking place right in front of them. She decided it was easier to live out her faith without the program. My wife and I haven’t seen her life suffer at all from her decision. Instead we’ve seen the benefits the freedom has brought.

    My son is a couple of years younger. He sees and values the freedom that his sister has. But for him, his desire to be with his friends, no matter what program they have to suffer through, is greater than his frustrations at the program. I would imagine that as he gains mobility (license to drive) more and more of his community gatherings with his friends will happen outside of the planned church events.

    My younger daughter doesn’t go to church anymore. When she was younger in Sunday school she was told she had to move to the 4th grade class because 3rd grade was over. She loved her teachers and wanted nothing to do with moving on. It didn’t matter that they were true disciplers in her life, the system dictated to her that she had to move on. Even at her young age she saw that the institution of religion wasn’t what she needed. Now she pursues those adult relationships in her life that help her grow.

    I look back at my years growing up in church and try to remember what made a difference, what took hold, who is still in my life. Almost always I go to the people and the memories of events, hardly ever do I mention any teaching, doctrine, or class. What I needed was community during those shaping years. I’m very grateful for it, but I think I experienced it by mistake and not necessarily by design.

    Still there are other kids who may respond great to programs, schedules, and structure, especially if they lack it in other areas of their life.

    I don’t think there are simple answers here, but I think a couple of principles are paramount:
    1) Youth leaders have to make sure they aren’t becoming a mediator between the youth and God. These leaders need to be very deliberate about getting out of the way and letting the youth develop their own relationship, understanding, and experience with God.
    2) We’ve got to go after our youth’s hearts, not their heads. This isn’t just a cultural, post-modern concept. It’s far more effective to disciple from the heart to the head than the other way around.
    3) We’ve got to provide community for the kids. They need relationships, they need to experience the Body. They need to participate and know that they are a part of the Body now. They need more ownership and less pressure to conform.

    Good grief, I got on a bit of a tirade there… Sorry If it was more than you were asking.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Chris, it’s really interesting to hear your perspective, after 14 years of working with youth. This is what really resonates with me: “I am more at a loss for how to get them to open up and be who they will be. I feel they think they will be judged and that they need to be somebody other than who they are.” That seems to be a big part of being a teenager, in general, and probably an even bigger part of being a Christian. You get the idea that you’re supposed to go to church to achieve some better existence—as soon as you whip yourself into shape, then you will be loved. Unfortunately, it’s an ideal that can never be achieved.

    erin, maybe you should come to Illinois and talk to me about this issue for days. :) I’m up for it! I love this: “I think that’s an integral part of youth ministry: asking teens “real” questions about things that matter…” and this: “…they know that we were creating a safe space for their questions to be nurtured and explored.” I absolutely agree—it’s a great approach. But it can only happen with the right leaders and a good dynamic amongst the kids, right? In the wrong setting, without the trust, it could completely flop.

    Gen, I’m so glad you added your perspective. I do make a lot of sweeping assumptions about people, mostly drawn from a couple of people I know, or from projecting my own issues with the church onto everyone else. :) It sounds like you left the church in a healthy, well-reasoned way, but I still can’t help but think that isn’t the case for most people. They got sick of being told everything in the Bible is black and white, or they got tired of church being all about rules, or they simply felt uncomfortable in church and didn’t want to put themselves through the weekly torture. And then in the midst of all of that, they thought “I don’t think I believe any of this, anyway.” When I think of my kids, I’d love to clear the path up a bit, whether they choose to stay in the church, leave for a while, or leave for good. I’d love for them to feel OK being in a church community with their questions and doubts, to be comfortable with who they are in every facet of their lives, and then to be able to make unencumbered choices about faith from that vantage point (as it sounds like you did).

    Roxanne, this is a good point: “…it seems church idolizes itself, as opposed to making God the centre.” I think it’s too easy, these days, to fall into that “hipster church” pattern, which might be great for drawing people in but doesn’t always have the rootedness necessary to make a real difference in anyone’s life. I also think there’s a danger in the ideal I’ve outlined in my post—that it could easily become all about celebrating self and the other people at the church. The key is building the individual relationship with God; I think part of building that relationship and understanding who the living God is is wrapped up in understanding who he created each of us to be. Does that make sense? Some of these nuances are tricky to articulate.

  • http://www.tjhirst.com/ TJ Hirst

    I teach youth every day of the week in a religion class. I’ve asked many of these same questions; some stick through it and others drop out. Yes, what you are saying in your last paragraph – they do need to feel that, but it is my experience that no matter what the program looks like, they have to feel that from internal positive experiences with God themselves, not just external programs that evoke emotion. As youth leaders, prayer for and personal attention toward youth is the most important element to helping them learn to feel God’s love for them as an individual so they can express that in worship and service.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sam, it seems like the best youth group experiences I hear about are really hard to replicate—they have more to do with a certain group of kids that really clicks, or the perfect set of adult leaders. It also seems like there’s not a single approach that works for everyone, because everyone has different needs. I do think that incorporating youth into the church, though, rather than separating them, is good for everyone.

    xmartinj, this is a great point: “Learning a healthy other-directedness seems like a worthwhile endeavor.” I get the sense that recognizing that God made you a certain way and really loves you the way he created you can help when it comes to appreciating differences—as long as we help bring the thought around for the kids, rather than leaving them focused on themselves.

    Chad and TJ, I have to run now, but I’ll be back! Thanks for the good discussion, everyone.

  • Tom L.

    Our girls are 8 and 10 and we’re on the verge of moving on from the church we’ve been for the last 17 years, so this topic is something Dana and I have been discussing a lot lately. I never really wanted to go to church in the first place, but when we found this church 17 years ago it was really outside of the box. Then a few years ago the church split, and those who have remained with the church now seem to want to be firmly inside the evangelical box.

    Both Dana and I were very involved in youth groups going up, and our church friends were better friends than our school friends. They’re still the people we keep in touch with. That said, when we left home and went to college and started reading and learning more, we both couldn’t help but feel a little duped by the quasi-fundamentalist things our churches taught us to believe; things that we later came to believe were not true or important or accurate. This caused us, well, me in particular, to walk away from church completely for quite a few years. I was left with a bad taste in my mouth, the taste of fundamentalism and legalism, and didn’t want anything to do with my parents’ church anymore and didn’t feel comfortable when I had to go back there. I knew that if they knew how I had changed they would be very disappointed and concerned and even probably put me on the prayer list.

    With this in our backgrounds, our discussion about our kids has been on two levels. One, we want them to be connected to some type of “youth group” and have friends with whom they share a bond of faith. However, we’re open to the possibility of that group not being a formal youth group or even based at our church, like maybe a Young Life type of program. Two, Dana and I want to be part of a church where doubts are accepted and everyone is welcomed and loved regardless of politics, sexuality, doctrine, etc. We want to be part of a church where our daughters feel loved by God just as they are, and similarly loved by the followers of God who worship in that church. We want them to feel like they can always return to the church and be welcomed and accepted, no matter where their lifestyles or theologies take them once they leave the nest.

    We recognize, however, that finding a church like this might be a tall order, especially in a small mountain community like where we live.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Chad, I definitely agree with this—”Bottom line I want my kids to connect with God”—but I’m not quite sure how to create a youth program that makes that happen. I guess what I’m thinking is that if kids can feel loved and accepted at church as the people God created them to be, that lays the groundwork for getting closer to God, building solid relationships with other people, learning more about the Bible and prayer, etc., as they grow older and even after they leave home. The principles you shared at the end really speak to that—they seem right on target to me, when it comes to shaping a program that works for lots of different kids. If you don’t mind, I’m going to share your thoughts with our youth advisory committee at my church, as we reshape our youth program. Thanks!

    TJ, I’m definitely not a fan of programming that’s designed to “evoke emotions.” I think building strong relationships seems to be key. Kids can feel accepted and loved when individuals in the church community show a true interest in them—asking them what they think, what they struggle with—and when adults are honest about their own struggles and faith story. I completely agree with this: “As youth leaders, prayer for and personal attention toward youth is the most important element….”

    Tom, your comment about the possibility of being put on the “prayer list” at the church you grew up in made me laugh. Can you imagine how many people dread that? I also can really relate to this experience you and your wife had: “…we both couldn’t help but feel a little duped by the quasi-fundamentalist things our churches taught us to believe; things that we later came to believe were not true or important or accurate.” I don’t think I was directly *taught* things I later questioned, but I sure picked up on/imagined/conjured up a whole understanding of God that now makes me cringe (at the core is this idea: I have to work really hard to be a better and better person, fitting a very defined mold of a “perfect Christian”; once I achieve that status, I will be fully accepted and loved by God and other Christians.). Anyway, it sounds like you want the same things for your daughters as we want for ours. It’s too bad your mountain town is so far from our prairie—I think you would like our church and the youth program we end up shaping for our kids.

  • http://captainestes.blogspot.com/ Chad Estes


    I look forward to hearing what you and your team come up with! I hope you will write more!

  • http://julieannemery.wordpress.com Julie

    This is a great discussion – I agree with a lot that has been said already, but wanted to add these things: As a pastor to youth, and a product of lively, engaged youth programs, I have struggled with all of these questions but this one certainly: what do we want our kids to get out of this? I’ve been particularly interested in the recent books of Andrew Root out of Luther Seminary. One of the things he points out is that the relationships we build with youth ARE the point. Unfortunately, many churches build relationships with kids so that the kids will either “accept Christ” or grow into Christians. Using the relationships as a means to an end. Instead, the mere act of living in relationship with our youth is the act of being Christ to and with them. Because even for me – I don’t remember the things I learned in youth group as much as the people I learned them with and from.

    More and more I find my youth are over-programmed and over-taxed, just like their parents. They don’t know who they are because they are so busy doing they rarely can just be. They don’t seem to need me to create program for them, create discussion topics, instead they long to relax, to be loved as they are, to be known as they are. It’s sometimes harder, to be ready for the Spirit at work, ready to engage in hard topics and questions as they emerge, ready to be real with them at any given moment. I won’t say I’ve thrown programs out of the window, but I will say that the main program for me is: relationships and prayer with and for each other.

    My boys are still very young – but as I imagine them into adolescence, I desire for them this: people who love them, who know them, who engage in the big and hard questions with them, in those people certainly, they will experience God. It seems that what church community should be about…

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  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Julie, I think what you’re saying is really important, especially this “…the mere act of living in relationship with our youth is the act of being Christ to and with them…” and this “[youth] don’t know who they are because they are so busy doing they rarely can just be….” Your thoughts from the perspective of a parent are very much in line with my own, yet they somehow helped me frame my thoughts even better. Here’s what I’m thinking: Often people look at these years (when our kids live at home and go to church with us) as a window of opportunity—a suitcase we have to cram with as much Bible knowledge and good habits and right ways as possible before we send them off on their own. Instead, we should be thinking about this time as an opportunity to establish a cozy, well-stocked home base—one that our kids will eventually venture out from on all kinds of learning adventures, but will always feel solidly anchored to in love and truth.

  • Cory

    Let me begin by saying I’m fascinated and inspired by this conversation. So much of what has already been said is richly insightful. Thanks to all for sharing.

    Kristin, as I’ve spent a few days pondering your initial question about what you want your daughters to understand about God and the church and your response, I really feel like you hit on a key element in adolescent development: identity. Identity formation doesn’t just happen when we’re adolescents, but it really seems to shape us in significant ways leading into adulthood. I think identity is important to faith development as well. We’ve each wrestled with the good and bad elements of faith we encountered as youth, and much of that defines the faith that we practice now.

    The Bible has a lot to say about our identity (being made in God’s image, being formed by God in the womb, identifying with Christ, etc.). Adolescence is such a strange period in life when it comes to trying to figure out who we are, who God is, who we are in light of what we know about God, and how we relate to others. I feel like part of our job as ones who nurture and guide faith development for teens is to focus on these identity issues. As a youth minister, I hold my ability to shape the faith and identity of teens very delicately. I hope that I can influence them and inspire them in various ways, but I’m not looking to simply create faith clones. I want them to experience God and interact with God and claim their God-given identity in ways that are meaningful and authentic to them.

    I’m in the middle of a study of Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy with our college students, and he made a comment that has stuck with me this week. He said that a marker of Christian maturity is “the inability to be insulted.” His point was that just as positive comments don’t make us better people, negative comments don’t make us worse people. When social stigmas, bullying, and general insecurity seem to haunt so many teens, I am challenged to help them focus less on the things that can tear their identity to shreds and more on their identity as children of God.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Cory, this is definitely one of my favorite things about blogging—hearing so many thoughts, ideas and perspectives around a topic that’s been needling me. Thanks for jumping into the conversation! You’ve articulated something I was definitely trying to get at but didn’t have the the right word for: Identity. And I absolutely believe that identity development is directly tied to faith development. As I think about all of the faith issues I’ve had to sort out—dismantle and then reconstruct—as an adult, I feel fairly certain that they were tied to my insecurity and confusion about who I was, who I was supposed to be. Of course, that’s just a part of being a tween and teen—we can’t expect kids to not struggle with their identity. But I do think the church can help those explorations be a whole lot less painful and lonely. It sounds like you’re an example of that, in your ministry! (Btw, I love that Dallas Willard quote. Gives me lots to think about.)

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