Thanks for joining me through this whole series! (If you are just now tuning in, please go back and read parts one and two of this series first). Hopefully, this has been a good chance for you to see a bit of my heart for our students and our youth program. And, hopefully, we are all much more on the same page when it comes to understanding the roots (discipleship) and trunk (relationships) of our kingdom-oriented youth ministry mustard tree.
And this leads us to the last part – the branches. Strange as it may be, as vital as the roots and trunk of a tree are, unless you get really close to it the branches are usually the first thing you notice about a tree. And the branches of youth ministry are the various programs and activities that we do. Now, since these are going to look different for each individual church and community, I’m going to simply focus on what these branches look like (and are going to look like) for our youth ministry here at First UMC.
And, in so doing, I’d like to highlight one major change that I intend to make to how we structure things over the next year – having a combined middle school and high school youth group. Both age groups will meet together on Wednesday evenings from 6:30-8:30pm. During this time they will play games, listen to announcements, and have a brief (big picture) lesson. Then we will split up into separate age groups and take some time to dig deeper and answer any questions they might have. After this, we will all come back together for worship. We gave this setup a bit of a test run (a beta version, if you will) this summer. As I told many of the parents, I wanted to try it out and see how it went. If it went well, we would continue doing it into the school year. If it was a dismal failure, then we would abandon it and go back to the way things were when the school year picked up again. To my joy (and surprise), it actually went really well! The high school students have been doing a great job of taking the middle school students under their wing and making them feel welcomed. And the middle school kids really enjoy the way the older students exemplify what a growing faith looks like. Just take a look at some of the responses that the middle school kids gave.
Did you catch that? These aren’t high school and college students. These are middle school kids. Some of these suggestions came from sixth graders. I don’t know about you, but one thing came across loud and clear to me – these kids don’t want to be pandered to. They want to be challenged. They want to grow. They want to be (gasp) … discipled!
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. “Can’t we disciple teens without combining high school and middle school?” And the answer is – sure! We can. We could. So, why don’t we? Because of two things – (1) we are trying to create mature Christians, and (2) discipleship is about relationships.
In his book, College Ministry From Scratch, author and pastor Chuck Bomar touches on one of the biggest problems that college ministries (and all age-specific ministries) run into. After spending the first three pages of chapter one explaining how within four years he grew a college ministry from “a blue sticky note with six names and four phone numbers” to a weekly meeting of over 900 college students, Bomar finishes by saying they failed as a ministry. Why? Because, for all of their success in creating a place for college-age people to be, they weren’t connecting students to the church. “If we stopped our weekly service, I wondered, where would all of these people go? Where would they connect? Unfortunately I realized that for most of them, the answer was nowhere.”
Have you ever noticed how much we segregate people by age groups in our culture? Preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, college, grad schools … retirement homes? It’s as if we don’t know how to handle people much older or younger than ourselves, so we just separate ourselves from them. Sadly, we have adopted this mindset in our churches as well. Nursery, children’s church, middle school youth group, high school youth group, college group, … adult Sunday school. I’m not saying it’s an evil thing to break up into age groups from time to time. But if you’ve ever wondered why young people tend to stop coming to church after they grow up, I would like to suggest that we’ve become too efficient at not letting them be part of church before they grow up. Students graduate from our youth programs and, truthfully, they don’t know how to be an adult Christian.
So, part of what I (and others like me) hope to do is bridge the generational gaps that we’ve created. And as I’ve observed our students over this past summer, the need for middle school and high school students to have “their own space” has been far outweighed by the relationships and mentorship that I see developing between the two groups. Truthfully, I also hope to effect similar changes with how we do Sunday school (but that’s another monster unto itself, and one I don’t care to tackle for quite some time).
For now, just know that if we are going to be true to our discipleship roots and our relationship trunk, then our branches (the programs and activities) are going to have to start being more relationship-oriented and discipleship-focused.