• PEN: Keeping High Schoolers Engaged

  • Keeping High Schoolers Engaged

    Most likely you have a significant number of high schoolers attending public schools. So how do we keep these high schoolers engaged in the life of the church? How do we help them grow in their faith? How do we prepare them for the rest of their lives as Christians? How do we foster a Christian world view?

    I tend to be better at asking questions than giving solutions. The older I get, the less confident I am with the answers I give. I do not know your circumstances, your needs, your strengths, or your ministry. I am merely suggesting approaches, not providing exact solutions. I am not one to read the latest book or attend a conference and re-define my ministry because of it. It’s not that complicated. We want youth involved in our youth ministry programs including worship, fellowship, study, and service. It may look different in each congregation and for everyone. Often these are the youth group kids that are involved. In my opinion they are the easier to reach. It seems many youth ministry books boil down to those key components.

    There is a second group of youth: those who attend worship regularly but rarely attend youth group or youth targeted events. I can think of many kids from my ministry over the years who fell into this category—probably up to one third of our youth. They don’t go on retreats, youth gatherings, or youth events, even the fun and cool ones. Focus and be satisfied on being faithful in nurturing them where they are at—by attending worship regularly.I propose we focus and be satisfied on being faithful in nurturing them where they are at—by attending worship regularly. Simply encourage their regular participation in worship and receiving the Word and Sacraments.

    The church I serve, has communion every Sunday. It is the first church I have served or was a member of that did this. I thought “Wow, that’s a bit much.” Or “Can’t we have more variety in formats?” However, I have seen how receiving the Sacrament weekly has fed us, strengthened us, and made us a healthier and stronger congregation with a better focus on outreach. I firmly believe that receiving Communion weekly helps with this health. The same can be true for keeping youth grounded and well connected.

    We should not forget the high value of nurturing one-on-one relationships with these young people. This may be in the form of greeting them regularly and asking about them or meeting them for coffee or at Chipotle. This is where I recall the old adage that youth ministry is not youth group. Youth group is merely a part of an overall youth ministry.

    The final group is the inactive youth. These are the most difficult to reach. I have no solutions other than to treat them as active youth. Reach out, care for them, and foster a relationship not based on church involvement. Reach out to them, pray for them, and care for them.

    Warmth and genuineness are two keys to attract and keep high school and young adults in our churches and to help them grow in their faith.A few years ago, our staff read the book Growing Young. The main theme we caught from that book is that warmth and genuineness are two keys to attract and keep high school and young adults in our churches and to help them grow in their faith. The technology and cool factor many of us try to replicate is not what helps youth stay and grow in the faith. While it may attract, we also need to retain, grow, and nurture them in a life-long faith. Most of us can get good, solid, biblical, and Christian teaching through all sorts of media—books, email, blogs, podcasts, chat rooms, YouTube, social media, including that big new nondenominational church down the street. The cool youth director at the church with the screens, multi-color lighting, and fully equipped youth room is not the norm for most of us in Lutheran education. Ryan at our church has three kids and has been one of our middle school small group leaders. Ryan often refers to such churches as “Six Flags Over Jesus.”

    As spring begins, I look forward to planting new bushes and trees in my yard. One perennial problem I have are the ongoing weeds and grass growing through the cracks in my driveway. Sometimes the grass in those cracks grows better than the grass I spend $500 a year on in fertilizer, weed killer, and other lawn care.

    This past winter I taught a class on Jesus’ famous Parable of the Sower from Luke 8:1–15. I have taught on this parable at least ten times and have read it countless other times. As we discussed the seeds falling on the path, rocky ground, thorns, and good soil, I thought of something new. The way I have understood the parable, the path is the only place where the plants grow. The rocky ground and thorns are where all the plants just fell away or were not fruitful. While we all want to produce a large harvest in our ministries, there are plenty of children, youth, and adults in our congregations who have a faith that is growing in the rocky soil and among the thorns. It is still faith. It is still forgiving faith. It is still saving faith. It may not be the faith we need as church workers to be leaders who should bring home a large harvest, but it is faith. Continuing to nurture that faith is a lifelong process and does not end when youth get confirmed, graduate college, or at any other time in their lives.

    I also believe that the Parable of the Sower covers just one time and one growing season. You and I and those we are called to serve may have seasons in our lives when our faith is on rocky ground and other times when it is among the weeds and still others in good soil. Sometimes such parables cause us to pigeonhole people and not see them as dynamic changing people of God.

    There are times when we backslide in our faith, in our prayer life, our devotional life, our study of the Scriptures, or doing the things that help us become the healthy leaders that God calls us to be. Continuing to receive the Sacrament creates some continuity, nurture, and growth for all people.

    I fear that we may be labeling individuals based on their birth year rather than accepting them as individual children of God.Maybe I’m getting old and am not as hip and up to date on everything as I used to be. Although I’ve never been that cool guy anyway. I resist some of the generational discussions. Every few years we get new books on generational studies. I rarely find generational study and discussion helpful. Since the church is intergenerational and one of the few ongoing institutions that way, generational study may not be that helpful. It may be helpful in understanding people, but I fear that we may be labeling individuals based on their birth year rather than accepting them as individual children of God. I notice often in a group of people from ages 10–70, most will pull out their smartphones and avoid personal interaction. This is all ages, not just those young folks.

    • What are your goals for your youth ministry?
    • What are some of the “unexpected” places where you have found faith growing?
    • What efforts do you intentionally make to help students with their worldview?

    There is very little in the Bible about identifying and categorizing people by generation to better witness and nurture their faith. However, in Judges 2:10 (ESV) we read, “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.” This is the more important part, conveying the faith to the next generation, not figuring out what makes each generation tick.

    All three of my kids attend public schools, and I am not worried about their world view. It has been reassuring as we foster relationships in the schools and community how many Christian teachers and friends we know that understand our values and priorities. Maybe as we look at what we need to do to help save this current generation and future generations, we can focus less on what we need to do and more on what we can receive from the Giver of all good gifts.

    Bob Brantsch has served Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Hudson, Ohio for over twenty-two years and has also served congregations in Colorado and New York. His wife Tina retired from the Air Force with the rank of Major and currently works for the Veteran’s Administration. Their children are Andrew (15), Jason (12), and Merry (11).

    Photo Kathryn Hillert Brewer

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