Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 3): How to Do It

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            In the previous article, I wrote briefly about some of the passages which provide a framework for an intergenerational youth ministry. It’s not a new concept, but what is new is our many and varied opportunities to integrate our adults into our youth ministries. So let’s flex our creativity muscle and think about some ways to do just that.

The Hows

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

With Hebrews 12:1-2 planted firmly as your anchor verse for your youth ministry, here are some tangible ways to go Tribal.

1. Get adults in the room for classes, groups, and fellowship. Not only to teach, but just to be there. Engage in the ministry of presence. Presence communicates value. Parlay those interactions into conversations. Parlay the conversations into friendships. Parlay the friendship into doing ministry together to bless someone else.

2. Give each senior in the youth group a three-picture frame. Ask them to fill each frame–before leaving for college–with a picture of themselves standing next to three different people; the first person a half-generation older, the second a full generation older, one two generations older. If they don’t have someone of that age to put in their frame, their goal becomes to form a friendship with someone so that they can put them in the frame. During your Senior Send Off service (you have one of those, right?) ask the three people in each senior’s frame to commit to regularly checking in with the senior for the next yearPoll the teens,

3. Ask the teens which adults of the congregation they’d like to see more of in the youth group. Then go get those adults and tell them that the teens want them! Populate your volunteer pool with these adults.

  1. Ask the teens to identify and rank their own love languages. Use these in your ministry.
  2. Ask teens to tell you the top 5 ways they want adults in church to let the teens know they care about them.
  3. Ask teens to tell you the top 5 ways NOT to do this.
  4. Tell adults the results (a sermon series, perhaps?) and create a plan for helping the adults live out those connections.

Because in the teens’ world, they must know you care about them before they will listen to you about anything. You must build relationship capital and earn the right to be heard. You earn it by doing the things the teens say in the poll.

4. Assign retired people in your church to go to the games, concerts, and performances of the youth group members at their respective schools. Go see the teens in action. Sit with their parents. Afterwards, say    the following: “I love to watch you play.”

5. Have parents swap teens for a weekend. Go do something cool. Because then the parents’ own teens will get jealous. Which will provide an excuse to go do something cooler next weekend.

6. Take youth group to visit an assisted living center for 30 minutes. Ask the residents to tell the teens stories of when they were teenagers. Watch the magic happen.

7. Have your church’s small groups host the youth group for a devotional once a month. Plan the gathering with activities designed for everyone to make a new connection and friend outside their own age demographic.

  1. Go to Lowe’s and grab two paint chips each of about fifty different colors (they’re free); two Raspberry Mists, two Midnight Moons, etc.
  2. At the gathering, pass out one set to the adults and the other to the teens. Then tell them to find their exact match. Ask a question they can both answer to each other. Shuffle the two stacks cards separately. Redistribute. Repeat.

8. Have your men’s ministry borrow the guys of the youth group, either during a Sunday morning class, or a mid-week gathering. Do the same with the girls and the women’s ministry. Do an activity (sitting and sharing only counts part way. Get up and move.), then talk about it.

9. Teens need to know about grace, faith, baptism, sanctification, etc. But they also need to know how a faithful Christian grocery shops, works a checking account, buys a car, gardens, fixes stuff, and spends their spare time. Who better to teach them these life basics than you? So go kidnap a teen in the youth group next time you have to run errands on a Saturday. (Green-light it with their parents first. Amber alerts in youth ministry are a resume killer).

10. For college-age students, your church has got about 3 weeks to pull in and embrace new students at the start of the semester. Studies have shown that if a college student doesn’t get connected to a church the first three weeks of their freshman year, they are unlikely to ever do it at all. So spend some money and resources making those three weeks of worship distinctly aimed at college students, with sound biblical substance, and great visuals. Go out of your way to make church…there’s really no other word…COOL. (Yes, I’m aware we shouldn’t go to a church because it’s cool. But that’s a mature perspective. To an immature perspective, COOL might be the best outreach tool your congregation will ever use.) And when they come, your church’s goal should be for every college student to be greeted by at least 4 church members before the first song starts. And each of those college students should be taken to lunch afterward. Sidenote: this will require some intentionality and planning of your post-worship meal. If you have the “I don’t know, where you YOU want to eat,” mentality, it’ll be tough to plan for taking a college kid out with you.

11. Grandpa-Grandson and Grandma-Granddaughter retreats or dinners.

12. Force yourself, no matter how crushingly difficult, to go on a sarcasm-and-meanness fast when you are around teens. Some (most?) teens are not cognitively developed enough to get it, and you’ll consequently come off like a jerk. Besides, they hear enough negativity. Be the one who fills their ears with something positive. Remember that whole Ephesians 4:29 passage? Practice it on the teens.

13. Aim for a 2:1 or even a 1:1 teen-to-adult ratio at yearly youth ministry events and weekend conferences. Events and conferences are great for teens, but what really makes the experience stick is having a faithful adult/mentor with whom to experience the event, so that all the good of the weekend doesn’t stay at that weekend. They will keep talking about it when the spiritual high wears off, and that’s a good thing.

14. Got a teen who’s shown some aptitude for technology? Pair them with someone in the A/V booth who will teach them how to produce the Sunday Morning Service (slides for the preacher, video clips, audio, etc.). Coach them on how not just to operate the technology, but how to use the technology to create an environment for worship. Or give the photography-minded teen a chance to produce some original content for your media presentations. Work towards the goal of having the teens plan, produce, operate, and participate in the service. There are a hundred ways to serve on Sunday without being in front a mic, and teens are good at most of them.

15. Organize a Take-A-Teen-To-Work day where professionals of the congregation take similarly-gifted teens to work.

16. C.H.A.T –  Call. Hang out. Ask. Text. These are four primary ways to let the teens in your church know you care about them. Call and leave an encouraging voice mail. Text a bible verse. Ask how their week has been. Simple little things are huge, because they communicate respect. And when a teen reads ‘respect’ from an adult, that’s a good thing.

17. Find a real, true, honest reason to brag on a teen to their parents, and do so. Best case scenario? Do it within earshot of the teen.

18. Dumb Things I Did as a Teenager Night, hosted by the elders and their wives. Elders will start to be seen as real people, not figureheads. That’s ALWAYS a good thing.

19. Get different ages in the room. Hire a Christian comedian. Get everyone laughing together. Laughter opens brain pathways that few other things can. Receptivity is increased afterward. Use this to your advantage to communicate the real message of the evening.

20. Introduce the older to the ministry potential of social media as a means to stay connected with teens. Then have the younger tutor the elder in how to Text, Tweet, Facebook, etc. Have a Selfie Night or Hashtag Tuesday. Caveat: Social media is for sharing interesting tidbits, encouraging thoughts, advice, funny pictures, even bible verses and prayers. It is not primarily for deep conversations or correctives. As soon as teens feel like they’re being stalked and their behavior scrutinized–even justifiably–the social media bridge is burned and you’ll be un-friended faster than you can say LOL. If you see something dodgy on a teen’s feed, DON’T write a corrective then and there. DO have a one-on-one conversation about it later, AFTER you’ve earned the relationship capital to do so. Otherwise, you may get your point across, but you’ll be summarily dismissed afterward. Indeed, Social Media should be the launch pad for in-person conversations.

21. Once you figure out where a particular teen is going to college, military, or trade school, make a proactive, intentional effort to contact a church in that area you think would be a good fit for the teen. Talk to someone. Get a name. Make a contact. If that contact passes your muster, tell said contact about your about-to-be college freshmen and ask them to come meet when you move the teen into their dorm.

22. Give a few teens and twenty-somethings a seat at the church planning table. Solicit their input. They’ll have insight that’ll be valuable. You just have to be sure to ask the right questions.

One of the visions for the youth ministry at our church is to break age barriers. We want adults in the room, making friends and ministering with their presence. Of course the events are still aimed at teens, but I believe when a youth ministry is done properly, the adults will be fed by it too. They’ll be like the grown-ups at a Pixar movie who get all the subtleties and enjoy it on whole other levels. How many times have you walked into a Cars, Toy Story, or Frozen with ‘This is a kid’s movie’ expectations only to be pleasantly surprised and even moved by it? A youth ministry run with excellence can have the equivalent effect. I believe it can also produce young people who’s faith is not only solid, but flourishing and contagious.

This process will not be comfortable, nor easy, at least in the beginning. It will feel awkward and probably won’t be attended very well for a while. But since when is something easy that’s worthwhile? And not every church will do this the same, nor should they (shout out to the autonomous nature of the church as found in Acts and the Letters). We must be contextual. But whatever you do, let me encourage you to stick with it, pray over it, and watch what God will do, however slowly. Find a handful of proactive faithful adults, cast the vision, empower them, and get out of their way. Because once teens see and know that they matter to other adults in the church, not just their parents, they will welcome the company. We want our teens to sail into college comfortable being friends with every age at church, even if they’re introverts. We want our twenty-somethings to be vibrant, robust participants, even leaders, in our churches. We want them to have a confidence that only comes from being bestowed upon them by their faith heroes. In short, we don’t want a new technique. We want a new normal.

Further Reflections

  1. As you look back on the formative years of faith development, who do you remember? Was it someone older than you?
  2. Does your church have a big college-student representation? How is your church making this happening? What retains the twenty-somethings?
  3. What other programs or ministry opportunities have you seen successfully integrate generations?
  4. How do you see Powell & Clark’s Sticky Faith fitting into this discussion?
  5. What questions are we not asking?
  6. What’s the biggest disservice your church is doing to the teens? What’s your plan to change it?
  7. What other poll questions for teens are there which would provide some valuable insight?

Part 1 – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 1): The Necessity of Age Desegregation in Our Churches
Part 2 – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 2): Theological Basis for the Shift

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