Last night at youth group I complemented one of our high school juniors. I know. I know. What a strategy, right? Cameron did what most youth ministers fear. Over the summer his parents bought him a car. He began driving and needed to pay for the gas. So, his parents told him he needed to have a job to keep the car. I believe he has to pay for the insurance, too, which means he needs to work a lot of hours. Cameron also swims on his high school swim team. It stands to reason he got a job as a life guard at Wet ‘n Wild, working all day Saturday and Sunday, every weekend.
We all know the scenario. Car + job + sport = we will see you at the senior graduation banquet and wonder what happened the last two years. Church becomes what older youth did when they were younger. Their faith becomes lost in their busyness.
Then, how do we continue to engage high school juniors and seniors in church?
At the end of this past summer I wasn’t so encouraging. In a conversation where Cameron told me was planning to work throughout the school year, I told him he wouldn’t still be able to do all of the things he hoped to do. I predicted he would quit his job before Christmas.
I know you don’t want to hear this. But, we are almost to Christmas. He still has his job. He’s doing great in school. He works every weekend. He competed in the IM relay and helped set the school record for the event. And, he has been at youth group most weeks. Kudos to him. That is why I complemented him. He kept all of his commitments. And, he is having a great junior year.
Great kids are great for youth groups. However, what else allowed Cameron to value his commitment to his faith and church?
I believe juniors and seniors will stay engaged in their faith with these effective strategies.
1. Honor older kids at the beginning of the year. Most churches have a senior banquet in May. We celebrate their accomplishments. Don’t stop doing this. In addition, however, begin the year with something special. Our church hosts a senior cookout in August. It is fun. We grill thick steaks. We laugh a lot about past trips and retreats. But, critical to the evening is a discussion about what the seniors hope to accomplish during the coming year. How might they leave their mark – their legacy – on this youth group?
2. Treat seniors as leaders, not as privileged members of the youth group. My first year in youth ministry, a senior came up to me and claimed he had senior privileges in his youth group. I believe my stomach flipped. Where did he get this sense of entitlement? Instead, I wanted him to have a sense of responsibility to the youth group. Some people call this servant leadership. Before the summer ends, our youth group hosts an overnight leadership summit. It consists mainly of juniors and seniors and other identified leaders in the group. The agenda changes each year. The foundational concept does not. We want them to own the youth group by guiding the group and supporting the other youth in the group. The summit is fun and gets the school year started on the right foot.
3. Challenge the juniors and seniors to a more committed faith and practice. Don’t expect the same from your older kids. Expect more. Our older youth are invited to be part of the Mission Leadership Team, a group that meets two hours each month to work through a curriculum tailored for them. They pray together and enhance their ability to work together through team building. These youth commit to being at every meeting, attend youth group and give of their time through service in the church and community. At the end of the school year, this group is spiritually prepared to go on a mission trip out of the country. This can be seen as a reward. It is also developmentally appropriate congruent with their maturity, leadership and responsibility.
In our youth group, we have a high percentage of juniors and seniors remain engaged in their faith and church. But, it isn’t by accident. It is part of our overall plan to develop them as disciples of Jesus. Notice, I didn’t congratulate the young man last night on staying involved in the church. I knew he would do that. I congratulated him because he was able to keep his job.