Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Post Confirmation: Keeping Teens in Church

Our 2017 Confirmation Class 
Here at Sixth we have just concluded the Confirmation process with five delightful young people and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about what happens next. How are we at Sixth Church “doing” youth ministry and what impact is it having on our young people? I have been asking myself some of the same questions that every church considers: How do we keep teens in church after confirmation? What makes faith stick when students go off to college and into the world? I have returned to rereading the results and commentary of two of the most revealing and insightful studies conducted in recent years on youth and religion. The Fuller Youth Institute’s “Sticky Faith” research and the findings reported by Christian Smith in the National Study of Youth and Religion funded by the Lilly Endowment are fascinating.

 Here are three things that both research studies have shown:
 • Parents and the adults that teens like the best have a way bigger impact on young people’s faith development than any youth ministry program or event.
 • Teenagers need to be integrated into the life of the church
• Teens must be able to and given the opportunity to verbalize their faith.

 I’ve been considering these three points and how we can “do” youth ministry at Sixth in a way that meets the needs and wants or our young people. The number one thing I hear from parents is that their teens are bored in and with church. (And not surprisingly the number one thing I hear from teens is yep—you guessed it— church is boring.) So, given the first of the three points listed above, I believe there probably isn’t a program or event that we can create to help end their boredom. I am not suggesting that it’s up to parents and mentors to make church not boring. But, if we as parents and the adults who love the teens are what has the biggest impact on their faith development—then we need to step up and not let the programs, sermons, and Sunday school lessons do all of the work. So how do we step up and address the cries of “church is boring!”?

Mark Oestreicher is an author/pastor who has done a lot of writing about youth ministry and I’ve read a lot of his stuff. Oestreicher reminds us that boredom in church is part of the normal developmental cycle of faith development and not because of anything we are doing wrong or not doing in church to engage youth.

“Probably the most common, and most healthy, reason for young teens to feel boredom is their developmental need to grow up in faith. Pre-teens and children approach faith issues, obviously, with the mind of a child. But a young teen’s new ability to grasp (or at least entertain) abstract ideas begs all their concrete spiritual conclusions and understandings into question,” he writes.

We, the adults in the teen’s lives, have to learn about and remind ourselves of where our young people are developmentally. Teens brains are growing, learning, and processing at a rapid rate. Our teens, especially the ones that have grown up in our church, are now trying to put it all together. We have been handing them puzzle pieces of Bibles stories and abstract ideas and concepts like grace, mercy, and forgiveness that they are now trying to fit together in a more complete picture.

 “When it becomes obvious to a teen that their childhood spiritual answer to a given situation or question doesn’t offer a strong enough answer anymore, they are forced to ignore this issue or struggle to allow their beliefs to evolve into a more adult form,” says Oestricher.

 Here are some of my thoughts about how parents and mentors can help young people stuck in the boredom realm:

 • Talk with young people in a casual and relaxed way. It’s easy as a parent to get into lecture mode and yammer on about why we think they are bored. We are also very good at offering many suggestions on how we think they should be engaging. Perhaps if we back off a little with the “parental talk” and work to create more casual and open lines of communication about church, faith, and spirituality we can have an easier dialogue. We all have a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to share some of your questions with your teen. Listen well. We are the parents, we are in charge—and it’s not easy for us to not have the answers. But helping our young people process their questions and reservations about church without jumping to easy answers will go a long way in helping create an honest and trusting dialogue.

 • Youth ministry in almost every church is changing as our culture changes. Churches that have been more successful in keeping young people engaged in church have moved to a more relational model. Even in the current climate of social media, our youth are looking for and need relational face-to-face connections. I have noticed that our young people thrive when they are more connected with people than with programs. We have great and interesting people at Sixth. Encourage your teen to connect or stay connected to people from our church who have similar interests and experiences. Our young people will feel more integrated into the life of the church if we help them foster relationships with not just other young people, but adults who hugs them, show interest in them, and love them.

• Be open and verbal about how you are living out your faith in your day-to day-life. We like to think that they are ignoring us, but believe me they are paying attention to our words and actions. If a young person can see and recognize where the adults that they love are putting their faith into action, it may help them figure out what an “adulting” belief system can look like.

• Again, more talking. Try to find a way to talk with your teens following church or a church event. Ask them about the sermon if they were listening. Share your thoughts and questions about what you heard. Work to find a way to debrief about church in a way that doesn’t sound like you are playing 20 Questions to see if they were paying attention. Also, offering some listening points or placing bets on things you think Pastor Vincent might say in his sermon could be a fun way to engage. We can help young people figure out how to verbalize their faith by encouraging them to articulate the real-life connections between scriptures read or what’s talked about in church.

Parents—let’s talk! We can support each other as we support our young people to grow, learn and change. I would love to hear from you and hope that we can continue to work together to make Sixth a place that engages our youth.

Here are a few books I recommend that have been great resources and that I am going to revisit:

• The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults by Frances E. Jensen. (This is a “science” book but is very readable and accessible for the non “science” types.) • Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church by Kenda Creasy Dean.

• Soul Searching by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton.
• Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in your Kids by Kara Powell
• Mark Oestreicher blogs at www.whyismarko.com

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