Sr. High youth are the church’s best bellwether. They have just learned to think critically and have neither the patience nor the filter to be very kind in their critique. Help your parish both listen to their voice and lead those young people toward adulthood as committed Christians in the Anglican tradition. Here is how:
I. Love and like the youth and children – the same way you love and like the adults. Talk to them like adults. Smile at them. Ask them how they are doing. Be their friend. After you are their friend, ask them about their faith. The more connected they are to you, the more the more connected they will be to the church…and the more other adults will imitate what you model. Bill Rhodes in Phoenix used to do “pizza with the rector” after church to discuss the sermon. A pile of kids loved their little Anglo-Catholic high church as a result. It wasn’t that they loved chant. It was that Father Bill loved them and took them seriously.
II. Help the adults to be aware of the “messages” we are sending. Students believe what they see. When students don’t like church it might be because they are picking up the messages we are sending and believing them. When we act like worship isn’t important they believe us. When we treat them like they are not important- they believe us. When we invest in leadership for every group but them- they believe us. When we don’t teach them how to worship or engage them in the planning and leadership of worship- they get the message. When we segregate them into another room and have a low-bar for spiritual and life-expectations, they get the message.
III. Have students in big-church. We are not against age-appropriate groupings, but we do not want to segregate students during worship and give them “their own service.” If we do that we will turn them into consumers. Consumers never come to church to give. They only come to get. The outcome data on the mega-church is that youth groups that “give kids what they want” develop students who always want to be served and drop out of church when asked for adult commitment. So we want students in church, but we have to make it accessible to them. See below:
IV. Worship with excellence- We are not merely putting on a good show, we are worshiping Almighty God. Youth want us to treat worship with joyful reverence.
A. Teach the historic faith in word and ritual. Robust, energized faith is on display at our fastest growing churches. We are about something greater and grander than ourselves – and worship reminds us of that! We have to explain our rituals…and not just to the youth. Our traditions are deep and detailed. When students know the “why”, the “what” has meaning and power. Many adults have forgotten why we do what we do to. Vision is leaky- we have to keep repeating it.
B. Make worship family friendly. Episcopal Church researcher Kirk Hadaway, in his report “Facts on Growth” said that one of the factors that growing churches have in common is drums. One can be family friendly without drums…but don’t rule them out either.
C. Have youth participate. Have them serve in every way canonically possible. Make sure you explain and train without talking down.
D. Preach your socks off-and theirs. Stephen Cady, whose Ph.D. project is on “Engaging youth in the church,” was quoted in a recent ChurchNext interview. In his research among Methodist youth groups, he found that 100% of the youth disliked the sermon. The ten largest churches in America are all led by former youth pastors. That is no an accident. Speaking to youth made them good speakers. Nick Knisely, bishop of Rhode Island and an effective preacher to young people said, “I learned to preach at youth camps. Three things are important: Be their friend first, be conversational but energetic, and if you believe the Scriptures it gives them permission to believe the Scriptures.” One great source for youth friendly preaching is Andy Stanley’s book “Communicating for a Change” – I would never go to the guy’s church, but 15k people a Sunday go to hear him preach because he is good at it.
- Quality over genre. I have heard people argue, “Youth want bands!” and the opposite, “Youth want contemplative!” We keep camp data on what high school and junior high students like liturgically. Excellence is the key more than genre. People like Chad Sundin (folk liturgist) for the same reason people like Joel Joa (hip/hop contemporary): Both genuinely love God, genuinely care about others and genuinely do their craft with excellence. We get all hung up on “we need someone who can do Taize” or “We need someone who can do rap.” The genre of music is not as important as doing it well. The excellence of the music, the musician’s walk of faith and their care for people are the critical pieces. Passion, excellence and genuine relationship are the keys to students!
- Hymn’s rock. Contrary to popular belief, almost all students like the great hymns – because they are deep. Similarly, lame praise music is lame and good praise music is good. Consider using hymns with modern instruments and arrangements.
- Blend genres. Done well, this is the Holy Grail! Most youth have at least 10 different genres of music on their iPods. For the most part, they don’t listen to too much of any one style. I have seen urban kids love excellent classical music and chant in Episcopal Churches (although most can not take too much of it) and kids raised on classical Anglican music loving Christian hip/hop (although they probably can not take too much of that either).
- Music should be missional. Offer music selections from the musical genres listened to by those you want to have in church.
V. Help parents understand their need for a Christian education. In Soul Searching, Duke researcher and Episcopalian Christian Smith, tells us that the weak faith of our students is a direct reflection, not of the theology of the church, but the parents. We need to resource parents to be the primary spiritual influencers of their children.
Bonus tool: “A Lasting Faith” – the mission and vision for youth ministry in our diocese, is a research-based outline for building a youth program that reproduces Christian leadership.