“Youth are the future of the church,” a comment that has been stated over and over for many years. Yet, in the traditional mainline church we wonder where the youth that are “the future of the church” are. The answer may be found in seeing youth involvement in the church from a different angle. If we recognize only that “youth are the future of the church”, we may miss the contributions that youth offer to the church now. Another way to see youth in the church is to recognize that youth are a vital part of the church now; and without youth there is little future for the church.
According to a 2005 study from Hartford Seminary’s Hartford Institute for Religion Research, “Sociologists of religion have found a correlation between church growth and youth involvement that is consistent across different types of churches, liberal, moderate and conservative. In all these churches, the greater the youth involvement, the greater the church’s growth. Specifically, 58 percent of growing churches said the level of youth involvement was high. Researchers weren’t sure what came first, youth involvement or church growth.” (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/research/fastfacts/fast_facts.html#growyouth)
Not only is it a healthy practice to include and nurture youth as active members of a congregation, the churches that engage this healthy practice are more likely to experience growth than those churches who expect youth and children to be seen and not heard, or to be separate and not fully involved in the life of the congregation.
The Lilly Endowment (www.lillyendowment.org) has funded a host of programs for Theological exploration. A result of these programs is a variety of resources for congregations to have a better understanding of including youth and children into the life of the congregation in a way that invites and encourages involvement and nurture for each individual. Congregations often find, when nurturing a sense of vocation for youth, the adults in the congregation discover a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in their own spiritual and faith development. A congregation intentionally nurturing vocational journey for its members, of all ages, will experience a new sense of vibrancy as a congregation. The system of the congregation is influenced by the nurturing of individuals’ health. The community of faith grows stronger as a support system for its members and, as an outreach to others, and for some who may have felt separated or shunned from the church for various reasons. The worshipping community will gain a new strength, and the individuals will see themselves as important in the process of sharing God’s love with one another and those beyond the walls of the local church; therefore, they will experience meaning and purpose in their lives.
Nurturing a vocational journey for youth allows teenagers to find a sense of belonging as well as engaging their unique gifts and skills and offering those to the congregation in small groups, committees, community involvement, worship leadership, outreach and a variety of other possibilities. The possibilities are endless. Youth involvement in the church will enhance the congregational community and even help it to grow, but the greater benefit is that new leaders will emerge. Our society often looks at teenagers as irresponsible and not dependable. If congregations nurture the natural gifts and skills of individuals and allows a safe environment for youth to exercise their gifts and skills, as members of congregations we will develop a completely different perspective on the abilities of teenagers in our society.
There are many benefits in recognizing that youth are significant in the life of the congregation. The greatest benefit may be the development of personal relationships. As youth and adults connect with each other and share interests, natural gifts and meaningful experiences they will develop personal friendships that are deeply rooted in faith and Christian community. This sense of community will be a primary foundation for the health of the church.
Note: in the next issue, we will explore some very practical ways to navigate a vocational journey for all age groups in the congregation.