It’s one of the simplest, most profound needs of a teen (or any age person really). To belong. Students will gravitate to the place where they feel like their presence is desired. So many places aren’t good for students to be involved, but I think the sense of belonging is real. The wrong crowd still gives a sense of belonging, often even more so for some reason.
Families and the church have an opportunity to do this one simple thing – to desire the presence of the teenager. For a family, that may mean hugs (even awkward ones from dad’s to sons, etc.), it may mean adhering to family traditions, it may mean sacrificing to have time together, participation in ministry together, going to games and taking part in their lives.
For a church it’s also simple. But sometimes, may require a culture change or new mindset. How do we desire the presence of teenagers? What if your church has no teenagers whatsoever? How do you create conditions to let them know they are welcome and their presence is desired? What if your church is huge – where slipping through the cracks can be easy? How can you let them know their presence is desired?
It’s a simple concept with impact that can run deep. Figure out a way to make sure teens know that their presence is desired by someone in your church. Here are some thoughts:
Personalize it – Know their names. If you don’t have any teens in your church, work on the teens who may visit with grandparents or families. Give them a sense of belonging. Do something in the community to reach out to the teenagers.
Create systems – Make it possible for the church adults to interact with teens. Mentors, buddies, prayer partners or any other system for a simple connection from teen to adult within the church. Help each overcome the awkwardness with a system in place. Help create systems within the schools for church leaders to be connected to their students through having lunch, attending games, etc.
Open up space – Create space for teens. Create opportunities for them to worship, to lead, to serve, to meet, to receive, to give and to participate in the church. This may mean a room to meet in. Or it may mean a seat on the leadership council. Invite them to use and explore using their gifts.
Invest in them – Help them grow. If you have been struggling to make ministry to youth happen, invest in a bigger way. Take a leap and funnel some of the budget toward a new era of leadership for the students and the church. Invest in taking students on weekend retreats and conferences. Cover some of the cost if you can so that both leaders and students can enjoy the event together. It may mean investing in a style or component of worship or meeting time that would pull them in.
One life at a time – It’s a personal, individual thing. Don’t get caught up in big, just think about each teen as an individual. Make sure the one or two students with whom you naturally connect becomes a priority to you. Say “hi” on Sunday and during the week. Let them know their presence is desired around the church. Have a day when families with teenagers have lunch together after worship. Invite two or three (or more) teenagers to your home for supper.
Whether you are a church of 50 with one or two students or a church 5000 with a huge student ministry, it’s important through small groups, individual contact, friendships and more to make sure students feel like their presence matters to someone.
I once read that it’s not a matter of “if they belong” but a matter of “where they belong”. Teens are going to belong somewhere. Make sure they know they belong at church.