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Guiding Teenagers to Love the Church

Just use your imagination. One of your teenagers has graduated and has just started his freshman year at college. It is the first Sunday morning. Asleep in the dorm, he hears his phone alarm go off at 7:00 am. Will he get up and find a new church or roll over and sleep until noon?

Lots of variables will shape that decision, but high on the list is the answer to this question: Who primarily does the freshman love? If his greatest love is for his high school youth minister, he may go back to sleep—since the youth minister is many miles away. If his greatest love is for the old youth group, he may go back to sleep—since the youth group also is many miles away. But if his greatest love is Jesus expressed through the people of God, he may get up—ready to find another expression of the church he has grown to love.

If his greatest love is Jesus expressed through the people of God, he may get up—ready to find another expression of the church he has grown to love.

When teenagers are asked to speak at church, they often speak of their love for the youth group and seldom speak of their love for the church. They often speak of their love for their Christian friends and seldom speak of their love for the congregation. Things do not look promising for their walk of faith in young adulthood.

Pastor John Crotts has identified several key truths your teenagers need if they are going to fall more in love with the church.

1. The church is designed for the glory of God.

Ephesians 3:21: “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, forever and ever.”

2. Jesus Himself is building the church.

3. Jesus loves the church and died for it.

Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

4. Jesus is the foundation for the church.

According to Ephesians 2:20–21, He is the cornerstone.

5. The church is made of precious building materials.

1 Peter 2:5: “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house.”

6. The metaphors for the church reveal its worth.

Jesus calls the church His own body, His bride, His temple, and His household.

7. God designed the church to spread His glory to the nations.

8. God designed the church for spiritual growth and health.

Great Bible teaching and discipling can lead teenagers to fall more in love with Christ’s church. In the same way, building relationships with the full congregation can deepen that love.

Researcher David Kinnaman notes: “The Christian community is one of the few places on earth where those who represent the full scope of human life, literally from the cradle to the grave, come together with a singular motive and mission. … Flourishing intergenerational relationships should distinguish the church from other cultural institutions.”

Unfortunately, relationships across the generations are not the norm in churches today. Kinnaman observes that “many churches have allowed themselves to become internally segregated by age . . . and, in doing so, unintentionally contribute to the rising tide of alienation that defines our times.”

Unfortunately, relationships across the generations are not the norm in churches today.

Tim Elmore adds: “Schools, media, advertising, even churches segment their programs according to age groups. … Unfortunately, I believe this increased specialization has helped hinder this next generation’s growth. Because they lose influential time with adults, they come to define themselves by their peers. As a result, they‘re often ill-prepared for adult life.” University of North Carolina professor Dr. Mel Levine asks: “How can you emerge as a productive adult when you’ve hardly ever cared to observe one very closely? How can you preview and prepare for grown-up life when you keep modeling yourself after other kids?”

Scott Wilcher cuts right to the chase when he says that “if we fail to connect students to the adult church, we undermine their faith development.” From the Sticky Faith research project, Kara Powell reports: “More than any program or event, what made kids more likely to feel like a significant part of their local church was when adults made the effort to get to know them.”

Every teenager needs adult relationships in the church. This is even more true for teenagers who have been abandoned by parents or other key adults. Chap Clark notes that “communities must make sure that each student has a few adult advocates who know and care for him or her. … It takes several consistently supportive and encouraging messages to counteract the effects of systemic abandonment.”

As a youth leader, one of your most important assignments is connecting each of your teenagers with other generations. From time to time, ask a teenager, “Not counting parents and youth leaders, who are some adults who know your name and seem interested in your life?” This will help you know if you are making progress.

As a youth leader, one of your most important assignments is connecting each of your teenagers with other generations.

Relationships with adults matter, but so do relationships with children. Kara Powell’s research confirmed that “the more teenagers serve and build relationships with younger children, the more likely it is that their faith will stick.”

At the other end of the life span, senior adults have the capacity to love teenagers and to give them a place of belonging in the congregation. Like boys and girls at a sixth-grade dance, senior adults and teenagers look across the room at each other—just a little nervous. If you will gently help them start relationships, both generations will get a blessing.

Church schedules make a difference as well. It might surprise you, but solid research says that involvement in all-church worship during high school is more consistently linked with mature faith in both high school and college than any other form of church participation.

We have spent the last fifty years increasingly designing church buildings to segregate age groups from one another. Perhaps it is time for fresh thinking about ways we can use buildings, budgets, and calendars to create rich webs of relationships around every child, teenager, and adult. One result might be eighteen-year-olds who love Christ’s church and who consider the full congregation to be family.


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Richard Ross

Richard Ross

Professor of Student Ministry.

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