It is probably the most common issue I face when working with a local church, trying to grapple with the challenge of reaching out and discipling teenagers: ‘We want to do it but we are all too old!’ The question I have is whether this is a justified response or just a convenient excuse?
The reality is that many churches are of an ageing population with the missing 20-30s generation. So how does this affect our youth work? It does seem that a church without this age group is more likely to not be delivering a youth programme, but have we got this wrong? Is age the primary barrier to our working with young people?
The arguments for this seem to be around relevance, being relatable and having sufficient energy, the thinking being young people don’t want to be around old folk but around young, trendies. But, for me, one of the real problems with our lack of growth in youth ministry is our lack of authenticity. If we believe we are God’s Church for today, then we have to believe that He has given us all that we need to do what He is asking us to do. This means that He has given us the people needed to do what He wants us to do, including youth ministry.
The challenge is doing youth ministry in a way that reflects who we are, not necessarily a young, high-energy model, recognised for being led by young adults.
I know of one church who wanted to do exactly this. They knew that a group of young people tended to gather in their graveyard every weekend. Being a church of retired people, they knew they couldn’t run a traditional youth club, but they decided they could do what they do best – bake cakes! And so, every Saturday a group of people took cakes out to the young people, and started to build relationships and spend time with the young people.
It was their way of reaching out in an authentic way, showing who they really were and sharing God’s love with those young people. This young generation longs for authenticity and can spot falseness or hypocrisy a mile off.
The thought is that young people only want to be with people close in their age. I wonder what we are saying by this? My fear is that what we really mean is that we can’t make the Gospel relevant or attractive to young people unless they are attracted to us first. Or worse, we don’t believe that Jesus is sufficiently attractive to them and so we need a young adult, close in age, to attract them first. We need to have a greater reliance on Jesus and be pointing people to Him sooner.
Yes, young adults can form relationships with young people more easily sometimes, but they are often the worst people to lead our youth. They can be lacking in spiritual maturity and so can teach truths of our faith incorrectly, they don’t know their Bibles too well yet and so can tend to teach opinion rather than Scripture. Older people have the maturity and experience to teach better.
I find it interesting that we wouldn’t dream of having someone immature in faith teaching the adults on a Sunday morning, but we don’t think twice about them teaching our teenagers. Of the two, the adult congregation are much more likely to know when they are being taught something incorrect that impressionable young people.
Young people don’t need to be friends with their leaders. What they need are good, positive, Christian role models. We can all offer this. What they need in their leaders is people who are authentic, are themselves and not pretending to be someone they are not. They need leaders who love them for who they are and are genuinely interested in them. Older people have an advantage here. They are not looking for friendship from the young people either and know that their culture is vastly different from the teenage. So there is no pretending to fit in. Instead a level of respect is formed quickly as the leader has to ask the young person to help them understand their world, thus helping them to start thinking through the challenges of growing up in today’s youth cultures.
Age is not a limiting factor for youth ministry, our heart and attitude are. If we love Jesus and love young people, then we can do amazing things for and with young people. We just need to be obedient to what God is asking us to do. We want to attract people to Jesus, not to us.
Stop looking at other churches for what youth ministry should look like and start looking to God for what He wants you to do, with the resources and people that you already have. You will be astounded by what happens when you step out in obedient faith.
Go for it!